Does Art Sense Social Change Before Science Does?





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?


We actually live in an abandoned home that we have restored.
Driving a country road one day and passed by the place. The roof was gone and so the second story floor. Windows were all punched out, somebody had stolen the front porch and all the wiring.
We felt sorry for the old place and couldn’t get it out of our heads. So, we tracked down the owner who had hoped, with his wife, to restore it himself one day but since he was eighty at the time and his wife was sick, we struck a deal.
For a sum of money down, the balance in a year and the promise we would not tear it down but bring it back to life, on a handshake it was ours. We began the work. That was twenty five years ago.
We had big dreams and little money and worked hard. The old place had good bones with a frame of true sized lumber. That is, a 2 x 4 that actually was a 2 x 4 and rough cut.
We still aren’t finished and have had to borrow money sometimes at huge interest rates (because the banks don’t like these kinds of projects) to accomplish the work. We carry a mortgage on it now as we finally decided we just weren’t going to finish it before we died if we didn’t.
We gutted the inside and then started on the outside and there’s plenty of finish work to be done. As always, life takes over and once we moved in, it was harder to get to those projects.
It’s a solid house. When the wind blows you can hear it but the house stands firm, The windows don’t rattle and roof stays put.
Our “spare” time and weekends are still devoted to the project but it’s home now. We finished raising our kids here and raised two grand kids as well. Our grand daughter calls it “the home of my heart”. I think we all feel that way.

There is no doubt artists sense social change. We have one in our midst. You.
You are much farther ahead of your time than you think

Budd, I agree with Tim. All through the years, hubby and I both had jobs off the place as well as the ranching. It’s not easy, but we thought it was worth it. Now that we’re officially retired, I still do some health care consulting and am a free lance writer. Don’t give up on the dream, just modify it to suit your circumstances.

Bud . I took off farm jobs to get myself situated better on my farm and made some mistakes along the way. RIght now i am living in the city taking care of my folks,rarely getting to my farm but it is so ingrained in me, that even after years of living in the city and buying and trying to fix up a farm 80 miles away, I still find the farmer way of thinking and viewing things still ingrained in me.Now if i was of a mind to sell the farm and everything i might think of things more like a city person. But Even for the stretch when i had everything in storage I still either couldnt or wouldnt(not sure which lol) stop thinking and feeling like a farmer.What I’m saying in my own longwinded and rambling way it I hope you never completley give up on your dream.We need too many people like you.I dont know what kind of farming you did or whether you were full time or part time but hope you wont leave us entirely.By the way i used to deliver to several colleges. Be careful driving your mower cause those ‘intelligent” students will walk right out in front a large moving vehicles.Dont want to splatter one under a lawn mower! lol Good luck our friend

I’ve had it. I got a job as a groundskeeper at a local college…

“Does Art Sense Social Change Before Science Does?” I’m betting a PhD on that being the case. If we are going to transform the rural spaces into truly productive places that nourish souls and soil (dirt) then we are going to need the arts to inspire and comfort those who live there and those who will move back to these rural areas. Here in Latvia many houses are abandoned but one NGO I know of are using art to breathe new life into the broken windows and decaying wood by creating beautiful objects out of them. Turning what others consider worthless into something beautiful and in the process becoming a wonderful metaphor for the lives of many in rural areas. The art of the NGO is bringing social change to a small community helping them move from hopelessness to a people able to believe in themselves and that change can happen when they work together. A major miracle in a country that has seen much trauma in the lifetimes of many still alive.

Like Jason, I don’t see the corn here in California, but there are plenty of small farmsteads and dairies mouldering down in the Central Valley. I remember reading “A Woman Called Fancy,” by Frank Yerby, about 40 years ago. It’s about a poor woman who winds up running a cotton plantation in the 1800s. It was very common for the cotton plantings to literally come right up to the front door in those days. One of the things that stuck with me from that book was a line (I’m paraphrasing) something like this: “Ignoring the demands of King Cotton for land, land and more land, Fancy turned 25 acres back into the production of food crops for her slaves.” Smart woman, and Yerby’s book illustrated how a given agricultural commodity can try to take over the world, to that world’s detriment.

The County Farmland Trust partners with a fair number of artists to raise funds for their preservation efforts. Most of the works I have seen tend more to the bucolic than to the melancholic. It may be that small ag is still common here, lessening the feelings of cultural doom that prevail elsewhere. I have hope that the local efforts to incubate a new crop of farmers bear fruit.

It is sad to see a good house let go. The lives sheltered, born, raised and died, over the years make me wish the house could talk. These homes have a gentle aura that suburban tract structures will never achieve. Like Mr. Rutledge’ area, the forest reclaims the lost homesteads in our little valley. Poor soils and steep slopes kept corn at bay.

Wendell said it so well, “What are people for?” It seems the politicians have found rural America to be inefficient and not worth protecting. As always a thought provoking post. Thanks.

I should drive a mile to the family farm where I grew up and get a photo of the barn that finally collaped this year &The granery built by my german grandfather in 47, the year I was born . So many memories of putting up hay with pitchforks loose in the barn and summers hand hoeing the feilds, falls hand shucking it. Now living in the house build by the grandchildren of that old homestead now over 100 years old . The old place was a lot older and burned to the ground in 81 and took the life of my uncle who was a dad to me . I treasure and use the old tools…. the old ways ….the old seeds . :)Sharon

Interesting article however I am unsure of what social change these 3 pictures are anticipating. If it is the demise of the old family farmstead, then that has already taken place in most areas of North America. The pictures seem to blend the past with the current times, the spread of the killer monoculture knocking at the walls. Yet also for me I can hopefully imagine these seemingly abandoned homes waiting for, or perhaps inviting, some new homesteader to come and bring renewal.
Such as it is in the area I now live. I can’t say I’ve seen scenes of abandoned farm houses whilest the property itself is still in use. Hereabouts in Lanark County Ontario there are plenty of abandoned farms and/or farms that are still inhabited with the barns and silos in various stages of long term neglect. Our area has yet to encounter the massive scale monoculture farms like those in the west. However, there are still thousands of inhabited farms in the Ottawa valley that do singly plant corn and soybean.
Several years ago I read a fantastic book called All Flesh Is Grass. My wife read it too. We were hooked by something mysterious and a year later we up and sold our rundown village home and bought one of those even older rundown farmsteads back in the woods. It has been much work and even more learning as we rebuild the house, learn how to garden, and begin to tend livestock. And then there is the sanctity of the land itself. Not bad for sixty year old city folk, eh! We barely get by but It has turned into a labour of love.
Of hope for the future (perhaps that social change) there are more and more young people moving into the area and becoming interested in farming. Still far from a flood, nevertheless it is a welcome sight. In a way I think there is another back to the land movement that is getting underway, but perhaps something a little different than that one that took place 50 years ago, with the younger crowd interested in organics and health, technology and big concerns about the state of our environment. I guess too, like us, they are seeking to get out of the city life rat race but I also have a feeling they are aiming to go somewhere as opposed to getting away from. Maybe one day soon the artists will be inclined to paint farm houses laced with people and gardens, livestock and wildlife. Wouldn’t that be good.

My son is a filmmaker. While visiting, he took film of a couple of nearby abandoned homestead houses. Then he filmed my little house from the same angles–they were eerily similar, in a then-and-now sort of way, and made me think about my home’s future when I am gone and it is hollowed out!

Reguardless of the crop, it seems there are unseen forces ,a lot of white elephants in the room . Around here the older farmers cant wait for housing to get close enough so they can sell their land that is already bordering houses and be down with it.Hard to raise organic livestock in pastures where the suburbanites dump their leaves and grass clippings from their treated lawns then lie about it or they cut the fences or use your livestock as targets. Most of the older guys don’t even both saying anything to them about it just farm around the tv antenneas,piles of grass clippings or bricks and pools of used oil.I’ve went to drive past some scenic old farms and found them bulldozed by the farmers or burnt down by the suburbanites, or the fire depts for practice at the request of the farmers or land developers who bought them.I got to thinking about a dairy farm where the late owner died by a bull when i was young,. Even though the 600+ acre farm that i used to work on beside it is going up in houses thought maybe buy it or get the owner to let me salvage one of the pole barns to move to my place.T house,trees around it and barns were all gone replaced by corn stalks.Easier to take care of that way i guess. No vandals,trespassers or having to drive a tractor and bushhog over to take care of it. Also dont have to worry about some hungry young farmer getting started and becoming a high bidder on the land in the area.It’s a shame. THe neighboring farm where i worked upon graduating from high school was a purebred angus farm . One day while the owner was having gravel dug out of the field to form a pond, i over heard him and a neighbor talking about a book called Malabar Farm.That was the start of me buying and reading all of Louis Bromfields farming books and making two trips to malabar farm.That is where the name for my farm came from. My 30 acres.It lead me to the idea of farming being an art and a science and how the two can over lap.I wonder if the city folk that move out to these housing ghettos have any idea of the beauty they destroyed when they do move out. Or is it really all soccer fields and shopping centers to them?I wonder if when the writers and artists of this generation before me are all dead and gone will we ever have any to replace them the caliber of what we lost? I doubt it.

Beautiful and interesting post, thank you. Living with earth is art and it we can reclaim the brushes, the pens and the pallets. They may be dried up or rough at first but I am encouraged to encounter more and more people who get established in natural farming, then educate, start incubator farms, and support the youngsters. As yourself Mr. Gene and so many others who passionately and artfully put forward the efforts. Thank you.

Hmm-m-mm. I was born in IA and was transplanted to the South when I was grade school age. I was at least a generation removed from true farmers of the family, but recall hearing farming stories all my life. I grew up, went to college, got married, went to a tropical country for a government-sponsored, paid vacation for a year and then returned home. Whether it was in the genes, or results from the vacation or both, I don’t know, but soon I was infatuated by the subsistence farming-back-to-the-land movement. Lots of reading Mother Earth News, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Organic Gardening etc.articles were my outside reading. (The name Gene Logsden was very familiar0. Life got in the way and I climbed aboard the “rat-race” treadmill with a more than noticeble sigh of relief coming from older family members. Now, retired, I have some of the trappings needed to work towards that end… but a little late. All through those in-between years I continued to watch the “movement” and agriculture in general. These latter years have been depressing. Here in my corner of the South I see the once maintained stock barns with the inevitable haylofts moldering into collapsed chaos and the once groomed fields and fence-rows being allowed to return to the natural flora of the Eastern woodlands.Farmhouses, great and small, are true reflections of the images of this article. I marvel at the shear criminality(in my mind) of allowing decent structures to deteriorate into oblivion simply because of a lack of interest. Someday they will be needed, I am sure, and they will only be a distant memory.

My own parent’s farmhouse (though they cash rented and didn’t farm themselves) was nearly one of these. My nephew, bless his heart, bought it and lives comfortably there. The barns, of course, are slowly falling to ruin … and all is surrounded by corn and bean fields. Never even a wheat field anymore. What almost breaks my heart as much are the fence rows, creek beds, and waterways being stripped of all trees and scrub so crops can be planted over every square inch. I think of all the small critters that wander these paths from small woodlot to woodlot. On my way to town I’m watching bulldozers take out trees and level the humps … smoke twisting out of the piles of debris … muddy waters carving a path to the ditch.

Lots and lots of them here in south-central Kentucky, Gene. Row crops are taking over every bit of arable land that’s not too steep to drive a combine on. The only counterbalance are the hay-makers, they at least keep the land in grass, although they have a hard time making a profit on it. That’s why I don’t mind buying my hay, it supports the guys who are keeping good farmland from being torn up and poisoned.

As a boy traveling from our home in New Ulm mn up to central minnesota to see the relatives I always wanted to stop and get out and explore all the old farmsteads we passed and to know there stories. Then I grew up and learned about tresspassing laws… It is sad to me to think about the fate of so many of what were once fine places to live and grow up. Some years back i received a book you might like called Death of the Dream by William Gabler. They also did a pbs special about it. Anyway most of the houses and farms pictured are in Southern MN —Maybe some youve seen some of them when you lived there.

Living in the heart of the Appalachians where corn was never king, except to fill a mash pot and make whiskey, we have a different encroachment on former human residences. The woods take them back. This is a mostly forested area and when not tended for agricultural purposes the forest returns. So our old abandoned farmsteads tend to be quickly occupied by a regenerating forest, where it can compete with alien invasive botanical species. I also find those paintings and photographs of old abandoned farms depressing, which is click past melancholy. I see them and think of the Ma, Pa and apple pie that rural life was about when we were young Gene. I have craved that wholeness in family and connection to the land all my life. It is extremely difficult to actualize in this day and time for reasons Wendell wrote about decades ago and still does in the undercurrent of his thinking and expression now. If there were any reward to the social sciences for clear and honest understanding of real life in rural America we would have a greater agreement between empirical data and art. Art is difficult to marginalize, reduce and dismiss. I’m glad there are artist still reacting creatively to our rural world. You are one of those my friend and I thank you for what you do. Warm Salute, Jason Rutledge

Gene, may I suggest that you investigate the photographic work of Maxwell McKenzie whose books “Abandoned” and America Ruins” depict in brilliant photos the abandoned schools and homes in northwestern Minnesota.  McKenzie’s website has many good photos that you would enjoy.  I am the crazy man about whom you wrote a story for Rodale’s Small Farming magazine forty years ago.  I have a farm and retirement home here in Henry County, Kentucky, and am trying to complete a book on Wendell’s father and the Brley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association he headed for almost a half century.  I enjoy your blog immensely. Tom Grissom

So true…as always.

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