Victory Lap

Last night I attended a lecture at Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theatre by John Updike, who spoke on “The Clarity of Things: What Is American About American Art?” It was an interesting speech and a nice opportunity to revisit some Winslow Homer and Charles Sheeler pieces I admire, though it wasn’t without its issues—more on that later today at Washington City Paper‘s staff blog. (Update: That post is now up.) The lecture was part of an annual series run by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the latest issue of its magazine, Humanities, is largely dedicated to Updike. The hard copy of the magazine includes excerpts of his writing on art; online, there’s an interview with NEH chairman Bruce Cole, and an appreciation by Adam Gopnik. I haven’t kept up closely with Updike’s recent work—In the Beauty of the Lilies made me feel like he had a weakened perspective on modern American life, Terrorist only bolstered that notion, and I’ve tried to avoid the rest lest I get more dispirited. But Gopnik gets at the talents that made Updike great—chiefly an ability to be so knowledgeable yet preserve a certain wide-eyed youthfulness. Gopnik writes:

Certainly, a note of almost religious happiness rises from his art writing. However much it may be frowned on by the pros for being insufficiently “serious” or “critical,” i.e., contextual or historical, it has always seemed to this ex-pro truthful in its unashamed enthusiasms, the desire to match the artist evocation for evocation, representational trick for trick. (In the decade when I wrote about art for the New Yorker, supplying context and history up the reader’s wazoo and beyond, Updike would emerge a couple of weeks later in the New York Review of Books with a few diffident and amateurish-seeming pages which always seemed, frustratingly, closer to the true mark, more infused with the artist’s own ambitions and resonating with the real feel of the thing.)

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