Agitcrop! Political Art of the Minnesota State Fair

The Minnesota State Fair's exhibition of crop art is the epitome of democracy: as David Steinlicht, who runs CropArt.com, says, "The art competition in the Fine Arts building is so fierce that your chances of getting in are slim. But a guy with some patience and seeds and glue can get shown, almost 100% of the time." In fact, every submission--unless it breaks one of the very few rules, as one piece, a Jerry Garcia portrait made entirely from hemp seeds, did one year--is hung in the show. Given its radically democratic nature, is the crop-art display--which in recent years has seen an increase in politically themed works--a bellwether of the State of the State?

George W. Bush has been a frequent subject of grain-based art: in 2003, lawyer Laura Melnick created Curious George Looks for Weapons of Mass Destruction. This year the president appears as Popeye, alongside his beloved, and the words "Addicted to Oyl." Another shows Bush's seedy image alongside a passage from the biblical book of Job, "Those who sow trouble, harvest it," and still another is a seed-encrusted cereal box called "Weapons of Mass Distraction." But the critiques take aim elsewhere as well. In 2004, Max Andrews, a British citizen and visiting curator at the Walker Art Center, rendered the Homeland Security terror-alert levels in the seeds abundant in the homeland. And to the dismay of the blog Powerline, one artist in 2004 turned "a cheerful and somewhat goofy craft... to hateful political uses"; "Rightwing pie fling" showed a GOP elephant and a photo of Michele Bachman, leaving viewers to guess the use of said "pies."

But "agit-crop" wasn't the original intent of this artform. While it's only been at the State Fair since the 1960s, the tradition goes back to the middle of the 19th century, when politicians and business leaders in Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas devised ways to lure Easterners to the midwest. To show off the incredible agricultural abundance of the area, they threw festivals and fairs, where gigantic squash and buckets of apples were displayed--along with seed art (the famed Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, is a part of this tradition).

It wasn't until 1989 that things turned political. Cathy Camper, a Minnesota writer and librarian now living in Portland, Oregon, created a crop-art portrait of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia and inspiration for Rastafarians. In following years, her images honored Che Guevara (above), Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, and others. Part of her goal was to use the forum of the fair, with its thousands of visitors, to present ideas and icons that'd make people think. "I don't believe people necessarily see something and suddenly change their politics," she says. "But a lot of times, I've done a portrait and someone says, 'I didn't know what that was, but I went and got a book and read about them."

While Camper has generated her share of controversy--her tattoo-like image of a woman, dubbed La Diablita, was yanked from the fair, after winning a ribbon, due to complaints about nudity from visitors--Laura Melnick's work is more viscerally in line with this sentiment about art and politics by Pablo Picasso:

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, or ears if he’s a musician…? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.
Melnick's work has taken on "enemies," to use Picasso's too-harsh terminology, from former Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1999 to a Flintstone-inspired piece targeting Ramsey County Commissioner Dino Guerin to, in seven of her last eight works, George W. Bush. On the other hand, crop art can address the personal to be political: Camper, who is Lebanese-American, recently did a timely portrait of the singer Fairouz, who has sung about peace in the Middle East. "With the bloodshed in Lebanon, all those people who'd died, I felt really sad."

While, like any art, crop art can be biting and humorous, aesthetically pleasing or ugly as, well, canned beans, it's the metaphor that appeals to Camper.

"Seeds engender bigger things. A lot of the people featured in my portraits started out small--they weren't representatives of the power structure--but they grew to be huge. It's corny," Camper says, stopping to laugh at her inadvertant pun, "but the medium really has metaphorical possibility."

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]

1 comment:

Maria Bianchi said...

AGIT-CROP!! That's the best thing I've heard in a long time! I love this art form and can't wait to see this year's selection in real life--its the highlight of the MN State Fair for me (besides "The Old Mill Stream Log Ride" of course). Crop Art combines elements which make up my own midwestern aesthetic: Humor, assemblage, homeliness (in the old-fashioned use of this word--i.e. of the home), born of local objects at-hand, narrative, text and texture, recalling our agrarian roots, a subtle use of color variance, impermanancy (the colors will fade), tradition, and all existing somewhere along the kitsch vs. high art continuum! I especially love Laura Melnick's creative visual puns and twists that pack a punch, allthewhile still making you smile, regardless of your political beliefs. (Although that's just a guess--I happen to be aligned with her political beliefs as far as I can tell, so I guess I really can't make that claim...). But I think the best part about crop art as "agit-crop" is its elemental familiarity and gentleness--we can't be afraid of the lowly spit pea--and so, this lowers one's guard and allows the viewer to be open to the idea expressed. It's not an in your face protest--the mere process takes HOURS--and therefore I believe it is much more effective. And fun. And who can argue with that. Congrats to all of you who got your pieces finished in time. I vow to have one in next year's show--so I better get to work.