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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Salt lick: can #progressive #art ever be rural?




#Tolstoy’s second greatest novel, Anna Karenina, might have been called, in the vein of War and Peace, #City and #Country. While Anna’s urbane tragedy unfolds, necessarily, in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Tolstoy’s sympathies, as they were in life, are indubitably sylvan. The passage I return to most often is the mowing of Mashkin Hill, where the writer’s doppelgänger joins the peasants for a day of stubble-tromping, sunshine work. His savvy city brother, who is staying with him just then, looks upon Levin’s arcane folly with amusement, sipping his worldly port.

Tolstoy did most of his writing at his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where his efforts to emancipate his serfs evolved into broader pacifistic convictions and an equally unorthodox aesthetic: that art should go beyond just being ‘art’ and help to #change people’s lives.

Then there is Oscar Wilde, who persists as the paragon of lofty man-about-town, the jester of inscrutable panache.


It’s undeniable––progressive thought of all kinds is urban. Museums, galleries, and the mycelium network of kindred artists all are to be found in cities––New York and LA, Berlin, Paris and London.


Years ago I participated, from the grass-roots up, in a show of experimental and improvisational work, installed in a disused factory on the edge of a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Maybe we were lucky, but god it was good. There among the cows.


And it was mobbed.


The point of the show, I suppose, was to assail the notion that culture, de rigueur, belongs to cities. Can one, in fact, imagine an art of equal or alternative sophistication arising in a rural context in America (in the same way that the Democratic party must wonder if and how it can ever regain its blue-collar ranks––as indeed it must––at some cost to its suaver metropolitan moralities)?


Maybe sophistication isn’t the word. Maybe in fact art has ‘sophisticated’ itself into the aesthetic fatigue, masterful sameness and corporate compliance that so many complain of now. Maybe the villages along the River Oise where Impressionist painters first set up their counter-cultural canvases for us would be an acre outside Abingdon.


City art was in crisis before the pandemic. Ballooning cost and ostentatious Boards were part of it. But the same sclerotic supremacy that afflicts Joel Osteen, reactionary politics and motorcycle gangs afflict urban art. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, once an intimate and daring boudoir, looks, feels and behaves like a billionaire condominium. To even pretend that Van Gogh or Brancusi can sit comfortably in any big-city museum, a million miles away from the poverty, courage and insularity of their origins, is a farce.


But neither is the country a paradise-in-waiting. What trans artist would move to a small Baptist town? The progressive American artist, in fact, is on the lam. The old bohemian avant-garde is kaput, the city too supremacist, expensive, and false, the country too narrow and prone to the wrong kinds of flags.


Still, Frank Lloyd Wright got it basically right. America is a country, not a city.


A cultural diaspora has begun.