Contemporary art exists under duress in rural America. The artworld still traffics in an obsolete nature vs. culture dichotomy, not through individual works that explore the hybridity of art language or identity, but in nature as synonymous with rural, (what civilization must master) and culture as synonymous with urban, which is mastery incarnate.
Late modern art outside the city gradually became “sub-rural” – something other than a bi-product of urban culture. Modern rural art was once theorized as “regionalism,” but it was impertinent and talked back to modernism. Rural practice hasn’t been theorized in half a century – having lost its credentials. Freedom from theory has advantages, however, permitting a consideration of ethnography over an institutional ceremony of experimentalism.
In rural areas architecture, music, and literature have the most vigorous documented narratives, but America doesn’t have a full appreciation of what constitutes the rest of rural or inland culture. One narrative insists that art doesn’t actually exist outside the metropolis. But that’s also an attitude about other rural disciplines that might make up local identity and authority – economics, politics, education, etc. Modern American history is almost exclusively the study of urbanism.
Midwestern art corresponds with various features of inland American customs. It’s comparatively Spartan and domestic. It has flexible boundaries that orient more north and south than east and west. The “great north” and the turbulent south-central is gospel resting uneasily between faded coastal orthodoxies – the Midwest offering a measure of tranquility and reconciliation. Up and down, rather than left and right is more in inland artists’ transactional wheelhouse. Locals connect with the abstraction of Minnesota and Ontario and offer ballast to the vernacular of Texas and Louisiana. Nonetheless, Illinois artists don’t typically acknowledge their inclusion in a non-alignment pact with large numbers of unaffiliated artists in other marginalized cultural zones.
Even though artists have a unique place in society, they still have a place, and they represent a way of being and building knowledge that’s critical to the society they inhabit. Another reason that all sub-rural or inland artists are relevant to Midwesterners is because the overall population is generally dismissed as consumers, not creators. Sub-rural art denotes contemporary art that is formally and conceptually progressive but engages content and imagery stemming from regional histories, rather than mainstream avant-gardism.
According to the media, however, rural culture is mega churches, factory farms, pick-up trucks, meth labs, and country music. Despite the fact that none of these are industries of small towns and no more descriptive of rural life than the stereotypes of homelessness, drug addiction, violence, and political corruption are of urban life, they weigh on what would otherwise be labeled an aesthetic question mark. Inland art endures the encumbrance of truisms and disinformation about its neighbors’ otherness and value.
Are Midwestern artists then, just a microcosm of the population? I don’t think so. Their subject matter and their discipline flank a path of creative histories that include architecture, aeronautics, agriculture, and industrial design. Its cultural backdrop also comprises significant documentation of the Great Migration, jazz, labor, and journalism. Renditions of these subjects occur elsewhere, but not in the same geographic mega-parcel that modifies the country’s largest cultural corridor – one that’s less global, institutional, and corporate.
Studio artists are powerful symbols of equanimity and are interdependent with those that make up their immediate communities, which means not just other artists in rural and suburban communities. Abundant hand-made artwork shares a hypothetical blueprint with the “home-made” and has extended links to skilled labor and craft. These are not trendy disciplines built on, or reliant on, focus groups, marketing strategies, or institutional board member patronage. Successful inland artists are nonetheless entrepreneurs and their own financial officers.
Many, of course, have a consecrated platform – academia. Some of the most productive university art departments in the country animate space between the Gulf and the Great Lakes. Endowed professors whose artworld status brings distinction to programs and network conduits for students, certainly are a complex, if sometimes controversial, scholastic benefit. But it’s the fundamentally uncelebrated faculty who offer indispensable training to students about designing and building. They have critical advice about the profession, coupled with tragicomic anecdotes about the way prominent artists once accomplished their work. They mentor young artists, and build a respect for community and collaboration. They do this because they’re the adults and can zero in on how studio production is connected to visual promontories of a mutually embraceable past. They’re multi-disciplinary, and valued for educating their communities by recruiting local students, jurying exhibitions, advising fledgling alternative exhibition spaces, print collectives, collector’s groups, and regional art magazines.
Art faculty have a special relationship apart from any stylistic or methodological similarity. Their work has been formed and vetted in a culture outside the exclusionary, coastal art-market. Its significance lies, in part from a radical connection to ordinary life and anecdotal impressions of rural, small town and suburban America – finely tuned independent works that extinguish flames of Midwestern provincialism. They’ve produced a surplus of practitioners, particularly in ceramics, print and drawing, many of whom are now professor emeriti whose work populates Big Ten art collections. Their alumni are still tethered to university culture in towns like Madison, Iowa City, Lincoln, Nebraska, Bloomington Indiana, Vermillion, South Dakota, and DeKalb, Illinois as well as cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. They’ve provided cultural distinction and history to their communities, independent from markets of coastal mono-culture.
Many presume that localism in art implies that content is derivative, or anti-intellectual. Yet, critics and curators, if they venture inland, find it hard to suss all of the conventions of the “sub-rural,” even though they’re required to be fluent in the conventions of urban and coastal culture. One set of aesthetic criteria isn’t reciprocal or interchangeable. An urban and coastal ethos is relatively indifferent to place-based sets of alternatives, despite being the exceptionalist version of place-based.
Urban culture has no sober claim to authority. It relies on binary models to define location as either positive or negative. Urban culture claims racial and gender diversity and incorrectly paints rural as just white and male. It imagines itself 100% blue, and rural essentially red. It holds that rural = elemental, urban = complex, rural = traditionalist, urban = progressive, rural = naive, urban = enlightened, and rural = cautious, while urban = riskyglamorousgainful. Urban > rural. The “greater than” sign illustrates how problematic these dichotomies are when the metropolis clearly depends on the rural for its calculation of preeminence.
Productive artists and cultural institutions are distributed across the country. The difference is the concentration of population, wealth, and media in just three cities, while patronage of the breadth of rural culture is just inconvenient and less profitable. The abundance of artists in the city competing for a relative handful of respectable venues forces artists to be complicit with popular culture – a far more demeaning ritual, frankly, than attracting rural viewers. Urban artists are also pressured to adapt their practice to a rotation of contesting, sometimes contradicting theoretical models. Sub-rural has no requirement to entertain or indulge. It applies stylistic or theoretical conditions to circumstances when suited to place.
One side of the nature/culture pretext may be more anachronistic, the other more programmatic, but the opposition is artificial. Each side has varying and unique states of cultural intelligence but not influence. Modernism with a small m was constructed upon on a platform of shared experiences and egalitarian principles – a critique of the privilege wielded by proponents of official culture. Does progressive urban culture, broadly speaking, still commit to that? Once there was a debate, a consideration of ideological difference. Now it appears that the metropolis can’t resist meta-narratives like “art about the city being about art about the city being art,” to mask disparity.