Fencing the Back Forty
A Response to Chris Sauter in ArtLies
May 20, 2010
by Nikki Moore
Call it "the rural," (as artist Chris Sauter did in his curatorial essay for the latest ArtLies,) or call it pastoral, we are fascinated with all things farm, ranch and fishing pole. As Sauter describes it, our bucolic fascinations are sparked by a re-evaluation of society in the wake of external tremors such as 9/11, climate change and the economic meltdown. He situates this response globally, citing projects from Kansas to London, with artists embracing a return to their roots.
While we are clearly trembling before climate change and all the stuttering we’ve heard from the Chicago School of Economics, to say we’re returning to roots, to
"a true front line grounded by the past" forgets the past that was worked through in, among others, the art and writings of German Romanticism. In an effort to escape industrialism, urbanism and the cold cool light of reason run amok, 18th century so-called realism and romanticism found truth and roots in the so-called peasant classes, in the everyday bucolic, in nature, in the sublime. At the pinnacle of romanticism, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote treatises on the value of small-scaled, local politics and Goethe, with one ragingly popular novel, transformed the hitherto "impoverished, undereducated and backward" countryside into the only stage for the ripening of authenticity. In politics, literature and art, the mythical force of nature was revived and made into a power to supercede man, industry and enterprise. The value and force of a burgeoning sense of place, both local and—albeit fatally—national, cannot be overestimated. And of course we wouldn’t call it romanticism if, well, it wasn’t just a bit romanticized. From Rousseau to Immanuel Kant, it took the irony of post-modernism for us to shake the hubris of thinking we might really get close and paint true portraits of those everyday roots, people, experiences.
Which is not to say that planting organic tomatoes isn’t almost infinitely appealing, or that shopping locally and supporting local agriculture doesn’t have decided merit. As an aesthetic culture, we are now quite obviously drawn to taxidermy and cowboy boots, and there may, indeed, be part of each of us that would like to think that, in works and lifestyles increasingly revolving around planting, soil and botanical roots, we are returning to purer, more authentic historical times and more organic modes of living. But what percent of the artists photographing corn fields are actually from the mid-west? How many artists turned taxidermists have ever been hunting? Isn’t it precisely in the city, in dense places like Manhattan where "the rural" first took hold? Isn’t the appeal of these pastoral, rural scenes the lure of "this too could be your childhood?" even though, and especially because, it wasn’t? It is possible to imagine artists’ turn toward "the rural" comes from roots, but it is more likely that it comes from a desire for and questioning of a rootedness, stability and constancy that is so foreign to the current political and to the literal climate.
With this in mind, before we embrace a direct upcycling of the German Romantic period in the local, the sublime, the pastoral or ‘the rural’ it seems crucial to remember that it never was what we now paint it to be. We’re fastidiously building nostalgia around an empty space that is more vacuous than substantitve, more ephemeral than taxidermic. It’s easy to forget that when you live in Texas, in the ever present mythology of the Urban Cowboy. And yet precisely in places like Texas, and Arizona, and elsewhere it is these very potent recreations of rural pasts that never actually existed that problematize Sauter’s poignant—albeit all too metaphysically confident—analysis of what’s going on in The Back Forty.
Nikki Moore is a Ph.D. student in philosophy and media theory at the European Graduate School as well as the words and life sciences editor for W5RAn. Her writing and theory work has been published by Xavier Barral, MIT Press, ArtLies, ...might be good and others.