Good Letters

B20090910-a-pile-up-by-santiago-ramosack from an unannounced (and unforeseen) hiatus in blogging, I have so many ideas accumulated that I don’t know which to focus on. So here are brief mentions of various articles that have piled up over the last few weeks, all of which deal with artists who have worked within the “pile up” as Annie Dillard understood it—i.e., the place where art and faith meet.


The first is the passing of an artist, Karen Laub-Novak—a painter, printmaker and sculptor whose vocation was largely spent in a dialogue with literature, through which she tried to capture the religious sense in art. Among her most memorable works are lithographs inspired by the written word: on St. John’s biblical Apocalypse; on Rainier Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies; on T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” She also illuminated the covers of many of the books of her husband, the writer Michael Novak. It’s interesting to think that Laub-Novak began her work in the 1960s, a time (as Camille Paglia documents in her essay “Religious Vision in the American 1960s”) teeming with interest in the religious traditions exotic to the West.

Laub-Novak was in some ways very much of her time, but she opted more often than not to plumb the depths of her own, Western religious tradition for inspiration. She also wrote some interesting Sontag-esque essays about art, many of which are found on her website.

From “Art and Mysticism are a Journey” (1973):

Words don’t express the awakening of creative experience. An experience valued by few. I try to talk about it. I feel this experience is one of shared humanity. Simple and fundamental in all of us. Talent varies. Commitment varies. The sheer guts to continue on with an activity that seems “unessential to progress” varies. But insight, inspiration, creativity are at the center of all of us. The rising and falling of the spirit are our common heritage, our common goal.

The Washington Post has a good obituary here.


I’m not sure how many people Stateside read the novels of Ignazio Silone, the tortured Catholic and socialist activist from the Abruzzo region of Italy. The most easily available translation is the Signet edition of Bread and Wine.

Silone not only tussled in the Pile Up (in the Dillardian sense), but he also wrestled in the Bloody Crossroads, in the Lionel Trilling sense, where art and politics meet. The result is a body of work haunted by the memory of the earthquake that took the lives of Silone’s mother and five of his six siblings, and the poor of the Abruzzo region where Silone grew up, but also measuring the different answers that such tragedies might require—socialism or Christianity or both.

Professor Stanislao G. Pugliese of Hofstra University has just written a wonderful new biography of Silone, the first in English, titled Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone. The main virtue of the work is in the central importance that Pugliese gives to the question of art, faith, and politics in Silone’s work, and throughout the narrative of the writer’s life one sees the ways that these preoccupations are fuel for drama.

One of the most interesting parts of the book deals with the relationship between the young Silone and the priest who picked him up from the rubble after the earthquake and took him to Rome to get an education. That priest was Don Luigi Orione, and he was canonized by John Paul II in 2004.

Their exchanges make for intense reading: One of Silone’s letters from his schooldays confesses embarrassment, saying to Orione that a socialist like him should not be divulging so much to a priest. But Silone doesn’t stop himself, either: “Father, my health is ruined, my studies are ruined, but I still want to rebuild, rebuild, rebuild! Help me!”

Orione “refused to offer easy counsel.” “Read me with your heart and not your eyes,” he would respond.


Lastly, none of Jed Perl’s essays on art in the New Republic should ever be missed, but his latest, “Generations,” is probably among the best of his that I have read in the past year. The long review-essay includes thoughts on a retrospective show of Picasso’s old-age works, Mosqueteros, as well as a couple of showcases of contemporary art. The result is equal parts manifesto and philosophical critique. Here is a key portion, but read the whole thing:

But a theory of art that is grounded in the assumption that art can do without ardor is dangerous for art, and therefore for us. Art is by its very nature a form of emphasis and extremism. Artistic truth is an exaggeration, and a distortion of ordinary truth. This is something that Picasso teaches us, time and again. The artist takes experiences and apprehensions and enlarges them, extends them. Such an activity cannot be defined negatively, at least not for very long. No art worth considering can ever really be understood as post-this or post-that—as a rejection of classicism or of modernism or, for that matter, of Dadaism. Whatever its historical debts and struggles, art makes its claims in the present—as an argument for the value of immediate experience, and as a vindication of it.

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