A still lake. An orchard row. A sunset cornhusk. A floured wooden slab.
To a slew of young “creatives” who are choosing to stay put in midwestern cities (or return to them from coastal forays) images like these are the new signs of the midwest. These curated glimpses into simple, natural scenes constitute a well-intentioned departure from the midwest’s fast-food-eating, big-box-shopping, casserole-baking reputation. By visually refashioning the region into a pristine natural playground in digital and print media, they seem to say, “Look, coastal snobs! The midwest, too, has beauty!”
Indeed, the images are beautiful. The lake and the orchard are serene, inviting, captured in their perfect light. The husks and the slab are exalted objects, taken from mere household function into a realm of pure aesthetic form.
But something gets lost in this new midwest aesthetic—the region’s specificity, its lived cultures, the diversity of its people and scenes. What is purported to identify and define the midwest in fact feels indistinct. Latching onto a now-mainstream trend of #authentic living, these images’ insistence on simple, classic beauty whitewashes a midwest that could be shown in more multifaceted, and perhaps more interesting, lights.
For at least a decade now, we have seen the rise of “authenticity” as a style. New Yorkers invest in work boots, Carhartt jackets, and utility bags, elevating a downhome American sense of practicality into a citydweller’s luxury. The clothing trend matches a move in photography and advertising toward rustic simplicity. (Think Kinfolk magazine, which has become a touchstone for designers and creative directors.) For midwestern media to take up this style, which was to some extent already a romanticization of their region, is to peddle in an “authenticity” that was projected onto the heartland by coastal borrowers in the first place. And it is to broadcast not a place but a style.
What gets lost in that stylization is people—the kin and the folk. Who are the people at the lake—and who didn’t make it there that day? Who are the people visiting the orchard—and who owns it, who tends it, who buys the fruits of their labor? Who is husking the corn and preparing the meal? In replacing one image of the midwest with a supposedly more appealing one, the promoters of this new aesthetic leave out the specific identities, relationships, and stories that make up midwestern communities.
– Midwest native, Lindsay Welsch, currently lives in Bloomington, In. where she teaches freshman writing as a visiting lecturer at the Indiana University. She received her PHD in english in May 2015.