Thursday, September 27, 2007

Down on the Farm

James Wyeth, Portrait of Pig, 1970

In his previous book, Wyeth People, Gene Logsdon tried to get at the heart of the art of Andrew Wyeth through his models, delving into their connection with the artist as well as their connection with the places so important to them and Wyeth. In his new book, The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse, Logsdon returns to Wyeth country with an emphasis on the country—emphasizing the connection with the land and farming as the source not only of Wyeth’s art but of a larger agrarian culture. Works ranging from Jamie Wyeth’s Portrait of Pig (above) to the novels of Bobbie Ann Mason to composer Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring all rise out of this shared source of artistic inspiration. Logsdon sees “a new agrarian culture emerging” today whose “artistic impulse… is driven by their shared agrarian impulse.” In The Mother of All Arts, Logsdon hopes “to speak with the voice of those millions of silent agrarians and farmers who have been forever the subject matter of a large body of visual art, literature, and music but who are seldom allowed a forum to say what they think about art.” Logsdon sets up the soapbox and breaks that silence.

Karl J. Kuerner, Counting Sheep, 2004

Breaking his analysis into the fields of visual art, literature, and music, Logsdon begins with visual art, where his argument is strongest, mainly thanks to the Brandywine School of painting surrounding the Wyeth clan. N.C. Wyeth, whom Logsdon calls “the father of agrarian art,” stands at the head of a long line of like-minded artists firmly rooted in the land that reaches down to his son Andrew, his son-in-law Peter Hurd, his grandson Jamie, and the grandson of his neighbor, Karl J. Kuerner, student of Andrew and Carolyn Wyeth and painter of works such as Counting Sheep (above). “The only way you can understand any of us is through understanding N.C. Wyeth,” Hurd tells Logsdon. “That’s the key. He gave us our realistic approach, so-called, and he gave us our respect for the so-called regional, finding greatness or beauty in the near at hand.” Logsdon posits a theory of art as a mode-locking or synchronization in which “sympathetic vibrations flow” between artist and model, artist and subject, and even painting and viewer. “If that were true, then the subject of a painting, be it a tree, a person, a cow, or whatever, is as much a part of the creative process as the artist himself—might sometimes be the greater part of it.”

Logsdon sees this neo-Platonic, Romantic vision of nature as connecting with the human imagination as the source of agrarian art in all media as well as how we appreciate that art. We see a painting by Andrew Wyeth and connect with the landscape and rural structures because of an unconscious “farm gene” present even in those who may never have stepped foot on a farm. Of course, not everyone may have that “farm gene.” Logsdon would argue that the “farm gene” is often suppressed by urban prejudice. “There is abundant evidence of prejudice against rural people in art criticism, and that prejudice must be taken into account in any discussion of agrarian art,” Logsdon complains.

Gary Ernest Smith, Snow, 1993

Logsdon’s argument falters when he expands it beyond the boundaries of the Brandywine School. As much as he tries to fold in other artists such as Gary Ernest Smith (painter of Snow, above), it always seems an awkward stretch. His concept of “sympathetic vibrations” works well with the Wyeths because they profess similar feelings while making their art, always conscious of the “vibe” or spirit of a place or person when making their images. The personal connection of the Wyeths with their subjects resembles a conjurer’s spell in many ways—maintain the spell and the trick works, but break the spell and all tumbles down. Logsdon knows this fact firsthand after Andrew Wyeth himself begged Logsdon to stop talking to his models for Wyeth People because it was disturbing the special atmosphere he had so long cultivated and needed to maintain to continue painting. From the beginning, Logsdon qualifies his claims by stating that not all art stems from the agrarian impulse, but his strident claims for the primacy of agrarian art drown out those earlier sotto voce qualifiers.

The Mother of All Arts suffers from an agrarian persecution complex. Obviously, the story of American art is written mainly in the academies and the major art cities such as New York. Logsdon casts much of this art criticism as out of touch with the common person (reaching way back to a turgid prose passage by Dr. Albert C. Barnes as exhibit A). While commiserating with author Wendell Berry, Logsdon’s prime example of an agrarian author, Logsdon’s quotes Berry’s reason for his shunning by The New Yorker and its ilk: “I am in disagreement with their view of the world.” I agree with Logsdon when he bemoans the power of “experts.” “A society of such ‘experts’ wittingly or unwittingly cuts itself off from the kind of deep knowledge and insight that is necessary for physical and intellectual survival and for art,” he writes. “It cuts itself off from firsthand knowledge.” However, to claim counter-intuitively that the experts are always wrong and the hands-on folk always right takes the ad hominem attack beyond all acceptability. Andrew Wyeth, for example, is not a farmer. He grew up around farms, knew farmers, and observed them, but I’ll bet anything that he’s never hauled a bale of hay in his life. Logsdon discounts the power of observation and intellectual, secondhand knowledge that Wyeth clearly uses to promote an image (not a reality) of active engagement with the land as the only way to know it honestly and artistically. Logsdon’s “farm gene” tempers this line of reasoning, but, again, his bias overcomes the qualifiers.

Logsdon admits that The Mother of All Arts began as another book on Andrew Wyeth. As the strongest parts of the book concern Wyeth and his circle, perhaps Logsdon should have kept that focus instead of widening his scope. The section on agrarian literature allows Berry and other figures such as Harlan Hubbard, writer and “self-reliant homesteader,” a moment in the spotlight, but their writing always seems to be overshadowed by their mode of living. Logsdon’s exploration of music, founded in his belief “that country music lyrics taken together form a haphazard history of America (and very definitely a history of farming in America) as expressed, often with artful cleverness, by underprivileged and working class people” unravels from its openendedness. Aaron Copland, Gene Autry, Jimmie Rogers, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, and even Led Zeppelin file past in a strange procession of musicians Logsdon strives to link to the agrarian impulse to various degrees of success.

The Mother of All Arts offers Logsdon’s interesting perspective on the art of Andrew Wyeth and recovers the forgotten role that N.C. Wyeth played in fostering that rural aspect in his son’s life and art. In that respect, Logsdon contributes sensitively and insightfully to the literature on the Wyeths. However, once Logsdon tries to apply that special Wyeth magic formula to other artists across different media, he breaks the spell, not by revealing the secret of the trick but by dissipating the magic by stretching it to places it just can’t reach.

[Many thanks to the University Press of Kentucky for providing me with a review copy of this book and the images above.]


Anonymous said...

Great comparative article. If you want to read more on Gary Ernest Smith
click here

Bob said...

Thanks, Painter P.


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