Rotterdam Study Abroad Seminar: The Invention of the Countryside – A Critical Iconography

This Course is for students in the Rotterdam Study Abroad Program.

This seminar invites students to analyze the political iconography of the countryside. Whereas in reality, the countryside is increasingly industrialized, a massive ruralization can be observed in the city centers and countryside lifestyle magazines. A rural aesthetics of the unwrought, the authentic, and the hand-sawn is spreading in the centers, where waiters in coarse linen shirts serve ecological products with gnarled names; countering the drabness of the city with beards and check shirts, a utopia of the earthy and hands-on is projected. The rituals of this rural bohemian scene from a homogenous middle-class background recall the rituals of the nobility at the court of Louis XVI, who reenacted in the hameau with great dedication the rural life that outside, beyond the palace fence, was happening as miserable reality.

Cars sell better if their design provides off-roady, rugged looks. In public parkings, airports and underpasses, the sounds of waterfalls and cicadas are supposed to create an atmosphere of relaxation and a feeling of security. In supermarkets and in cars, synthetic perfumes are used to evoke the scent of fresh hay or herbs. The promise of the countryside fuels the urban and the suburban aesthetics. At the same time, politicians demand the mandatory residence of refugees in villages, claiming that the countryside was a better place to integrate refugees and to avoid the creation of ghettos in the cities. Yet, the current countryside iconography, the highly aestheticized, and politicized, imagery of the land, has not been systematically described.

The German art Historian Martin Warnke described in his book „Political Landscape“ how the landscape of continental Europe has been politicized for centuries – through interventions in nature in the form of monuments, milestones and border crossings, landscape paintings and plantations. With equal emphasis to aesthetic and economic analysis, student’s research should demonstrate how economic interests shape the ideal image of country life. A counterpart of the abundance of home-carpentered, home-baked, hand-made, and locally harvested goods, of the aesthetics of the local, is a movement of countryside futurists, who believed and still believe the countryside could become a space of experimentation and freedom, of acceleration and resistance to the overly controlled, security-obsessed, ruralized, socially and aesthetically immobilized cities. Dealing with questions of ideology, an important field of research will be landscape and power – examining the ideological undercurrents of how toymakers, car companies and tractor designers, scent experts and fashion designers, food giants and politicians create the contemporary aesthetics of the countryside.