Living in Society

Art in a Life

Art and art history books, Dec. 14, 2022.

Most Iowans don’t value art like that displayed at the University of Iowa. Increased public awareness of this attitude is part of the coarsening of Iowa culture in its current wave of neoliberalism. As a writer, how should art and art history be incorporated into my work? Should they be?

Debate in the Iowa Legislature after the 2008 Iowa River flood permanently damaged the University of Iowa Museum of Art was whether to sell Jackson Pollock’s Mural. Scott Raecker, Republican chairman of the House appropriations committee, introduced a bill requiring the university to sell the painting, then valued at $140 million. The ideas were the asset held no equivalent value for the university museum, and the money could be placed in a trust fund with the interest funding undergraduate scholarships. The bill was written about in news media, yet failed. When the new University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art opened in August 2022, Mural had been restored and returned as a centerpiece of the permanent collection.

Arguably the three most famous paintings in the museum, Mural, Joan Miró’s A Drop of Dew Falling from the Wing of a Bird Awakens Rosalie Asleep in the Shade of a Cobweb and Max Beckmann’s Karneval were in the collection during my undergraduate years. I discussed and wrote about them in art history class. They made an impression on me, one that would follow until I had an opportunity to see Miró work in person at a French gallery in Saint Paul de Vence in 1979. Art occupies part of my life today.

I attended major retrospectives of work by Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and others. While traveling in Europe I visited major museums where the so-called great master paintings were in permanent collections. I spent a lot of time at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris where the Claude Monet exhibition captivated me. I experienced art in a way most Iowans have not. Revered artwork holds a place in my world view even if I not more generally where I live.

In Davenport after Father’s death I spent time with artists, both my age and older. I didn’t demonstrate any talent for drawing, painting, or other visual arts. At university I took a class in ceramics where I explored the medium and produced a few good pieces. Most of those were sold, given away, or have otherwise gone missing. I also tie-dyed fabric. Since graduation, I haven’t done either at all. I saw how much work went into being an artist, the level of financial reward, and doubted I could make that commitment.

Is there more than art in the background for my writing?

The immediate problem is I am running out of shelf space and some of my art and art history books will have to go. Some stack-trimming is in order. Major books containing reproductions of an artist’s work will stay. Some of the secondary and all tertiary analysis will go. The challenge is there are so many books to read and so little time. That I need to be writing, rather than studying, is a basic fact of life.

Beyond the space problem, finding a link between writing and the visual arts has been something for me to avoid. I don’t like artistic name-dropping (or any kind of name-dropping) in writing. There are few circumstances where a description of a work of art could play a role in a narrative. The use of works of art and artistic theory must lie in the creative process.

The challenge in art is process is often visible. For example, in 1974 I wrote about Beckmann’s Karneval, “The main actors are merely broad areas of paint bordered with heavy black lines, and what is more, the bodies do not correspond to the anatomy of the human body.” While such description helped me understand the work, in narratives there is little use for words that don’t get to some existential point directly. We seek bodies that do correspond to human bodies because the narrative may depend upon such understanding among readers to further the story.

The next time my long-time friend from Missouri visits, we’ll spend time at the Stanley Museum. I will put Vasari’s Lives of the Artists on my reading list. I will revisit Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, John Berger and Roland Barthes. These good intentions are designed to help me be a better writer. The next part of following through is harder.