Saturday, July 2, 2011

Corn Fields and Greed: John Steuart Curry

John Steuart Curry, Kansas Corn Field,
1933, Wichita Art Museum.
It has been described as a picture of the heartland, something quaint and invoking of the picturesque; it's none of that, and all one has to do is look at the year to know that this is a scathing critique of big industry propelled by greed.
When Europeans were moving west and settling this great country, they were hungary for land, land they could own and make their own; that was the reason for leaving the "motherland" because it belonged to the rich and it would always belong to the rich.  But as they were settling America, they bypassed that strip of the country from North Dakota down through the Texas panhandle.  Today it is called the Great Plains, but then it was called the American Desert, and the wagon trains just rolled right on past it. When there was no more "good" free land left, then the late-comers started settling in the "American Desert" and changing the landscape.  In 1929, Wall Street collapsed and in 1930 the drought started in the Plains.

Abandoned farm house in Texas during the Great Depression.
Curry painted Kansas Corn Field in 1933, when there had already been 3 years of no rain and severe drought was gripping the country's mid-section.  It wasn't until November of 1933 that the first of the dust storms started, but a Dust Bowl wasn't needed by American artists like John Curry and Grant Wood, they knew what was happening.  "Power farming" had been ripping up the native grasslands of the Plains and replacing it with crops demanding lots of water; coupled with over grazing by various herd animals, the result was catastrophe.
What Curry is showing us in Corn Fields is not what one would call the quaint, rather, a tragedy, and it simply can't be looked at any other way:  the ripe, yellow and green stalks of healthy corn would probably never be on the Plains again, and it was because of man forcing nature to do what it couldn't do, all for the sake of profit.  When we look at photos below, it doesn't even seem like it can be real, the land is so desolate, but Curry offers the other side of this photo:  what the land once was and may never be again.
The Weather Channel recently named the Dust Bowl as the number one
greatest weather disaster to have ever hit the United States.
There is also another side to this "simple" painting:  the American Dream itself.


If you look at it again, and say, but it does seem picturesque, that's probably because it's a picture we have in our mind but not from nature.  Perhaps we are asking too much of the American Dream, if we want those giant stalks of corn, those blue skies and beautiful white clouds where "rain follows the plough," (to quote an old saying of real estate agents trying to sell unfarmable land).
But the stalks also represent the souls who dream the dream, Americans themselves:  they have matured but they haven't started to grow into the cob.  The up front and center-most stalk has it's sheath flying over the "head" of the stalk, and it's suggesting the winds of change sweeping over the American people as the years of the Great Depression kept going and weren't ending. The American has always been, and will always be, the greatest resource of this country; and our own, individual greatest resources are our dreams, but they don't grow in the eroded soil of greed.