The Utah monolith has captured the attention of the country and parts of the world for its unknown origins and continues to make waves across social media.

But what does the monolith mean? There’s still no definitive answer about what the monolith itself means or why it appeared in a remote part of the Utah desert. Is it an attempt at attention seeking? Is it an art project?

What is a monolith?

So what is a monolith? We should look at the definition of a monolith before trying to understand the Utah monolith’s meaning.

  • A monolith is a geological feature consisting of one single stone, rock or slab of material. Monoliths are often shaped into serving as a pillar for a monument.
  • These mysterious monoliths popping up across the country are long vertical slabs of metal, often between 10- and 12-feet tall.

The Utah monolith’s meaning, let’s take a second to look at its origins, which stem back to late November. It was discovered on Nov. 18 when Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter was helping Utah Division of Wildlife Resource with a task in the remote Utah wilderness. Those on board noticed a mysterious object in the middle of nowhere.

  • “One of the biologists is the one who spotted it and we just happened to fly directly over the top of it,” said pilot Bret Hutchings, according KSL-TV. “He was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, turn around, turn around!’ And I was like, ‘what.’ And he’s like, ‘There’s this thing back there — we’ve got to go look at it!’

How it all started

The Utah monolith came almost out of nowhere. A team of biologists discovered the monolith about one week ago, prompting a social media reaction from all over the world.

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“It definitely has gone viral and is getting international and national attention,” said BLM spokeswoman Kimberly Finch, according to the Deseret News. “Although we can’t comment on active investigations, the Bureau of Land Management would like to remind public land visitors that using, occupying, or developing the public lands or their resources without a required authorization is illegal, no matter what planet you are from,” the agency said in a statement.

The monolith disappeared less than a week after it was first discovered. Then another monolith appeared in Romania. It looked a little different than the original monolith, and it was deemed to be a “copycat.”

But then, this week, yet another monolith showed up in California. This one was different than the Utah one, too, with a slightly different design. It could be knocked over, for example, which is much different than the original monolith.

Other than that, we don’t know much about the origins of these monolith. Is there a deeper meaning here? Here are the possibilities.

A play for attention

You don’t just place something shiny in the middle of remote Utah and not expect it to be found, and the Utah monolith may signal our society’s need for attention. The reaction to the monolith shows how much we need and crave attention, according to The Ringer’s Brian Phillips.

The monolith — a simple “allure of the supernatural” — became victim to the attention economy, Phillips wrote. The mysterious object became something people could immediately retweet, share and meme-ify in its wake. Indeed, brands like Southwest AirlinesMoonPie and Steak-umm all joked about the object, making it a part of their culture. A viral TikTok video seemed to capitalize on the fame, too, adding what looks like someone in a dinosaur costume behind the video to suggest aliens had arrived.

The first monolith appearance might have been well and good. But then another one appeared, and then another. And now it’s become something of a gimmick.

Phillips wrote:

“What I’m calling monolith fatigue is the feeling that secrets and mysteries lose their appeal, start to seem untrustworthy, when they fit too neatly into the needs of social media. They start to feel cynical even if they aren’t meant that way, because the thrilling intimation of the unknown that made the story go viral in the first place starts to look like a trick. The little uplift of fascination that you felt when you first saw the story is something the story was built to exploit; the solution to the mystery is just that you paid attention to it. Maybe that’s brilliant art (just kidding, it’s not), but as mysteries go, it’s not great.”

We might see more copycats in the near future. But with each monolith, the allure will surely die out.

An art project

Obviously, the monolith isn’t anything natural. One theory suggests the monolith is actually a piece of a wider art project connected to science fiction. Specifically, there’s speculation that John McCracken, a minimalist sculptor and science fiction fan who died in 2011, might be to blame for what’s going on, according to The New York Times.

In fact, the David Zwirner gallery, which has shown off McCracken’s work, really believes the artist put together the mysterious object, according to The New York Times. And his son, Patrick McCracken, thinks it might be his father’s work, too. His father even told him he’d leave his art in remote areas to be discovered later.

“No, I thought it was something that he would do,” Patrick McCracken said, according to The New York Times. “He was inspired by the idea of alien visitors leaving objects that resembled his work, or that his work resembled. This discovery of a monolith piece — that’s very much in line with his artistic vision.”

A monolith stands on a Stadium Park hillside in Atascadero, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2020. A new group show in New York shows off even more monoliths.
A monolith stands on a Stadium Park hillside in Atascadero, Calif., Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2020. | Kaytlyn Leslie, The Tribune (of San Luis Obispo) via Associated Press

And he said his dad believed in aliens, which would align with the monolith’s appearance as an art project with a science fiction tie.

“He wasn’t your average sort of dad. He believed in advance alien races that were able to visit Earth. To his mind, these aliens had been visiting Earth for a very long time and they were not malevolent. They wanted to help humanity to get past this time of our evolution where all we do is fight each other.”

By that logic, the monolith could be an art project from McCracken that attempts to show us how we would respond to finding an alien object, and what our response to such an object would be. But I guess we may never know.

A way to consider the environment

Look, there’s a good chance the secret of who created the Utah monolith will die with the creator. We may never get a clear answer. The most we’ll get is probably the story of how it was taken down.

And that story is pretty wild. As the Deseret News reported, a professional outdoor adventure photographer named Ross Bernards said he and his friends saw four men knock over the mysterious monolith in San Juan County and take it away. The men broke the object into chunks and carried it away. Seriously. Overnight they just took it away without warning. Say goodbye to the monolith.

A dirt road leads to monoliths in Capitol Reef National Park.
A dirt road leads to monoliths in Capitol Reef National Park. | Ravell Call, Deseret News Archives

“The story of what actually happened there is better than letting conspiracy theories run wild,” Bernards told the Deseret News on Tuesday. “We have had enough of that this year.”

A Facebook post he made as Ross Bernards Photography said the group of men took the pieces away in a wheelbarrow, saying at the time, “Leave no trace.”

And later on, we found out who some of those men were. Slackliner and climber Sylvan Christensen and BASE jumper Andy Lewis said in a YouTube video that they were the ones who dismantled the monolith. Of course, this is unconfirmed. But it’s our closest answer to the mystery.

Christensen said in a statement that the group removed the monolith because of the “damage caused by the internet sensationalism and subsequent reaction from the world.”

“We removed the Utah Monolith because there are clear precedents for how we share and standardize the use of our public lands, natural wildlife, native plants, fresh water sources and human impacts upon them. The mystery was the infatuation and we want to use this time to unite people behind the real issues here — we are losing our public lands — things like this don’t help,” the statement reads.

We may never know

It’s unclear what the Utah monolith really means. Maybe it was an art project. Maybe it was a symbol to teach about the environment. Or maybe it was a plea for attention.

Regardless, the monolith showed us how America continues to be addicted to conspiracy theories.

James Tabery, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News that conspiracy theories try to put order in our world.

“What conspiracy theories do is impose order in a disordered world,” Tabery told the Deseret News. “We live in a world where crazy things, where random things, where awful things happen, from presidents like Kennedy getting shot to election surprises to labor markets and economies doing weird things. A lot of those things are unpredictable.”

All that to say, we seek out answers to help us to define something as wild or as random as a monolith appearing in the middle of the Utah desert. We may never know the answers, but we want to solve the puzzle. That is the true meaning of the monolith, you might say — a representation of America’s desire to find order and answers at a time of doubt and confusion.