December 2020

NOTES & COMMENTS

Betsy James Wyeth (1921-2020)
The wife, muse, and astute business manager of painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), Betsy Wyeth died on April 21, after years of failing health. In her memory, the Brandywine River Museum of Art (which she was instrumental in founding) has posted a brief biographical tribute, with a short video written and narrated by her granddaughter, Victoria Browning Wyeth.

Victoria's intimate perspective perfectly captures Betsy's bold spirit and her indelible imprint on Andrew's life and art--qualities that inspired the countless messages of tribute that followed from Wyeth friends and fans, including one from Aristos co-editor Louis Torres. In addition, the Brandywine Museum is presenting Betsy James Wyeth: A Tribute, an exhibition of Andrew's paintings and drawings of and related to her. (For details, see Current News in this issue.)

Lincoln's Love of Music
What did music mean to Abraham Lincoln when he was president? Quite a lot, as musicologist Elise K. Kirk reveals in "Music in Lincoln's White House," published by The White House Historical Association. She observes:

A philosopher once said that music reaches beyond language and expresses our highest and deepest longings. But for Abraham Lincoln music was much more. "Listening to melody," he once said, "every man becomes his own poet, and measures the depths of his own nature."

Lincoln's remark calls to mind what Ayn Rand wrote about musical experience, in her essay "Art and Cognition":

One's reaction to music carries a sense of total certainty, as if it were simple, self-evident, not to be doubted; it involves one's emotions, i.e., one's values, and one's deepest sense of oneself--it is experienced as a magic union of sensations and thought as if thought had acquired the immediate certainty of direct awareness

The emotional immediacy of music was reflected in a touching incident about Lincoln. When the Italian opera star Adelina Patti visited the White House, the Lincolns were still mourning the death of their beloved son Willie. The president requested that she sing "Home Sweet Home." According to one account, the diva's accompanist

"did not know the air, and Patti, who knew it, did not know the words, and had never sung them. Seeing her dilemma, 'the President rose from his seat, went quickly to a small stand at the foot of the piano, took from it a small music book, with a vivid green color, and placed it on the piano rack, opened to the music of Home, Sweet Home. Then he returned to his seat without a word and resumed his former posture. 'Well, I sang the song the very best I could do it,' Patti concluded, 'and when Mr. Lincoln thanked me his voice was husky and his eyes were full of tears. By that time I was so wrought up over the situation myself that I was actually blubbering when we were taking leave of the recently bereaved parents." [Quoted from "Downstairs at The White House: Red Room," Mr. Lincoln's White House, a website of the Lehrman Institute]

For a semblance of what Lincoln would have heard, listen to the American Soprano Suzanne Adams (1872-1953) singing the first stanza of "Home, Sweet Home" in 1902. -- L.T.

A Truly Superb Contemporary Novel
Let me here add my voice to the countless critical accolades garnered by The Weight of Ink, an extraordinarily compelling work of historical fiction by the American writer Rachel Kadish (b. 1969). Published in 2017, it is an astonishingly ambitious tale that brilliantly and movingly interweaves the lives of a gentile British historian in the twenty-first century and a seventeenth-century Jewish woman serving as clandestine scribe to a blind rabbi in London. In splendid prose, Kadish vividly evokes their disparate worlds-- from the petty rivalries of contemporary academia to seventeenth-century Jewry's struggle for survival. Her account encompasses phenomena as diverse as the physical handling of rare manuscripts, the founding of Israel, Shakespeare's "dark lady," the Siege of Masada, London's Great Plague, the persecution of homosexuals, Baruch Spinoza's heretical philosophy, and the intellectual hunger of women. If that sounds like a tall order, it is. But Kadish has the intelligence, wisdom, and heart to bring it off unforgettably.

Note: In addition to Kindle and paperback editions, The Weight of Ink is available in a pitch-perfect audiobook (read by Corrie James) that brings its myriad cast of characters to full-blooded life--which is how I experienced it. -- M.M.K.

Sounding Off in Academic Questions
Two articles by Aristos co-editor Michelle Kamhi have been published in recent issues of Academic Questions, the quarterly journal of the National Association of Scholars [NAS]. In "Art History Gone Amuck" (Fall 2020), Kamhi challenges the art historical narratives offered in mainstream textbooks such as Gardner's Art through the Ages. "By uncritically accepting virtually anything as art," she maintains, "Western art history since the early twentieth century has undefined art out of existence." In "The Lamentable Politicization of Art" (Winter 2020), Kamhi disputes the now-prevailing view that all art is political, arguing that it has led not only to misinterpreting the art of the past but also to the creation of contemporary work that politically charged but essentially devoid of art.

The National Association of Scholars is devoted to defending intellectual freedom and scholarly standards in American higher education, and in preserving the best values of Western civilization and the liberal arts. In addition to active scholars, it welcomes membership by individuals who are not scholars but would like to support its work and receive Academic Questions.

Revisiting Huck Finn
An email message from Hillsdale College lamenting the banning of Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in many public schools reminds us that it is a subject we took up more than three decades ago. What we wrote then still holds true today. See "The Misreading of Literature: Context, Would-Be Censors, and Critics."

Science Documentary as "Art"
Is a video installation "explor[ing] the emergence of silent crickets in Kauai, Hawaii, and the imminent extinction of their chirping rivals due to rising global temperatures" a work of art? The expert curators at the Whitney Museum of American Art think so. They will feature it in the upcoming exhibition Madeline Hollander: Flatwing (March 25-August 8, 2021). We humbly submit that Hollander's installation would be more fittingly displayed in a museum of natural history.

Bucking the Artworld Tide Noted
An in-depth review of Michelle Kamhi's Bucking the Artworld Tide has been published in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (December 2020). It argues that Kamhi

presents a compelling case against the modernist and postmodernist inventions that have come to dominate the artworld since the early twentieth century. . . . [N]ot content to sit back and preach to the choir. . . , she is most often a loner in the public sphere questioning those in positions of cultural authority and provoking debate by the sheer heft of her scholarship, humanism, and honesty.

Kamhi was interviewed about the book by Mark Bauerlein of First Things and Eric Metaxas. See "The Rise of Anti-Art" and "The Eric Metaxas Radio Show." The listener comments on the latter are worth reading.

Thank You!
To each member of that small but loyal band of Aristos readers who continue to support our work, we extend our heartfelt thanks. All who read these pages for free are in your debt. --The Editors

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