Crop Circles: The Art of the Hoax

They may not be evidence of UFOs, ancient spirits or secret weapons, but there is something magical in their allure

Crop circles are seen by many to enchant a mystical landscape: here, a circle pattern from 2009, 200 feet across, in a Wiltshire wheat field. (Rob Irving)

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In croppy culture, common parlance is turned on its head. The word “genuine” usually implies that something has a single, identifiable origin, of established provenance. To the croppy it means the opposite: a “genuine” circle is of unknown provenance, or not man-made—a mystery, in other words. It follows that the man-made circle is a “hoax.”

Those circle-makers who are prepared to comment on this semantic reversal do so with some amusement. As far as they’re concerned, they are creating art in the fields. In keeping with New Age thought, it is by dissociating with scientific tradition that the circle-makers return art to a more unified function, where images and objects are imbued with special powers.

This art is intended to be a provocative, collective and ritual enterprise. And as such, it is often inherently ambiguous and open to interpretation. To the circle-maker, the greater the range of interpretations inspired in the audience the better. Both makers and interpreters have an interest in the circles being perceived as magical, and this entails their tacit agreement to avoid questions of authorship. This is essentially why croppies regard “man-made” circles as a distraction, a “contamination.”

Paradoxically, and unlike almost all other modern forms of art, a crop circle’s potential to enchant is animated and energized by the anonymity of its author(s). Doug Bower now tells friends that he wishes he had kept quiet and continued his nocturnal jaunts in secret. Both circle-makers and croppies are really engaged in a kind of game, whose whole purpose is to keep the game going, to prolong the mystery. After all, who would travel thousands of miles and trek through a muddy field to see flattened wheat if it were not imbued with otherworldly mystique?

As things stand, the relationship between the circle-makers and those who interpret their work has become a curious symbiosis of art and artifice, deception and belief. All of which raises the question: Who’s hoaxing whom?

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