Wordstruck: American Artists as Readers, Writers and Literati

Wordstruck: American Artists as Readers, Writers and Literati

The Department of American Studies at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin, Poland, will host “Wordstruck: American Artists as Readers, Writers and Literati”, scheduled to take place May 13-16, 2015.

The goal of the conference is to explore the intellectual endeavors and other significant achievements of American painters from the colonial era to the post-World War II years. The conference provides a much needed forum for discussion of the cultural, political, social and other contributions of American artists, which have often gone unrecognized even as their artistic achievements are celebrated in their own United States and beyond.

Many visual artists were also important and original thinkers, scholars, educators, men (and women) of letters, savants, and polymaths, more often than not struggling with the prevalent stereotype of the artist as “a feeling imbecile”. Writing in the 1950s, Barnett Newman, arguably the most learned of the New York abstract expressionists, noted: “The artist is approached not as an original thinker in his own medium but, rather, as an instinctive, intuitive executant who, largely unaware of what he is doing, breaks through the mystery by the magic of his performance to ‘express’ truths the professionals think that they can read better than he can himself”. Newman found traces of this type of thinking even in the attitude of such important critical allies of the avant-garde as his friend Thomas B. Hess. The popular assumption about the essentially non-intellectual nature of painting was sometimes corroborated by artists themselves, one of the most notorious examples being Jackson Pollock’s sole important verbal statement about his art: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing”. Henri Matisse put it even more bluntly: “He who wants to dedicate himself to painting should start by cutting out his tongue”. Other painters do not so much question their ability to communicate an understanding of what they do, or deny the desirability to do so, as they do the capacity of their audience to comprehend what they might say. In explaining his reluctance to discuss his paintings, Franz Kline often quoted Jazz great Louis Armstrong: “Brother, if you don’t get it, there ain’t no way I can explain it to you”. But many painters not only display a strong cognitive instinct, but also an irresistible need to reflect and speculate, to share their insights, and to test their own imaginative capabilities as thinkers, giving their ideas not only visual, but often also verbal expression. Sharing Pollock’s sense of identification with his own paintings, Newman characteristically defined himself thus: “I’m the subject. I’m also the verb as I paint, but I’m also the object. I am the complete sentence”. He explained what he did, and why, in this way: “An artist paints so that he will have something to look at; at times he must write so that he will also have something to read”.

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