I’ve been on a long search into the meaning of the artistic impulse. Yes, that sounds a little airy. But what drives humans to want to create paintings, songs, stories, sculptures, all kinds of artful beauty? Why not just relax and enjoy the sensory pleasure of the beautiful objects of real life all around us? Who can improve on a beautiful sunset? Or the song of a meadowlark? A farmer, for example, is not just satisfied to build a barn, but must make of it a thing of beauty. Or at least farmers did that before industrialism persuaded them that giant quonset-shaped humps of sheet metal were beautiful.
That question eventually steered me to a personal acquaintanceship with famous artists, Andrew Wyeth and Peter Hurd, renowned poet and novelist, Wendell Berry, best selling essayist, Mike Perry, and many others, while, through close study and research into their lives, my eyes were further opened by the likes of the enigmatic country music singers, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
Do you know what these artists, and thousands more, have in common? They are or have been, involved closely with farming. The only one of them who hasn’t done much farming is Andrew Wyeth. He is too busy painting farmers and farm life to actually do it himself. But his father, N.C. Wyeth, also a famous artist, loved farming and often joined in the work on his own farm. Andrew’s grandfather was heavily involved in agriculture as a business. Imagine. The grandfather of the world’s most famous living artist was a hay and grain dealer!
Wendell Berry is still farming. Mike Perry just bought a little farm and plans to raise sheep like I do. Joe Dan Boyd, an award-winning journalist and a singer, remembers his aunt dragging him down the cotton rows on the sack she was filling with cotton. Teddy Gentry, all-time great country music singer, now raises cattle. Johnny Cash grew up picking cotton. So did Willie Nelson. In fact, if you study the history of the blues and country music, you get the notion that picking cotton was part of the initiation every country music singer had to pass through on the way to stardom, just as husking corn by hand was the tribulation that so many northern writers and artists of my age had to suffer on their way to becoming artists.
And that was my great discovery. Farming is itself an art and a whole lot more artists than you might imagine draw their early or late inspiration from it. And I don’t mean just sentimental, sugary, artsy-fartsy, pretty stuff about farming, but the guts of it, the tragedy and heartbreak a farmer must sometimes endure, as a true artist often endures, when he pits himself against the tyranny of greed and the indifference of nature to produce good food. I thought I was on to something and still do. So I wrote a book about as many of these farmer-artists as I could get to know. They inspired in me the uncanny conviction that agriculture is the cultural seedbed of a vast array of human art. Farming provides food for the soul as well as food for the body. Or as Xenophon wrote in ancient times (in his Economicus, ca. 362 BC: “It has been nobly said that husbandry is the mother and nurse of the other arts. For when husbandry flourishes, all the other arts are in good fettle but whenever the land is compelled to lie waste, the other arts of landsmen and mariners alike well-nigh perish.” How could people be so smart twenty three centuries before Guitar Hero?
If readers are still with me here, I hope they see why saying that there is such a thing as organic art is no more facetious than pointing out that there is such a thing as organic food. And dare I suggest, with Xenophon, that when farming is laid waste by ignoring organic farming principles, that other forms of art might well nigh perish too? Just look at some of the junk that passes for art these days.
One thing I’ve learned: That kind of thinking does not go over well with urbane elitists in the art world nor agribusiness farmers in the industrial world. So I said it anyway, in Mother of All Arts, and I’m glad I did.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Author: The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) 2007 Gene’s Posts