Today’s article for our Summer Reading series comes from our friends at Mn Artists. Matthew Fluharty, founder and executive director of Art of the Rural, discusses “the dividing lines between country and city spheres… [and] makes a case for rejecting calcified notions of ‘rural art.’” This article was originally published on July 23, 2015.
Emmet Byrne. Illustration for Mn Artists and Walker Art Center, n.d.
It is significant that the common image of the country is now an image of the past, and the common image of the city an image of the future. That leaves, if we isolate them, an undefined present. — Raymond Williams, The Country and The City
I think about Theocritus a lot these days. Working from the Library of Alexandria in the third century BCE, this Sicilian-born poet was part of a collective effort to build the largest storehouse of knowledge his civilization had yet known. In the midst of this pre-modern, pre-internet project of information aggregation, Theocritus harnessed those texts towards the creation of an enduring kind of cultural and political ars poetica.
Theocritus sat in the halls of the Library and wrote poems—intricately metrical, densely referential—that utilized everyday dialogue to express a complex, national mythos. The presence of this body of work, alternately referred to as the Bucolics or Idylls, can be felt throughout our contemporary experience. In the arts, we might refer to Theocritus as the father of the pastoral genre; in political and cultural spheres, we could point to him as one of the first to put into critical terms a kind of spatial pathology that has continued to persist for two millennia: the notion of center and periphery.
These Idylls operate as a series of dialogues between paired speakers (goatherds, shepherds, nymphs, Pan, etc.), all of which are set against the backdrop of an idealized rural landscape, Arcadia. The brooks echo with the eloquent speech of these men (always men), and an orderly and peaceful flock organizes around their song. Well-turned verse is likened to sound husbandry, which in turn parallels the ideal and orderly organization of the nation. Pastoral scholar Paul Alpers coined this relationship the “representative anecdote”: how the shepherd stands in for the Greek citizen, how the cultivated landscape spreads out in abundance like a well-ordered nation. The Idylls offered a lush political matrix of anxiety and aspiration, achieved, as William Empson famously wrote, by “putting the complex into the simple.” That received tradition continues even now through a thousand avenues, from national parks to new country, from Marfa to farm-to-table to pancake breakfasts along the campaign trail in Iowa.
Read the full article here.