What's the Matter with Kansas - Ch. 4
Folk Art References - MT Liggett and SP Dinsmoore
P. 82 - 85
The two Verns illustrate the changing views of my home state's intellectual class, but an even sharper contrast between the Knasas of old and the right-wing radicalism of today can be found in the state's folk art. Let me take you first to the tiny western Kansas town of Lucas, home to a remarkable sculpture garden illustrating that grandest of subjects, the condition of mankind. Constructed out of concrete in the early years of the twentieth century by an old fellow named J.P. (sic) Dinsmoore, the "The Garden of Eden" mixes biblical stories with the unmistakable political iconography of Populism: Here is Cain, having just slain Abel. There is "Labor Crucified" and surrounded by his tormenters - doctor, lawyer, pracher, and capitalist. Bigger animals eat smaller animals in an endless chain of exploitation and oppression.
The images are blunt, to be sure, but this has not saved them from our American forgetting disease. Visiting the place some years ago, I noticed a sculpture of an octopus grasping at a map of the Americas, with one tentacle reaching menacingly across Panama. For a viewer of the early twentieth century, such a tableau would have been easily recognizable as a left-wing denunciation of the imperial ambitions of the trusts, as obvious as a cartoon from the Kansas Farmer. But the way the caretaker explained it to me, what Dinsmoor had actually done was miraculously anticipate the treasons of the hated Jimmy Carter, who, according to backlash mythology, gave the canal away.
I don't blame the tour guide for this mistake. That a regular guy like J.P. (sic) Dinsmoor would have opposed U.S. imperialism, well, that's simply unthinkable out here; everyone knows that such views are the affectations of latte-drinking rich kids at fancy colleges, while the average working man stands tall for firearm and flag. After all, just look at the equally remarkable array of sculptures constructed by one M.T. Liggett over the last ten years outside the tiny western Kansas town of Mullinville. Liggett, like Dinsmoor, is a man in protest. His art shries at you for almost a mile as you drive by on U.S. Highway 400. It glitters with anger, its hundreds of arms whirling furiously in the unceasing Kansas wind. The sculptures themselves are ingenious grotesques of politicians, cleverly assembled from bits of discarded farm equipment, but there is nothing subltle or obscure about the message. This is the gospel according to Rush Limbaugh rendered in wood and steel, backed up with huge helpings of angry text when the sculptures themselves are insufficient to express the artist's disgust. There's a whirligig marked "Femi-Naze" constructed from old car parts; there's a giant swastika with boots and a blond head captioned "Hillary Clinton / Sieg Heil / Our-Jack-Booted Eve Braun"; there's a hammer and sickle adorning a caricature of that favorite bogeyman of the Gingrich right, the Environmental Protection Agency; and for Limbaugh himself there's a valentine-shaped face sporting the wistful legend "Rush / President 1996 / Only 'Free' Men Speak." A giant screw turns in the breeze and mocks the Clinton health-care plan ("4012 Pages / Liberal Vomit"), while other installations mourn the Branch Davidians and assail James Carville ("You're a Pimp Stupid").
Kiowa County, where Liggett's sculpture farm is situated, is one of the poorer Kansas counties, with a median household income 22 percent below the state average. Like everywhere else in rural Kansas, it has been hit hard in recent years. It lost almost a quarter of its population between 1980 and 2002. Driving around there, I happened upon the world's largest hand-dug well and a church that had been converted into yet another thrift store, but I saw almost no people along hte highways.
There are no caricatures of the economic forces that have done this to Kiowa County in the Liggett display, or, at least, none that I saw. No representations of Monsanto or Archer daniels Midland with horns or gigantic teeth; no Kochtopus tightening its squishy grip around the nation's brainpan. What seems to enrage Kiowa County is the government power that has kept them afloat through their hardship. Nearly 29 percent of the county's total personal income comes in the form of government benefits and other transfer payments; in crop subsidies alone Kiowa County farmers have received $40 million since 1995. And yet what Kiowa County wants - desperately, urgently, if the art of M.T. Liggett is any indication - is for the liberals to pack up their communist EPA and their fascist feminism and their :anti-Christian evolution" and leave them alone. Al Gore received only 18 percent of the vote out here, and in 1992 the county actually voted to secede from Kansas, to be done once and for all with the high-handed ways of those city slickers in Topeka.
"It was his own fault, of course," wrote the historian Vernon L. Parrington of the midwestern farmer's predicament of the 1890s.
Due to his own political slackness the farmer had allowed himself to become the ocmmon drudge of society... While capitalism had been perfecting its machinery of exploitation he had remained indifferent to the fact that he himself was the fattest goose that capitalism was to pluck. He had helped indeed to provide the rope for his own hanging. He had voted away the public domain to railways that were now fleecing him; he took pride in the county-seat towns that lived off his earnings; he sent city lawyers to represent him in legislatures and in Congress; he read middle-class newspapers and listened to bankers and politicians and cast his votes for the policy of Whiggery that could have no other outcome than his own despoiling.
From his impoverished childhood on a farm outside of Emporia, Kansas, Parrington had gained an intimate familiarity with the politics of self-delusion. Out of an almost superstitious loyalty to free-market economics, the Kansas farmers of his boyhood had been accomplices in their own mulcting. The rise of Populism, though, was for Parrington a sort of political epiphany. The people had awakened to reality; the gaseous pieties of laissez-faire were dissipating; and rising to take their place was a newfound :critical realism; characterized by Mary Elizabeth Lease's famous advice to 'raise less corn and more hell.: The farmers had finally become :class-counsious,: Parrington continued:
They were enlisted in a class struggle. They used the vocabulary of realism, and the unctuous political platitudes and sophistries of county-seat politicians rolled off their minds like water from a duck's back. They were fighting a great battle - they believed - against Wall Street and the eastern money-power; they were bent on saving America from the plutocracy; and they swept over the county-seat towns, burying the old machine politicians under an avalanche of votes, capturing state legislatrues, electing Congressmen and Senators, and looking forward to greater power.
Parrington particpated in the farmers' uprising, and when he wrote about it years later in Main Currents in American Thought, his famous history of American letters, he saw in Populism the first glimmerings of some of the great intellectual upheavals of the twentieth century - naturalism, muckraking, and hard-hitting social satire - which would eventually topple the genteel tradition of the nineteenth century. In a peculiar way, Parrington seemed to think, Kansas was one of the birthplaces of literary modernism.
From Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives won the Heart of America", 2004 Metropolitan Books, NY.
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