Wandering the Back Forty: Some Ideas About a Rural Avant-Garde
Contemporary art is seeing a surge of interest in what I call “the rural.” I’m sure there are many reasons for this, but one decisive factor appears to be a shared reaction to anxiety. I am reminded of Regionalist painter Grant Wood’s essay Revolt Against the City (1935) where he quotes Carl Van Doren, asserting that any society—American society in particular—tends to re-evaluate itself every thirty years or so in response to some kind of outside trauma. We are currently facing compound concerns on a pandemic level: political unrest (9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, partisanship), social unrest (gay marriage, nationalism, immigration), environmental concerns (global warming, genetic engineering, carbon footprints), economic meltdown…the list goes on and on. To alleviate a perceived loss of control, individuals search for a sense of grounding. In my opinion, a return to the rural seems to be the latest form of such introspection, and as a result, artists are looking back to traditional—and perhaps more stable—ways of life. We are witnessing a preponderance of agricultural/community gardening projects, references to rodeos, cowboys, taxidermy, hunting, an interest in vernacular architecture, etc.
Unlike the Regionalists, however, this call is not based on a reaction to outside (read non-American) influences, nor is it because of any insular ideological or artistic position. In fact, a return to the rural in contemporary art is happening in various parts of the world, not just the United States. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Land Foundation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which combines contemporary art with traditional rice cultivation, or Karen Lubbock’s Karen magazine, which documents village life in Rodbourne Bottom, England, or Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates, sustainable front-yard gardens from Salina, Kansas to London, are all highly conceptual projects that fall within the rubric of the rural.
Having grown up on my grandparents’ ranch, the rural, for me, is tied up with identity. Although most people now live in and around cities, many practicing artists are not native to urban areas. Embracing their roots is a way of acknowledging and clarifying identity—of mining their personal, formative experiences to produce work that is at once contemporary and local. I am again reminded of Grant Wood’s Revolt. His ideas seem particularly interesting now, as technology has performed a major role in creating global homogenization while at the same time making it possible to share remotely generated ideas on a global scale. Art that reflects non-urban sensibilities not only adds to the rich texture of contemporary art but points to possible connections between seemingly disparate cultures.
When I think of the rural, I usually think of agriculture. Interestingly enough, it is agriculture where we find both the root of a lot of current environmental problems and the medium many artists are turning to for solutions (I am thinking of artists like Haeg, and WORKac’s Public Farm 1 at P.S.1). But this is by no means a new concern for me. In 2001, I was invited by Blanton Museum curator Annette Carlozzi to participate in an exhibition about artists’ processes at the Salina Art Center in Kansas. At the opening, I met Wes Jackson who, I later found out, is the founder and director of the Land Institute, a MacArthur Fellow and, more recently, one of Rolling Stone magazine’s 2009 “100 Agents of Change.” We were talking about the difference—if any—between nature and culture and the conversation eventually turned to the subject of agriculture.
While many historians and anthropologists believe that it was the development of agriculture that made civilization possible, Jackson regards agriculture as humanity’s first sin—Man’s first step outside of Eden, so to speak—and the moment we severed ourselves from nature. In other words, most, if not all, of our environmental ills find their origin in the invention of agriculture. So it makes sense, then, that at the front line of this conundrum we find artists looking at man’s relationship to nature in various ways, making what we consider “town” and “country”—or, more precisely, “cosmopolitan” and “local”—a contested space. These artists I would contend constitute a new avant-garde. (The term avant-garde, after all, originates from a military term that literally means “the front line.”)
The avant-garde is usually associated with Modernism and used to describe the art and artists at the very start of that period. I associate Modernism with urbanism. The stories surrounding the growth of Modernism tell of intellectuals sitting in cafés and bars arguing the then-current state of affairs, formulating their reactions, writing manifestos and vowing to break with the past in favor of the new. In fact, Modernism did arise at the point when cities became dominant, shortly after the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. I certainly believe that it is responsible for some amazing art—I know that I would not be able to make the work that I do without its legacy.
But the mindset of mistrusting tradition is problematic at the very least. In its most extreme mode, totally discarding the past has led us to the predicament we are currently in, untethered from earlier foundations. We have arrived at a time when Modernist rejection of the past and its problematic relationship to nature should come to an end. Many artists, including those discussed and featured in the following pages, are looking back to traditions rooted in the rural. Some are adding their personal non-urban experience to a global dialogue, fighting the peripatetic homogenization that is the hallmark of contemporary life. These artists are seeking solutions to anxiety by interacting directly with the land and with their respective communities. This exploration seems to me to be a real paradigm shift. The avant-garde of today is not a break from the past—not a severing of roots. It is a true front line grounded by the past. After all, there are millennia’s worth of knowledge buried down there.