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How The Rural Could Save Contemporary Art

Last Chance installation; Erik Van Lieshout, Art Basel

On the morning before The National Rural Assembly, I had the privilege of attending a roundtable discussion on rural arts and culture hosted at the Bush Foundation in Saint Paul. This conversation was cosponsored by the Arts and Community Change Initiative, the Arts and Democracy Project, the Center For Rural Strategies, and InCommons — and these organizations brought together an inspiring cohort of artists, scholars and arts practitioners working to cultivate the cultural life of their rural communities.

A profound number of challenges and solutions were raised in those discussions; a few persistent questions emerged and then re-emerged across the morning’s conversation: How do we create and share art that speaks from our local cultures, yet also reflects the modern economic and global realities of our places? What is the tension between traditional and modern (university-endorsed) notions of art-making? Is there a way to integrate these practices into the stories a community tells about its past, present, and its future? How does the community’s access to technology (especially broadband) alter this work? And, importantly, how do we impart all of these concerns to the next generation–how do we offer a narrative of place and culture inclusive to rural youth?

Though these are large questions, and their solutions will be years in the making, I was ultimately struck by how different these discussions sounded than those that revolve around the contemporary art world, or even its adjacent academic community. While there are daunting imperatives in the preceding paragraph, its content is surely not rural-specific. However, because of the host of pressing issues facing rural America, many of our artists and arts organizations must directly engage with these questions of representation and equity, and with art’s tenuous position in communities dealing with crises in health care, housing and education. Because our work takes place on a smaller scale, we turn from these issues at our own peril. As a preface to the roundtable discussion, Dee Davis, president of The Center of Rural Strategies, offered this timely line from W.B. Yeats: in dreams begin responsibilities.

So, how could the rural save contemporary art?

I’d like to offer below three recent editorials by respected art critics, writing for respected arts publications. Each writer, upon returning from the major summer art shows (here, the Venice Biennale and Art Basel), identifies specific symptoms of a general sickness in the art world. On one hand, it’s heartening to hear these writers articulating some of the very same concerns of folks engaged in rural arts and culture; on the other hand, the sickness diagnosed here seems to beg not only for greater equity and inclusion along economic and geographical lines, but also for a wider sense of cultural inclusion. I’d like to offer these three articles, and then suggest that folks consider the rural artists they know (or those we’ve highlighted on Art Of The Rural in our links and map resources): from the traditional to the avant-garde, how would a broader discussion of these artists help to make the contemporary-art-body whole and healthy?

Writing in New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz laments “Generation Blank,” the coterie of recent university-trained artists who are “too much in thrall to their elders, excessively satisfied with an insider’s game of art, [and] not really making their own work.” Here is how Mr. Saltz begins his editorial:

I went to Venice, and I came back worried. Every two years, the central attraction of the Biennale is a kind of State of the Art World show. This year’s, called “Illuminations,” has its share of high points and ­artistic intensity. (Frances Stark’s animated video of her online masturbatory tryst with a younger man hooked me; Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which captivated New York earlier this year, rightly won the Gold Lion Prize for Best ­Artist.) Yet many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic ­institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the ­water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.

Sixth Still Life installation; Katharina Fritsch, Venice Biennale

In our second arts clipping, András Szántó of Artworld Salon returns from Art Basel and offers two examples of “interesting disconnects” in recent art news:

First, between the ebullience of the art fair and the dark financial clouds roiling over Europe, where states teeter on the edge of insolvency and people are taking to the streets. There is a yawning chasm right now between the revived luxury spending boom and the malaise that grips the bottom ninety-eight percent. The subject kept coming up, quietly but persistently, at parties around town.

Second, during an Art Basel Conversation I moderated on the future of museum collecting, a London-based curator from Bangladesh pressed the assembled directors, and in particular Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern, when and how they will genuinely engage his community and others like it—not just through occasionally showcasing artists, but in a deep way. All agreed that, good intentions and planned initiatives notwithstanding, we’re a long way from making art institutions truly inclusive.

Away From The Flock; Damien Hirst

In “We Don’t Own Modern Art – The Super Rich Do,” Jonathan Jones of The Guardian recasts Szántó’s question with an eye on the mainstream middle-class audience that still grants contemporary art its cultural legitimacy:

But who are they, these people? I would genuinely like to know. The popular assumption seems to be that today’s art collectors are “Russian oligarchs”. Certainly the spectacle of Roman Abramovich’s yacht drew attention to the oligarchic presence at this year’s Venice Biennale. One thing is certain – the big-time buyers of art are people in the financial sector who are weathering our troubled times a lot better than high street businesses, nations picked on by Standard & Poor’s, or public sector workers.

And yet, for the last couple of decades, contemporary art has flourished through an alliance of the rich and the not-so-rich. It is the same educated, probably public-sector-employed middle class (many of whom marched this week) that enthusiastically visit galleries and art fairs. It is these fans of modern art who have helped, by their acclaim, to generate the charisma that makes it apparently worth so many millions.

Of course, we’re already seeing an urban, university-educated, DIY arts movement that is helping to provide the response to these writers’ concerns; this DIY culture, which is beginning to make inroads to rural artists and organizations, carries an aesthetic and a sense of empowerment that we all should observe and then integrate into our work. Further, as advocates for rural arts and culture, we should consider what we can bring to broader discussions like those above–and not cultivate an anti-modern art, anti-intellectual stance that only denigrates urban and rural audiences alike.

After reading these pieces, and after an inspiring roundtable discussion, I take away two beliefs. First, by including to a greater extent the voices of rural arts and rural groups within our contemporary arts dialogue, we will make all of the Arts more healthy–and more relevant to more people. And, lastly, the rural can save contemporary art in much the same way that contemporary art can come to the service of the rural: by working across those rural-urban lines and recognizing our shared responsibility to each other.


How the Rural Could Save Contemporary Art was originally published by Matthew Fluharty on Art of the Rural. For more information, we recommend a visit to the Rural America Contemporary Artists organization.

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  1. Laura

    Thank you for this. The topic is extremely pertinent, but I am most appreciative of how you show the issues within the art world are crossing boundaries geographically and economically. Great work.

  2. richard

    Who doesn’t love the concepts of diversity and inclusion in the both life and art? But is that what we really want? Do we truly want a populistic art of the people?
    Often we in the field over generalize. To often the “art world” is thought to be only what happens in NYC. But the same generalization applies to concepts like “rural arts”. There is a populistic notion of art that may fall under the category or “rural” more so than urban and some ideas within that populism aren’t that interesting or pretty.

  3. Matthew

    Hello Laura, Richard, and Chris,

    Thanks for these comments. I appreciate what Laura has said above about the boundary-crossing that occurs here — economically and culturally, the “rural” and “urban” are terms which get conflated in interesting (and ultimately productive) ways after we see major nations remove agricultural protections in the mid-1800’s, and agriculture becomes a open component in international trade. This continues today: rural people receive urban-generated mass culture and are also deeply conscious (be in Appalachia or Iowa) of the extractive industries that connect their local places to urban and suburban areas. On the whole (as I have lived in both places) I can tell you that rural people are far more aware of this exchange.

    I would point folks toward artist Chris Sauter’s excellent “Rural Avant-Garde” feature in Art Lies. This gets to Richard’s comments as well:

    I agree with Richard: “The Art World,” though it is undoubtedly driven by cosmopolitan concerns, shouldn’t be synonymous with NYC. Similarly, we absolutely can’t rest with a vision of “the rural arts” that only equates with “populist” art. What’s challenging both of these misconceptions are the ranks of urban/university-trained artists from (or moving to) rural places. See, for instance, the work of the M12 art collective, who merge aesthetic and community engagement in dynamic ways. In a moment of “the art world” meeting “the rural arts” the M12 is a part of his summer’s International Venice Architecture Biennale:

    I think, however, to all of these comments, one idea of equity has to be addressed here: rural America receives only 1% of the total funds from the nations’ foundations each year. (Rural America is 20 to 25% of the US population, depending on how the number is figured.) That 1% covers *all* support of rural America: healthcare, infrastructure, development, etc. So one can only guess what fraction of that is directed to the arts. In our post-Occupy conversations, 1% is a powerful number — and here it speaks to a broader redlining of rural America.

    Thanks again, Matthew

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