Apart from the overwhelming horizontality of the landscape, the visual space of the Midwest is defined by its architecture, our built environment––grain elevators, office buildings, tract houses, parks, and shopping malls. Just as blues and jazz traveled the Mississippi River corridor to transform American sound space, the legacy of Daniel Burnham and the City Beautiful, the Prairie School, and a revamped inland American Bauhaus created a context for conceiving a visual identity of the Midwest and transformed America’s visual space. Yet this rich cultural history is not generally presented as a critical vantage point for young artists and designers.
Historically, art in many countries draws upon centuries of visual art production. America does not have that resource of time. Instead, our visual culture is largely defined by the doctrine of Modernism, and we have too willingly accepted the belief that the idea of the modern is determined by large metropolitan centers.
Part of the mission of the Inland Visual Studies Center is the rethinking of regional visual culture. Cultural critics have rightly understood for more than a decade that New York City and a few Western European capitals can hardly lay claim to the definition, origins, or current whereabouts of the most progressive art or popular culture. The disciplines of art history and visual studies have recognized that in a post-colonial world there are “other modernisms.”
Geography, remarkably, still has conflicted social impressions in the United States. Art schools all over the country, including some great ones in the Midwest, still teach a regimen of art-making that is defined primarily by New York and now, increasingly, Los Angeles. Despite the fact that artists and ideas have migrated to coastal art capitals from all over the U.S., these cities continue to be the primary arbiters of an artificial, market-driven monoculture that mimics popular culture as depicted in film, television, and advertising. They are the same institutions that stereotype the entire country into red states and blue states and promote Midwesterners as primarily passive audiences and consumers with predictable tastes and lifestyles. The Inland Center, by contrast, promotes visual culture based on the experience of a real place, with complex subjects and
a coherent history.
Although courses are plentiful regarding the architectural significance of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and the design practice of Florence Knoll, Charles Eames, and Herman Miller, few promote the geographic significance of their work. Instead everyone pretends that modernism transcends place. In truth this work has a geographic, economic, and cultural complexity that is staggering, one in which inland America has played a huge role.
Instead of educating artists to look to the coasts because that’s where the markets of artistic ideas are manipulated, we should shine a brighter light on the history of cultural production that exists right here in the heartland of America. It’s not enough to just pay homage to Mies Van de Rohe, one of the masters of the so-called “International Style” of architecture, who settled in Illinois. We need to examine parallel histories of our Midwestern painters, sculptors, printmakers, filmmakers, and artisans. We have to look for multiple patterns of visual production that continue to be relevant for today’s artists, designers, and their audiences in order to consider the aesthetic diversity of the Midwest, often misattributed as homogenous and rural.
For the inaugural Inland Symposium held at Bradley University and the Prairie Center of the Arts in April 2009, we selected writers, administrators, practicing artists, designers, and curators from broad backgrounds who could give us a varied perspective of what an Inland Visual identity or a Midwest creative practice might be. It was an enlightening three days that included academics from our two collaborating institutions, Ohio State University and Washington University in St. Louis, as well as the University of Illinois and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Panelists presented research on topics such as the significance of landscape mapping, suburbia, and agriculture on artists, designers, and teachers. Feedback from artists, scholars, and students was supportive of our mission to begin a dialogue on inland visual identity that is generally overlooked by either academia or the mainstream media.
The influence of the Inland Symposium reached an international audience. Stephanie Smith, director of collections at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, included our mission statement and a photograph of the symposium in the international exhibition catalog titled Heartland in a chapter called “Independent Cultural Infrastructure.” This exhibition was a collaboration between the University of Chicago and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland, that opened at the Smart Museum in October 2009. Curators in the Netherlands wanted a show that revealed the nature of contemporary art and design in middle America because Europeans rarely get a glimpse of the picture. Co-curator Kerstin Niemann asked in her catalog statement, “What is happening in this huge geographic area that is rarely perceived as a cultural center or place of knowledge exchange? How are artists networked in the region and connected to the larger worlds of art?” The answer—universities, like Bradley, are actively supporting regional art and facilitating cultural networks. The Inland Visual Studies Center is one example.
While Modernism identified the city as its subject and cultural laboratory more than a century ago, it is reasonable to assume the 21st century version of progressive visual culture will extend its reach to suburbia, ex-urbia, and rural areas as valid sites of culture. And urban and rural will be redefined as a flexible idea rather than a firm reality. This is good news for a region with an expansive rural and suburban footprint, a profound history of fine and applied art, and artists who reflect the life of a real place rather than a stream of expendable and consumable media phantoms.
To theorize a more authentic and complex cultural identity of Middle America and to analyze the Midwest’s contributions to national and global art, a contribution not fully recognized or understood.To theorize a more authentic and complex cultural identity of Middle America and to analyze the Midwest’s contributions to national and global art, a contribution not fully recognized or understood.
Bradley University, Ohio State University, Washington University Department of Art and Architecture; the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum of Art in St. Louis; and the Prairie Center of the Arts, Peoria.
First annual symposium, held April 15–17, 2009, explored the Midwest’s contributions in art and scholarship through lectures, panel discussions, and exhibits.
An exploration of Midwest visual identity will take place on April 22 at the Caterpillar Global Communications Center on the campus of Bradley University.
The Inland Visual Studies Center is supported by the Slane College of Communications at Bradley University and individual donations from the “Friends of Art” society. For additional information, go to: art.bradley.edu/inland.