The Art of the Commonplace Themes

The main themes in The Art of the Commonplace are the connection between land and people, industrialization and exploitation, and Christian stewardship.

  • The connection between land and people: Berry champions the cause of the traditional community and the importance of farmers having a deep understanding of the land they work.
  • Industrialization and exploitation: The industrial capitalist economy exploits both land and people, leading to cultural, spiritual, and environmental ruin.
  • Christian stewardship: For Berry, it is a religious responsibility to actively care for the land, a belief that often goes disregarded in modern Christianity and is in opposition to industrialized agricultural practices.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786

The Connection Between Land and People

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Throughout this collection of essays, Berry takes care to emphasize the fact that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to any agrarian problem. Globalization is a problem that contributes to the malaise of society, because it does not take into account the particular needs and histories of particular areas and communities; it champions uniformity and disregards diversity. When a family has farmed land for generations, however, the land and the community become, to an extent, one. A community cannot exist without roots, which is why the movement of communities out of their rural farmlands and into urban centers has resulted in a sense of rootlessness and, in many cases, the death of the traditional community. In the opening essay in the book, Berry spends a great deal of time discussing the connection he feels to the Kentucky lands where his own family have farmed for generations. At times in the past, his family have mistreated the land, but that was because they did not know it. Farming properly is a long-term endeavor and must be treated as such. Only by knowing the land and being one with it can both land and farmer be healthy.

Berry does not fail to consider the fact that, for many Americans, the connection between land and people can be a difficult concept. It is true that most land that was settled by early colonists was claimed as a result of bloodshed and genocide. But, Berry argues, with later allusions to the Israelites in the Land of Canaan, this makes it all the more important for the land to be treated well now, in the knowledge that it was not deserved in the first place. If land is stolen and then wasted, this simply compounds the initial crime.

Industrialization and Exploitation

Berry's chief criticism of modern American culture, or the industrial economy, is that it is built on exploitation. This, naturally, has roots in its history: where farming was once performed largely by slaves, this meant that the idea of farm labor became demeaned, something that was done by exploited people. As such, the goal became to make things as mechanically run as possible, in order to minimize the amount of time that humans were forced to spend in “drudgery.” Working in the home, increasingly, has come to be seen as exploitative; and yet this is, Berry argues, a lie told to us by a society that simply wishes to exploit us in a different way. When we work on our own farms, for our own food, we serve only ourselves. When we work as cogs in the wheel of the industrial economy, we are exploited by our employers, treated as something close to machines ourselves, while being told that this is progress. Industrialization, according to Berry, concentrates ever more power in the hands of ever fewer and ever wealthier people. It causes us to replace humans with machines, taking away from them the health benefits of fulfilling work, but humans are still treated as if they are machines. Healthcare is a commodity that, like all else in this economy, prioritizes volume and profit over anything else. The disease of modern society has been caused by what it claims is a drive toward “progress,” and until we have ceased to aim for maximum output for minimal cost, we will not cease to abuse the land or other people.

Christian Stewardship

Berry's agrarianism is founded in his Christianity, and interestingly, he argues that most modern Christianity does not actually comprehend what the Bible is asking us to do. For Berry, being “good” involves being an active steward of the world that God has given us. To be good cannot be a passive thing. On the contrary, a good steward is required to learn skills enough to look after their neighbor, farm their land, raise their children, look after their own health and that of others, and nurture the topsoil that is God’s miracle. Berry refers to the Wheel of Life, in which energy is given to us from the earth and is then sustainably consumed and returned to the soil again. Industrialized energy use often does not follow this pattern; it produces waste and does not know where its limits are. Industrialism often causes us, in the pursuit of heroism, to try to turn ourselves into gods, which is itself a blasphemy. As we progress, and our machines become more and more able to mine deeper, farm more intensively, and spread more chemicals, we cease to understand human limitations. As a result, we destroy the world that we have been given instead of preserving it for future generations as we have been asked to do.

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