Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Significance of Midwestern Personality

“For [Grant Wood] believed in truth what has become, in an age of American Empire and global culture, a heresy: Iowa matters.”
--Bill Kauffman

Those final two words are no doubt a scary thought to a fair number of people. “Iowa matters” brings to mind the image of corn, hogs, frustratingly loyal and, dare I say obnoxious, Hawkeye fans, as well as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson vanishing into stalks of corn after playing catch with Kevin Costner. I will admit Iowa is a little different. Drastically different to some. But it is in its uniqueness that Iowa is distinct. It is in the distinct that there is culture.

As we hurdle further into the 21st century we move blindly amidst a largely unnoticed crisis. It is a crisis that jeopardizes our understanding and appreciation of self and community. It is one that endangers our local economies. It is a crisis of identity. In an age where America finds itself globally engaged both economically and militarily, we seek to define what is American. Is it democracy? Is it diversity? Is it New York, Chicago and L.A.? Is it agriculture? Is it Starbucks?

Perhaps we can arrive at an answer by rephrasing the question. What is America? And it is here that we must abandon our need for a single word or image. Some find this frustrating. On the contrary, it is refreshing. To employ the words of Bill Kauffman, “America is the sum of its regions”.  In other words, America isn’t a single place. Yes, Chicago is America. But America isn’t just Chicago. As much as I enjoy the “Second City”, America is far bigger than Cook County and its surrounding suburbs—and to the dismay of many Chicagoans—we are better for it.

No, America is bigger than its epic cities. Much bigger. America is a collection of cultures; each of them unique and dynamic in their own way. Each culture has its own personality, its own character. And each of them provides its own flavor to the American experience. Some enjoyable, others far less desirable. And like most things, appreciation of local flavor is subjective and should not be dictated solely by the oft insensitive and self-proclaimed authority of the cosmopolitan.

Yes, New York is home to the Guggenheim, L.A. to the Getty Center. And Iowa is the origin of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, one of the more iconic paintings of the 20th century. Northern California is home to of America’s classiest Cabernet. And from the vineyards of Northern Illinois comes our finest Frontenac. Chicago and Miami played host to Al Capone, New York City to the “Five Families”. Indiana was the playground of John Dillinger.

In other words, the Midwest—yes, that “archaic” and “backward” region sandwiched between the coastal divine—has its own history and personality. Each culture, whether it is the sophisticated populations of the social elite or the grounded traditions of rural society, is distinct. In the distinct there is beauty. And rather than stifle those rural and sometimes rustic cultures, embrace them. They are America. They matter.

Kauffman, Bill. "Grant Wood and the Promise of American Regionalism." Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists. Wilmington: ISI, 2006. 51-88: 55.