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Things of the Spirit

Art and Healing in the American Body Politic, 1929-1941

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George Van Cleve Speer

In the 1930s, the crises brought about by the Depression, climatic devastation, and the rearmament of Europe led Americans from all walks of life to believe that capitalism and technology had synthesized into a monstrous force that threatened the human race. And yet, this chaotic decade also witnessed an unprecedented level of support, both rhetorical and institutional, for the importance of art in the lives of everyday Americans. This book investigates that paradox, asking why, when simple survival presented its own obstacles, our historically pragmatic culture began to define art as a necessity rather than a luxury. To answer this question, the book traces the symbolism of the embattled and recuperative body across a broad spectrum of American culture in the Machine Age. The book situates this symbolism within the commentary of artists, novelists, critics, and educators who trusted in the power of artistic expression and the experience of art to restore the health of the body politic.

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Chapter Two: Back to the Garden: Regionalism, Manly Men, and the Madonna of the Meadow 69

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• 2 • Back to the Garden: Regionalism, Manly Men, and the Madonna of the Meadow In 1936, the Texas regionalist painter Alexander Hogue created Mother Earth Laid Bare (Figure 30), a painting that captured the ravages of the Dustbowl through the image of a woman violated by predators. “Mother Earth” has the greenish pallor of a corpse, subtly distin- guishing her body from the bone–colored land around; in the fore- ground, the instrument of her violation—the “plow that broke the plains” in Pare Lorentz’s documentary of the same year—lies idle. Fig. 30 Alexandre Hogue, Erosion No.2–Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, o/c The empty yoke takes on the aspect of an unbalanced scale, as if to suggest a day of judgment. Nothing lives within the visual frame, where cold, dry skies and windblown trees echo the contorted fur- rows of ruined land. In this and other works on the theme, Hogue wished to describe the “terrifying,” and yet “beautiful,” effects of the drought.1 At the same moment in the Midwest, Grant Wood, a member of the “Holy Trinity” of regionalists that included Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, painted his home state of Iowa very differ- ently. Spring Turning, also from 1936 (Figure 31), depicted a heartland untouched by drought and dust storms. Where Hogue’s image is di- agnostic, brutal in its condemnation of thoughtless farming practices, Wood’s painting is therapeutic. It envisions a restored fecundity, a re- vived embrace of “Mother Earth” signaled in the exaggerated...

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