“It’s called dabbing,” the boy explained, his right arm pointed, elbow-out. We were standing in front of Gilbert Stuart’s 1782 painting “The Skater,” stop three on my museum tour. After carefully looking and sharing observations and impressions, the group of sixth graders sketched in their artist journals how they would want their portrait painted, clothing and accessories included.
It was my first solo tour. The kids were already learning and having fun, and I was encouraged. Unlike many of my 41 fellow trainees, most retired teachers and parents, I had little experience dealing with children or public speaking. Both challenges scared me. But an opportunity to study art history at such a venerable institution was simply too good to resist, so I applied to the program.
“Each century seeks to nourish itself in works of art,” said the painter Henri Matisse. In an effort to nourish myself, I’ve embarked at age 54 on an intellectual and creative journey. But instead of Manhattan, Santa Fe, or Chicago, my “classroom” is Washington.
Seated next to a U.S. attorney general at a dinner in New York a few years ago, I mentioned how thrilling it was to be in DC, enjoying the city’s wealth of art and literature. “New York is the center of art and culture,” he said defiantly. “Washington is the center of politics.”
He was right, of course, at least on paper. Washington is the center of politics, a fact that I am reminded of now more than ever before. My husband and I have lived in DC on and off—mostly on—for almost 30 years and yet I have never developed an appetite or appreciation for politics. In the 1990s the city’s single-mindedness intimidated me. I would fall silent and slump down in my chair when the topic came up, as it invariably did. But now I get it: I’m simply not a political person, but one whose interests lie in art and literature.
Isn’t Art Supposed to Transcend Politics?
Early on in our marriage, about 25 years ago, I remember riding in the car with my husband, the author and historian Arthur Herman, discussing why he did not care to watch the film “The Way We Were” yet again. I was shocked. In my late 20s, and still young enough to fall under the spell of the Hollywood machine, I hadn’t yet started to sort out politics.
Obviously, I reasoned, “The Way We Were” had everything a good film required: romance, New York City, a plot line heart-wrenching enough to leave me dehydrated for days from weeping, and Robert Redford’s face. It was due to the film’s strong leftist message, he explained.
“But isn’t that the purpose of art?” I asked my husband, “To transcend all that sh-t?”
Even back then, my naïve self believed that art should exist for art’s sake, a concept I wouldn’t fully understand or explore for another 25 years. It turns out the artist James MacNeil Whistler agreed, stating in his famous “The Ten O’Clock” lecture in 1885 that “Art for Art’s Sake!” should be “independent of claptrap, it should stand alone and appeal to the artistic eye or ear…”
Whistler was not alone. In the preface to his book, “Matisse and Picasso, The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship,” art historian Jack Flam explains, “Matisse seemed to ignore the political and social issues in the world around him.” I have opted to do the same—not because I’m against a civilized “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine” discussion, but because talking about politics in this era invariably comes down to a lecture from the Left.
I Like to Learn from Liberals, But Often It’s Not Mutual
I am a registered Republican, yet some of my favorite writers were and are liberals. How could I even consider forgoing the work of my literary role model, New York intellectual Alfred Kazin, who wrote of his first meeting with a young Saul Bellow: “He examined Hemingway’s style like a surgeon pondering another surgeon’s stitches,” simply because of his politics? Or my great hero Joan Didion. Her classic about leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That,” bounced around my brain for decades.
What about Meghan Daum? We could be sisters, we have so much in common, including her necessity to get to New York after college, (I short-circuited the whole schedule, moving to New York to attend college), her desire not to have children, and, as she admits in her essay “Matricide,” the fact that she never really liked or sympathized with her mother. Although her weekly Los Angeles Times column proved far too liberal for me, I still read and reread her books.
The seed of the idea that art should transcend politics grew from my experience at Hunter College in the 1980s, where I studied poetry writing with feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde. I was one of two straight, white students. The other workshop members enjoyed making us uncomfortable, which Lorde encouraged. I remember being shamed because I did not know, and dared to inquire, the meaning of “boosting,” a word one of the other students used in her poem about stealing meat from the neighborhood supermarket.
One week I brought in a poem about my family’s longtime housekeeper. Leila started working for my parents before I was born, remaining with them until I was in my 30s. She lived with us part of the week, and fed us dinner when my parents went out. More importantly, she was a kind, caring presence amid my loud, angry family.
The poem, inspired by Denise Levertov’s “In Silence,” prompted Lorde to tell the class she wanted to hit me. Was it that Leila was black, a housekeeper, or both that enraged her? I was never sure. The poem was meant as a token of love and gratitude, a sentiment reaching far back into the past—my recently discovered baby book reveals my first words to be hiya and Leila.
I still have the copy of “In Silence,” but sadly cannot locate my own poem. Lorde’s rant was, I imagine, sufficient humiliation to cause me to destroy my own work. But it also had an important benefit: it was the first time I realized my words had the power to profoundly piss someone off. Several weeks later, Lorde refused to meet during office hours and later denied me entry into her advanced workshop because, as she explained, I was not a lesbian of color.
No, Art Isn’t About ‘Getting Out the Vote’
Things haven’t actually changed much. The May/June issue of Poets and Writers Magazine is titled, “Writers, Editors Resist,” and its News and Trends column quotes Anna March, a writer who had spent time in Pennsylvania knocking on doors with her mother for Hilary Clinton, as saying: “I got a little panicky. I thought, Oh my God, are people really thinking art is going to save us? Because it’s really about organizing and getting out the vote.”
Perhaps I’m a fool for assuming a magazine calling itself Poets and Writers would be about writing and publishing. But that’s why institutions like the museum matter. Except for a few hushed conversations in the bathroom the day after the election, politics stays outside, where it belongs, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Yet one trainee in our group persists. Despite several emails regarding the Hatch Act, stating that we were not to wear political buttons, she continues to wear a Black Lives Matter button every single week. Our program’s leader dismissed her insistence during preparation for a group mock tour that we change the name of Thomas Cole’s “Voyage of Life: Manhood” to something more gender-neutral.
“Empires fall, votes are accorded, but to those people writing in the circular room it is the feel of the pen between their fingers that matters most,” E.M. Forster wrote in “Aspects of the Novel.” On any given day, on any street corner in Washington, you can find protestors with placards and bullhorns. Except at the museum, where art is appreciated simply for art’s sake, even in our nation’s capital.
At the end of our tour, I thanked the kids for coming. The museum is open every day but Thanksgiving and Christmas, I explained. And, unlike the museums in New York, there is no admission charge. As we headed back to the rotunda the dabbing boy asked, “Is it really free?”