CORN PALACES AND BUTTER QUEENS: A History of Crop Art and Dairy Sculpture. By Pamela H. Simpson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2012.
Don’t let the trim size fool you. Corn Palaces and Butter Queens’ large size and splashy cover seems designed to sell in the gift shop at the Mitchell, South Dakota Corn Palace, but Simpson has pulled together a new and serious work of cultural studies. Providing a highly readable narrative of the history and meaning of corn palaces, crop art, and butter sculpture from 1870 to 1930, in its best moments the book details the extent to which these forms of material culture were “testimony to the gospel of progress” (xvi). The book’s main themes trace “democracy and providence,” “modernism and progress,” and most over-archingly, “abundance” in cereal architecture (xix). Loaded with evocative color and black-and-white advertisements, photographs, and line drawings from magazines, Simpson includes images as essential texts, but sadly often refrains from deconstructing them in depth. While very engaging, Corn Palaces rarely confronts current academic debates about nineteenth-century Manifest Destiny and cultures of domestic empire. To this reviewer, the artistic and ideological issues which underlie narratives about abundance and progress in this era are inseparable from the same issues which underlie national expansion. Also, the best analysis here often comes at the end of chapters, or is saved for the conclusion of the book. Chapter five, “Boosters, Saracens, and Indians,” most effectively narrates how butter and corn arts have borne larger expansionist ideologies. But here again, Simpson’s recounting of the Winnebago Indian presence at various Corn Palace celebrations holds out too long in explaining that corn art was consistently rearticulated as “a symbol of white triumph” (135). In the last chapter, “An Ongoing Tradition,” contemporary butter and corn art is blithely celebrated, rather than critiqued within the ongoing agricultural aesthetics of abundance today. Serious, and endemic, agribusiness problems with “King Corn” are also left for the conclusion and even there given short shrift, effectively buttering over the contemporary industrial food problems these types of historical displays and celebrations have clearly been precursors to. Also, for as much time is spent on butter and corn, the author rarely engages issues of the use of these artistic media. What has made corn and butter especially easy or useful media, beyond their clear literal and symbolic abundance in the Midwest? Somewhat understandably, perhaps a more politicized rendering of cereal and butter architectures was minimized for its consumption by a wider popular audience. Nonetheless, Simpson’s focus on women artists and assembly of little-used sources throughout the book is refreshing. Sadly, Corn Palaces and Butter Queens has been released one year after Professor Simpson’s passing. Whatever its flaws, the book’s liveliness seems a fitting tribute to her long career as a valued teacher-scholar.
Erica Hannickel, Northland College