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Does Art Sense Social Change Before Science Does?

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The top photo above of an Iowa farm scene, by New York Times photographer, Tony Cenicola, was the subject of one of my recent posts here. Responder Rick Oberer graciously posted the photo for us to see. In that essay, I mentioned the similarity the photo bore to a painting that hangs in our living room, by local artist Pat Gamby. That painting also appears above. Then my sister Jenny, herself an artist, sent me a photo on the same theme by her son, Ben Barnes, a professional photographer in Columbus, Ohio. His photo will be one of the prizes in an upcoming Columbus Museum of Art fundraiser. Both Ben and Pat, who is a close friend of ours, grew up in this county, surrounded by corn. As I think readers will agree, the three pictures together pack quite an emotional wallop. I wonder exceedingly if their similarity is just coincidence. I have a hunch that there are hundreds of paintings and photos of lonely or abandoned farmhouses surrounded by cornfields hanging on walls around the nation.

Ben’s photo, where the corn almost seems to be attacking the abandoned house, most strongly relays the message I find in all three pictures, that corn is at least part of the cause of the lonely or abandoned houses. The buzzards wheeling overhead strengthen that interpretation. But when I asked Ben why he took the photo, he said that he had not thought of the corn specifically as the cause of the house’s demise. “To me the corn is caught up in the same underlying malaise that is sweeping away various foundations in society today. The photo is part of a series I’m trying to do ostensibly about the demise of the family farm and natural reclamation, but more deeply about disillusionment and the demise of other things and the hollowing out of memories.” When I asked Pat the same question, she said she had not made a direct connection between corn and house either, but only that the scene had filled her with melancholy.

I think this is how art anticipates change before science does. It does so not by intellectual or scientific deduction but through emotion— yes, the “hollowing out of memories,” as Ben puts it so well. Science teaches us to distrust emotion. Artists rely on emotion to evoke the real raw truths of life.

Ben’s parents bought part of our family farm for their own home and that’s where Ben grew up. Pat and her husband, Steve, are successful certified organic farmers. For me they are a good example of why I keep arguing that agriculture in its struggle with nature to provide sustenance for mankind, is the greatest social drama of all human activity and as such it is not only the fountainhead of food, but of art. Pat and Steve act out that drama literally. When they first started farming, the extra cash that Pat’s artwork brought in helped keep them afloat. She has her studio right on the farm and paints full time now. Her website is here.

So many famous artists, musicians, and writers have had one foot in farming that saying they are profoundly influenced by it is beyond argument. Andrew Wyeth and Wendell Berry are two of the most famous examples. I wrote a book about Wyeth because he, of all current artists (he passed away a few years ago) so genuinely portrayed the world of real farming to me. He grew up on his father’s farm and the next door neighbor’s, the Kuerner farm, where he painted so many of his most famous works of art. Although he has been embraced worldwide as one of our greatest artists, he is still coolly received by urban art critics. No surprise. They do not belong to the culture of agriculture. Wendell Berry as essayist, poet and novelist, represents an even closer relationship between art and farming. He has written many books, received worldwide recognition, and still lives and works on his farm although over 80 years old. I sense in him our farming kinship and that is why we have been close friends for nearly half a century.

I might have a hard time proving that art always anticipates change quicker than science does, but it is certainly true of Wendell. His signature book, The Unsettling of America, was published in 1977, some of it from notes written at least ten years before that, but if you read it now, his criticisms of industrial farming and his fears that it can’t continue indefinitely, sound like they were written yesterday. Everything that I and most other keen observers of the farming scene write on this subject today, was anticipated and articulated in that book and its theme runs through Wendell’s poetry and novels too. That is why he is now being practically inundated with regional, national and even international recognition and awards.

If I needed any more evidence of art’s superior futuristic vision over that of science, I would point to the hundreds of country music songs over the past fifty years that in their own untutored, twangy way, sense the change in farming now underway, from industrial agriculture to something we don’t have a name for yet. Have you been to any of the annual Farm Aid festivals lately and listened to the lyrics of the songs? And how many movies have made gut-wrenching scenes out of the demise of the family farm, especially the auctions where the farms are sold off. Art instinctively knows. Science follows.

How about in your local area. Noticed lately any tumbledown houses with corn growing right up to the doorstep?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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