I’ve been reading and writing a lot about John Steuart Curry and the Rural Arts Program he was involved in for a paper I am preparing. The Rural Arts Program was run by Curry and John Rector Barton – a rural sociologist at Madison and the director of the Farm Short Course. Curry and Barton established the program to enhance rural culture.
Beginning at the start of the 21st century, there was increasing concern for the state of rural culture in America. The various concerns found their voice in the Country Life movement. The Country Life movement sought to improve rural child education, roads, and vocational education.
Assessing the impact of the Country Life movement is difficult. For one thing, the goal of many reformers was to slow the migration of young people to the cities. This never occurred, and rural populations continue to dwindle. On the other hand, reformers achieved many of the concrete reforms they desired. Wisconsin has some of the best rural roads in the country, and we have the Country Life movement to thank for it.
Though it might be easy to argue that Country Life reformers were misguided agrarian romantics, I’m inclined to believe that their efforts were not in vain. Everything about my life has been influenced by them. Both of my parents grew up on dairy farms, and attended state university agricultural programs. I benefitted from growing up with college educated parents, and got a solid education at a rural school. The fact remains that there are and will continue to be people living in rural areas that need good education and roads. Though some of the rhetoric behind the impetus for rural reform might be tinged with romanticism, there remains a very real need for a thriving rural culture.
The same questions are applicable to Curry’s art and his work with the rural arts program. It is easy to see his paintings and the paintings of rural artists that he encouraged as hopelessly romantic. When compared with the shocking and blatantly challenging work of his modernist contemporaries, Curry’s work is easily mistakable as charming and tame.
Even in a picture as tame as his 1940 Donald Rockview Farm, there is a great deal of history. The picture features and idyllic farm scene with a landmark rock formation in the background. The farm depicted was owned by John Sweet Donald, who was a professor in agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin and a progressive politician.