Artists stopped showing us the truth about farming and it’s hurting the planet

The art of farming never evolved.
The art of farming never evolved.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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There’s a staggering gulf between the food that we eat and our concept of where it comes from—and the art world is partly to blame.

A walk down virtually any grocery store aisle is an exhibition of its own, with no shortage of imagery depicting rolling farmlands peppered with happy cows, chickens, and pigs that blithely graze beneath harmonious brand names. Cascadian Farms. Hillshire Farm. Fair Oaks Farms. Pilgrim’s Pride. Perdue Farms. Sanderson Farms. Wayne Farms.

The list goes on. But don’t be fooled by it.

A lack of agrarian realism over the last 50 years has further separated us from the realities of our vast and complicated food system, and it’s harmful to people living on a planet experiencing a growing climate crisis.

The United Nations has estimated that, on a global level, the agricultural system pollutes about as much as the entire transportation sector—including all the cars, trains, trucks, ships, and airplanes that are constantly belching emissions into the warming atmosphere. It’s a far cry from the bucolic scenes frequently depicted on egg cartons, canned corn, and packages of ground meat.

In his 1948 painting “Christina’s World,” Andrew Wyeth painted a scene that feels like a sharp departure from more typical agrarian landscapes. A woman in a light-pink dress appears to have fallen in a field, and is crawling through the high grass back toward a distant farm house. According to a description offered on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it hangs, the woman was Wyeth’s neighbor, crippled by polio and immortalized in a style known as magic realism.

Staring at “Christina’s World” today, it seems to reflect our modern relationship with farms and the people who work on them. According to the US Census Bureau, 80% of Americans live in dense urban and suburban areas. And so it isn’t such a stretch to see ourselves in the woman—so far away from the places that provide our food, places that are mentally and emotionally distant and often seem out of reach.

Wyeth’s work was created at the tail-end of a movement in American art called social realism, which is marked by its commentary on the social, economic, and political situation during the Great Depression. Within that style exists a branch of work called American Regionalism, which highlighted American life and landscapes—almost all painted in a naturalist style—that often showed just how difficult farm life could be. Thomas Hart Benton, for instance, traveled the country painting agrarian scenes. His 1945 painting “Cotton Pickers” draws attention to the unjust economic reality and backbreaking labor endured by cotton pickers in rural Georgia.

The artists working on agrarian art today are still painting those same fields the social realists were drawn to back in the 1930s and 1940s. But you can argue that the art form evolved in an unsettling way. The social realists were brave in that they drew attention to the back-breaking work carried out by farm laborers, often under an oppressive summer sun. Today, contemporary painters rarely include those laborers because, in many cases, they truly are no longer there. And that’s just as stark an image, because it’s representative of how humanity is removed from the food system in favor of increased mechanization. Tractors and farm technology today use artificial intelligence to manage massive crops, and the consolidation of animal agriculture into massive farming operations has helped to create an opaque system that’s out of sight and out of mind to an increasingly non-rural population.

It was during this period of change that agrarian art stopped reflecting reality, explains Amanda Mobley Guenther, a curator at the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Nebraska. Bone Creek claims to be the only exclusively agrarian art museum in the United States.

“After the social realism movement, which had its height in the 1940s, we had the 1960s, which had other social movements taking precedence,” Mobley Guenther says. “In the 1960s and 1970s there were all these other things going on, at least in American art history.”

Back in rural America, meanwhile, a farming crisis was underway. A huge number of small family farmers were bought out by massive corporate farms, replacing family-run operations that had been handed down from generation to generation. But artists weren’t there to document those changes, and their lack of commentary on the subject has the American popular imaginings of farm life stuck in the mid-century.

“I think Americans want to have those idealized and romanticized ideas,” Mobley says. “There are plenty of artists making gorgeous pictures of landscapes and farms.”

But those scenes don’t reveal the reality of how harmful these new production methods can be for the climate. Americans are eating more meat than ever, much of it sourced from large and unsustainable systems. By some estimates, beef, in particular, requires 28 times more land, 11 times more water, and winds up pumping five times more emissions into the environment than other animal protein. And when production of it is compared to vegetables and grains, the impact of beef per calorie is even more intense.

Some people are clued into this reality. They’ve incorporated Meatless Mondays into their dietary regimen or have figured out other ways to avoid eating meat. But there are far more people who aren’t aware of how unsustainable the industrial meat system is. They don’t know how it operates, and can’t visualize what it even looks like.

Several curators will point out the obvious, that for agrarian painters who make a living off their artwork, there just isn’t much of a market for the macabre scenes of today’s feedlots and crammed chicken houses. And that’s a commentary on its own. At some point, the way we make our food became so consolidated and so grotesque that people stopped wanting to see it, even in art form. There are some cases of photography exploring the topic, including in a 2016 New York Times Magazine section on farming, but examples are few and far between.

It’s this distance that creates the problem. We enjoy easy access to foods that require so much energy and pollution for safe and efficient consumption, but we have such little understanding of it.

Art is a reflection of humanity. It helps us understand ourselves—our beauty and our scars—and also the world in which we live. There’s nothing picturesque about how most people are fed today, but you wouldn’t know it from our grocery packaging, or from popular culture, or from the myths we’ve created in our own minds about where our food comes from.

Where are the artists? We need them.