“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.”
― "My Antonia," Willa Cather
Since the late-1950s, the boundaries between Art and Life have blurred to the point of non-existence, and though artists and critics have long bemoaned the toppling of that proscribed power structure that drives art as an economy, this dissolution of archaic approaches can herald great new opportunities for artists and the communities in which they choose to live and work.
The visual culture of the Midwest communicates crucial truths about the importance of preserving a regional identity and, by extension, how often-overlooked regions have a valid voice in shaping a more inclusive future for art and culture in our country and the world.
More often than not, the products of our Plains-minded inquiry are expressed through non-traditional means: the farmer who counts the hawks he sees from the seat of his cultivator; the grandmother who tats endless yards of lace to stave off arthritis; the festival that draws out a population proud of its potatoes, its pageant, its pow-wow, or its polka. Viewed through a lens of inclusivity, these are all “projects” with powerful “art” components. They bear evocative traces of the circumstances surrounding their creation, exemplify cultural trends toward a greater social intelligence and collective talent, and communicate a profound sense of place. If they were enacted by “an artist,” they’d find space on the walls of Art Basel.
Here, however, they’re just ways to pass the time.
Institutional authority is powerful framing device. To accept new, un-art methods of making as stages of a vital evolution of the Grand Ol’ Traditions provides thrilling opportunities to reverse the generally-accepted understanding of which direction the culture river runs. It, furthermore, opens the door to the choice to live artfully in environments where artists are not “supposed” to thrive. For this to happen, however, it requires a radical redefinition of the modes and codes that govern the purpose and function of art. Which is to say: though a community might not necessarily need a painter, one might apply the qualities of a painter to the necessary needs of a community.
Survival in rural areas requires perseverance, ingenuity, investment in community, and a back-breaking amount of hard work. The social interactions engendered through the practice and processes of art that will thrive in this cultural ecosystem will be those which express an understanding and acceptance of these truths at every level.
“At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” And it’s true: one blade of grass does not the prairie make.