Fragments of the Cultural Whole

by Jonathan Wright

The Inland Visual Studies Center keeps the Midwest front and center in the global dialogue on culture.

At times derided as “flyover country,” the Midwest is often overlooked as a center of artistic activity in the United States. Yet one need not look hard to find a wealth of creativity outside of New York and Los Angeles, the traditional epicenters of American culture. Likewise, no examination of our national identity, cultural or otherwise, can be complete without understanding the rich tapestry of regional cultures it encompasses.

From music and literature to architecture and design, the Midwest plays a critical role in American culture—ensuring this does not go unnoticed is the mission of the Inland Visual Studies Center. A partnership among several Midwestern universities, the IVSC works to posit “a more authentic and complex cultural identity of Middle America, and by extension, a nation that is ill-conceived as artistically homogeneous or monolithic.” Through its symposia, artists in residence, exhibitions and other programs, the IVSC works to keep the Midwest front and center in a cultural dialogue that extends around the world and back.

Paul Krainak, chair of the art department at Bradley University, leads the IVSC in this mission. An Illinois native himself, Krainak came to Bradley in 2006 after spending time in Chicago; New York City; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Morgantown, West Virginia; his experiences having left him keenly attuned to the regional differences that comprise America’s “melting pot” of culture.

Stereotypes & Subtleties
In particular, the two decades Krainak spent in Morgantown sparked his interest in the concept of a regional approach to culture. “After living in West Virginia for 20 years, one becomes acutely aware of the stereotypes of a region,” he explains. In 1995, he helped curate After Appalachia, an exhibition that looked at a range of artists whose work was shown all over the country, but who chose to live and work in rural Appalachia. “We examined the influence of folk art and the ‘ordinary’ experience of living in small towns… We talked about how stereotypes about where they live inhibit their ability to be recognized as serious artists, but also offer a certain amount of cache, because they’re ‘remote’ and ‘exotic.’”

This sensitivity to regional culture continued to develop after he arrived at Bradley. “When I got to the Midwest, I thought, that exists here too, but in a very different way. People don’t think there’s a lot of art in the Midwest because they think real life is elsewhere. We don’t have mountains. We don’t have oceans or deserts. We don’t have tropical landscapes.”

No matter where you live, he explains, you’re affected by your environment. “But here, the environment can seem too subtle to be very impactful. Everything is taken over by agriculture, which is very practical, and not very inspiring to most people. The sense of absence is palatable. But that absence, if you’re a Zen poet, that’s beautiful… We make something out of nothing, in some sense.”

It’s the subtleties of the Midwestern landscape that are “absolutely, profoundly beautiful,” Krainak says. “We also have this episodic weather that’s so dramatic—huge storms that last for days, unbelievably pounding winters… And we have skies like nowhere else in the country. It’s more present than it is in other places, and it changes all the time. If you’re in the mountains, you have to crane your neck to see the sky, but here, the skies are truly horizontal. In Morgantown, it was so dark at night because of the mountains… There was no horizontal light, and for me, it was claustrophobic.”

Midwestern Sensibility
From Kansas City to Minneapolis to Chicago, the Midwest has been a “phenomenally productive” place, says Krainak, not only in manufacturing and agriculture, but also in the arts. As the IVSC examines the nature of what qualifies conceptually as “Midwestern,” its intent is not to imply a universal aesthetic, but to place the region into a broader context, shining a light into corners that may have been neglected by the dominant arbiters of modern culture.

“We tend to focus on coastal culture almost exclusively, whether it’s popular culture or fine art, and that’s a problem,” he explains. “The work we tend to present as the ‘finest’ and the ‘greatest’ tends to be work that is the most marketable… That’s what keeps the Midwest a little off the radar.”

Artists gravitate to New York or Los Angeles not because those cities are inherently richer culturally, but simply because “that’s where the markets are,” says Krainak. “All of the biggest auction houses are in New York; all the big media outlets are in New York and L.A. But I’ve always believed that the most interesting art—the art that doesn’t get enough attention—is the stuff that’s not supported extremely well by the ‘art industry.’”

The IVSC is not antagonistic to coastal culture, he says, it simply wants to demonstrate that new cultural ideas can indeed be developed here. “When people begin to self-describe themselves as not being culturally significant… it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This really is about getting that message out: that you don’t have to go somewhere else to succeed or to ‘find yourself.’ You have a sensibility that can be developed right here.”

A Model for Visual Production
Krainak cites several examples of contributions to American culture that were born and bred in the Midwest. “If you think of the two most profound, culture-changing movements that have occurred in the United States, it’s our architecture and our music, specifically blues and jazz,” he says. “And where did they really take root and begin to get developed? It was this corridor between the Great Lakes and the Gulf.

“I ask my students to consider what it is about where they live that was able to produce these things. What sort of sensibilities do you share just from living in the same space? Do you see that music differently? Do you see that architecture differently?”

Architecture, in particular, offers a great model for visual production, Krainak says. “I think it leads in terms of being impactful on the whole culture. Not only is it there for everyone to use, it’s there all the time—it’s not hiding. It’s not secluded in a gallery space.” And its impact, he adds, is all the more profound against the flat Midwestern landscape. “Here, the things that emerge and ascend to the sky… It’s not trees and mountains—it’s architecture,” he explains. “How can that not affect the way you think?”

He points to a photograph of an old grain elevator, calling it aninspiration. “It even kind of looks like a contemporary museum,” he muses. “Early modernist architects were obsessed with them as objects. [They] took ideas from machines and functional architecture.” Likening the Midwest to a neutral canvas, he notes that its great architects—Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan—reflected the subtleties of the landscape in their designs. The same abstracted sensibilities can be found in Krainak’s own paintings, which employ clean, simple lines in grid-like patterns, not unlike an architectural draft.

“In the Midwest, my relationship to nature is nowhere near as profound as it is to architecture,” he continues, “because that’s what I interact with, that’s what influences me. And it was designed here, and exported everywhere else.”

Between National and Niche
In light of today’s high-tech, global mash-up culture, those things that make a region unique, whether in the arts or otherwise, are all the more valuable. While the Internet ensures broad access to diverse cultures all over the world—surely a good thing—its tendency to effect cross-cultural amalgamation threatens to homogenize the very aspects of culture that set regions apart from one another. That’s why the home-grown cultivation of cultural assets is so important.

“Globalism is only productive if there are numerous cultural zones that are healthy and self-sustaining,” says Krainak, likening visual culture to agriculture. “If we want a healthy environment, we don’t just grow one crop all over the country—we pay attention to indigenous growth. That should be the case for culture, too. We should develop the things that are intrinsic to our unique histories. If there’s vital indigenous activity in cultural zones across the United States, then the whole country will be culturally healthy—and have a fuller identity.”

Paradoxically, even as the same restaurants, hotel chains and retail stores now dot every town across the country, the Internet’s knack for connecting people of like interests has all but killed off mass culture. “We don’t have cultural heroes in the same sense as when I was growing up,” Krainak muses. “Everybody knew who Picasso was—not just people who had an interest in art. They also knew who Liberace was and who Einstein was... People paid attention to the fall of Bobby Fischer—these were culturally significant things. Now, it almost seems like there’s no consensus of who our great cultural leaders are.”

Indeed, from television and film to music and literature, the Internet has dramatically accelerated the splintering of audiences. Although more people are in tune with various aspects of culture than ever before, those audiences are segmented and scattered. “It’s niche culture,” Krainak affirms. “It seems we either have this national culture in which American Idol pretends to create these dramatic cultural heroes, or we have these niche audiences, with their particular heroes… building on Warhol’s idea of being famous for 15 minutes. But there’s something in between that’s missing. When we divide up the country into these cultural zones, I think we’re able to see who speaks for those areas eloquently.”

Building Sense of Place
Today, the Greater Peoria area is engaged in a discussion that’s quite relevant to the mission of the Inland Visual Studies Center. The economic development strategy that’s currently being developed for the region will attempt to build on its indigenous assets to create a unique “sense of place”—but it’s up to all of us to leverage those assets and show them off to the world.

Krainak cites the Prairie Center of the Arts and its artist-in-residence program as one model of how to develop this type of cultural exchange. “They have artists and writers and musicians coming in from numerous countries and all over the United States,” he says. “They’ve created a national audience for Peoria. That does a great deal for people here—to see what’s happening outside the Midwest—and it also supports artists here in Peoria.”

In the end, whether you’re talking art or economics, it’s all about identity. “We have to acknowledge that we’re a country made up of a lot of cultural zones that are different in sensibility and inspiration from one another,” says Krainak. “So let’s see how we can have a conversation about geography and art, and not pretend that we all subscribe to the same idea of what culture is.”

Because the more diverse our cultural identities, the richer we are as a cultural whole. And that remains the aspirational truth of this country, even if it hasn’t always lived up to that high ideal. a&s