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Great Educator: Grant Wood; Revolt Against the City 1891 to 1942

Grant DeVolson Wood was an American painter, art theorist and teacher who lived February 13, 1891 February 12, 1942.  One year after joining the faculty at the University of Iowa, Grant Wood wrote a statement outlining his basic principles of art.

Grant Wood

The title of the essay, ‘Revolt Against the City,’ underlines its rhetorical promotion of regionalism, a movement to which artists all over the United State must, according to Wood, dedicate themselves in order to avoid a ‘colonial’ dependency on European tradition.

He felt that the rural Midwest farmer’s life, dress, and setting, would provide the richest kind of material for a truly indigenous regionalist style. ‘Revolt Against the City’ appeared as the first of four pamphlets edited and independently published in Iowa City in 1935 by Frank Luther Mott, a renowned journalism professor and historian of the press. These are excerpts from it:

The present revolt against the domination exercised over art and letters and over much of our thinking and living by Eastern capitals of finance and politics brings up many considerations that ought to be widely discussed. It is no isolated phenomenon, and it is not to be understood without consideration of its historical, social and artistic backgrounds.

In literature, though by no means new, the exploitation of the ‘provinces’ has increased remarkably; the South, the Middle West, the Southwest have at the moment hosts of interpreters whose Pulitzer-prize works and best sellers direct attention to their chosen regions. In drama, men like Paul Gree, Lynn Riggs, and Jack Kirkland have been succeeding in something that a few years ago seemed impossible – actually interesting Broadway in something besides Broadway.

In painting there has been a definite swing to a like regionalism; and this has been aided by such factors as the rejection of French domination, a growing consciousness of the art materials in the distinctively rural districts of America, and the system of PWA art work. These developments have correlations in the economic swing toward the country, in the back-to-theland movement ‘- that social phenomenon which Mr Ralph Borsodi calls the ‘flight’ from the city.

In short, America has turned introspective. Whether or not one adopts the philosophy of the ‘America Self-Contained’ group, it is certain that the Depression Era has stimulated us to a re-evaluation of our resources in both art and economics, and that this turning of our eyes inward upon ourselves has awakened us to values which were little known before the grand crash of 1929 and which are chiefly non-urban…. But one does not need to be an isolationist to recognize the good which our artistic and literary secession from Europe has done us.

Grant Wood 2

For example, until fifteen years ago it was practically impossible for a painter to be recognized as an artist in America without having behind him the prestige of training either in Paris or Munich, while today the American artist looks upon a trip to Europe as any tourist looks upon it – not as a means of technical training or a method of winning an art reputation, but as a valid way to get perspective by foreign travel. This is a victory for American art of incalculable value.

The long domination of our own art by Europe, and especially by the French, was a deliberately cultivated commercial activity – a business – and dealers connected with the larger New York galleries played into the hands of the French promoters because they themselves found such a connection profitable. Music, too, labored under similar difficulties. Singers had to study in Germany or Italy or France; they had to sing in a foreign language, and they even had to adopt German or Italian or French names if they were to succeed in opera. In literature the language relationship made us subject especially to England.

The whole of the nineteenth century was one long struggle to throw off that domination – a struggle more or less successful, but complicated in these later years by a continuation of the endless line of lionizing lecture tours of English authors and by the attempt to control our culture by the Rhodes scholarships which have been so widely granted. Inevitable though it probably was, it seems nevertheless unfortunate that such art appreciation as developed in America in the nineteenth century had to be concentrated in the large cities. For the colonial spirit thereby was given full rein and control.  The dominant factor in American social history during the latter part of that century is generally recognized as being the growth of large cities….

This urban growth, whose tremendous power was so effective upon the whole of American society, served, so far as art was concerned, to tighten the grip of traditional imitativeness, for the cities were far less typically American than the frontier areas whose power they usurped.  Not only were they the seats of the colonial spirit, but they were inimical to whatever was new, original, and alive in the truly American spirit….

The feeling that the East, and perhaps Europe, was the true goal of the seeker after culture was greatly augmented by the literary movement which Mr Van Doren once dubbed “the revolt against the village. Such books as ‘Spoon River Anthology’ and ‘Main Street’ brought contempt upon the hinterland and strengthened the cityward tendency. H L Mencken’s urban and European philosophy was exerted in the same direction. But sweeping changes have come over American culture in the last few years.

The Great Depression has taught us many things, and not the least of them is self-reliance. It has thrown down the Tower of Babel erected in the years of false prosperity; it has sent men and women back to the land; it has caused us to rediscover some of the old frontier virtues. In cutting us off from traditional but more artificial values, it has thrown us back upon certain true and fundamental things which are distinctively ours to use and to exploit. We still send scholars to Oxford, but it is significant that Paul Engle produced on his scholarship one of the most American volumes of recent verse. Europe has lost much of its magic…

…The depression has also weakened the highly commercialized New York theatre; and this fact, together with the wholesome development of little theatres, may bring us at last an American drama. For years our stage has been controlled by grasping New York producers. The young playwright or actor could not succeed unless he went to New York.

Grant Wood

For commercial reasons, it was impossible to give the drama any regional feeling; it had little that was basic to go on and was consequently dominated by translations or reworkings of French plays and by productions of English drawing-room comedies, often played by imported actors. The advent of the movies changed this condition only by creating another highly urbanized center at Hollywood. But we have now a revolt against this whole system – a revolt in which we have enlisted the community theatres, local playwriting contests, some active regional playwrights, and certain important university theatres.

Music (and perhaps I am getting out of my proper territory here, for I know little of music) seems to be doing less outside of the cities than letters, the theatre, and art. One does note, however; local music festivals, as well as such promotion of community singing as that which Harry Barnhardt has led.

…Because of this new emphasis upon native materials, the artist no longer finds it necessary to migrate even to New York, or to seek any great metropolis. No longer is it necessary for him to suffer the confusing cosmopolitanism, the noise, the too intimate gregariousness of the large city.

True, he may travel, he may observe, he may study in various environments, in order to develop his personality and achieve backgrounds and a perspective; but this need be little more than incidental to an educative process that centers in his own home region. The great central areas of America are coming to be evaluated more and more justly as the years pass. They are not a Hinterland for New York; they are not barbaric…

There is, of course, no ownership in artistic subject matter except that which is validated by the artist’s own complete apprehension and understanding of the materials. By virtue of such validation, however, the farm and village matter of a given region would seem peculiarly to belong to its own regional painters. This brings up the whole of the ancient moot question of regionalism in literature and art….

…Occasionally I have been accused of being a flag-waver for my own part of the country. I do believe in the Middle West – in its people and in its art, and in the future of both – and this with no derogation to other sections. I believe in the Middle West in spite of abundant knowledge of its faults. Your true regionalist is not a mere eulogist; he may even be a severe critic. I believe in the regional movement in art and letters (comparatively new in the former though old enough in the latter); but I wish to place a narrow interpretation on such regionalism. There is, or at least there need be, no geography of the art mind or of artistic talent or appreciation.

But painting and sculpture do not raise up a public as easily as literature, and not until the break-up caused by the Great Depression has there really been an opportunity to demonstrate the artistic potentialities of what some of our Eastern city friends call ‘the provinces’. Let me try to state the basic idea of the regional movement. Each section has a personality of its own, in physiography, industry, psychology.

Thinking painters and writers who have passed their formative years in these regions will, by care-taking analysis, work out and interpret in their productions these varying personalities. When the different regions develop characteristics of their own, they will come into competition with each other; and out of this competition a rich American culture will grow. It was in some such manner that Gothic architecture grew out of competition between French towns as to which could build the largest and finest cathedrals.

And indeed the French Government has sponsored a somewhat similar kind of competition ever since Napoleon’s time. The germ of such a system for the United States is to be found in the art work recently conducted under the PWA (Public Works Administration). This was set up by geographical divisions, and it produced remarkable results in the brief space of time in which it was in operation. I should like to see such encouragement to art work continued and expanded. The Federal Government should establish regional schools for art instruction to specially gifted students in connection with universities or other centres of culture in various sections.

Grant Wood

In suggesting that these schools should be allied with the universities, I do not mean to commit them to pedantic or event strictly academic requirements. But I do believe that the general liberal arts culture is highly desirable in a painter’s training. The artist must know more today than he had to know in former years. My own art students, for example, get a general course in natural science – not with any idea of their specializing in biology or physics, but because they need to know what is going on in the modern world.

The main thing is to teach students to think, and if they can, to feel. Technical expression, though important, is secondary; it will follow in due time, according to the needs of each student. Because of this necessity of training in the liberal arts, the Government art schools should be placed at educational centres. The annual exhibits of the work of schools of this character would arouse general interest and greatly enlarge our American art public.

A local pride would be excited that might rival that which even hard-headed business men feel for home football teams and such enterprises. There is nothing ridiculous about such support; it would be only a by product of a form of public art education which when extended over a long period of time, would make us a great art-loving nation…. …I am willing to go so far as to say that I believe the hope of a native American art lies in the development of regional art centers and the competition between them. It seems the one way to the building up of an honestly art conscious America.

It should not be forgotten that regional literature also might well be encouraged by Government aid. Such ‘little’ magazines as Iowa’s Midland (now unfortunately suspended), Nebraska’s Prairie Schooner, Oklahoma’s Space, Montana’s Frontier might well be subsidized so that they could pay their contributors. A board could be set up which could erect standards and allocate subsidies which would go far toward counteracting the highly commercialized tendencies of the great eastern magazines.

But whatever may be the future course of regional competitions, the fact of the revolt against the city is undeniable. Perhaps but few would concur with Thomas Jefferson’s characterisation of cities as ‘ulcers on the body public’; but, for the moment at least, much of their lure is gone. Is this only a passing phase of abnormal times ? Having at heart a deep desire for a widely diffused love for art among our whole people, I can only hope that the next few years may see a growth of non-urban and regional activity in the arts and letters.

Grant Wood, Revolt Against the City, Art in Theory 1900 – 1990, 1992, iSBN: 06311655754

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