American society seems to have lost its old prejudices against farmers since the hick and hayseed days and in fact the small, local variety is probably being canonized more than we deserve. But the class conflict between city and country is still around. The whole simplistic political division between so-called red and blue states has its roots in that ancient mistrust and misunderstanding between farm culture and city culture, or what I prefer to call it now, old culture and new culture. The fact that both town and country people live about the same today doesn’t deter the prejudices. Educated people, especially with advanced degrees, still view those who don’t go to college with veiled disdain while the uneducated still strike back and ridicule college graduates for their presumed lack of practical knowledge.
Sometimes however the intellectual snobbery towards farmers gets even more absurd than the blue collar contempt for “egghead” PhDs. I got a letter recently from a newly-graduated art student who is also a farm girl. She sent along a passage from a book that I am not going to quote directly because what the author says is ridiculous and he may not have meant what it sounds like he meant, or would like to qualify it. The book is about landscape art, and the author says in passing that “agricultural workers” tend not to like art depicting natural settings because they associate the fields with hard work and the seacoasts with the danger of storms. More disturbing, one of the art graduate’s professors said he agreed with the author.
I try to think of an instance where he might be correct. The best I can come up with are migrant workers harvesting tomatoes in the sweltering sun while being referred to as “greasers” by the natives. But no, not even that works very well because I have picked tomatoes in the hot sun, once right along side migrant laborers, and I still love landscape paintings more than any other kind. I am sure that the migrants, being like most other humans, enjoy landscape paintings too if they have any interest in art at all. (One of them I worked with was putting his children through college on money earned picking tomatoes.) In my experience, the people who don’t like landscape paintings are very urban in their backgrounds and prefer abstract art in all its many forms.
So why would an artist-author suggest that “agricultural workers” don’t appreciate landscape art (and by innuendo, don’t understand art)? Having written The Mother of All Arts, in which I suggest that all art is rooted in the farming experience, I am obviously prejudiced about this subject. But I know, just from the agony of getting that book into print, that much of the art world does not at all appreciate yokels like me suggesting that the struggle between man and nature to produce food is the source of a very significant portion of human art. No way, say my critics. Cities are the cauldron out of which art bubbles and spews and yokels like me should stick to writing about how to grow corn. (Honest, I was told that.) I could see that prejudice especially when Andrew Wyeth, who almost always painted farm fields and coastlines and the people who dwelt there, became one of the premier painters of the 20th century. The art elitists just couldn’t stand it when millions of people from all over the world, especially rural people, made Wyeth one of our most beloved artists. The urban art enclaves rose in wrath and ridiculed his paintings, sometimes in surprisingly nasty terms. They were, I’m sure, really ridiculing all of us “agricultural workers” who love his landscapes. They knew that Andrew’s grandfather made his living operating a farm supply store and his father, N.C. Wyeth, also a celebrated artist but belittled by the urban art world, chose to live and work on a farm.
What is an “agricultural worker” anyway? We certainly don’t call ourselves by that label. We are cattlemen, cowboys, grain farmers, market gardeners, dairymen, hog producers, corn growers, and contrary sonsabitches. I don’t know any farmer who refers to his help as “agricultural workers”. Employees maybe, or hired help, or machine operators or assistants. I have a suspicion that “agricultural worker” is just a veiled urban euphemism for sodbuster, hayseed, redneck or greaser. And of course rednecks and greasers might know how to grow corn or pick tomatoes, but they sure don’t know anything about art, right?