John Updike on American Art

The writer brings a life of creative and critical labor to the examination of American masterworks.

Photo Gallery: American Masterworks

What is distinctively American about American art? That is the question John Updike, beak-nosed patriarch of American letters, set for himself in this year’s Jefferson Lecture, the 37th in a series of annual talks sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Addressing a capacity crowd at Washington's Warner Theater, Updike, 76, framed his answers largely around 40 works of art that the NEH and the American Library Association are supplying in reproduction, and with commentary, to schools and public libraries across the country. If it was a somewhat restrictive decision—though a generous gesture toward the host of the occasion—the selection of artists and works gave him sufficient berth to explore his theme.

"The Clarity of Things," the lecture's title, comes from Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century Calvinist theologian and divine whose graphic and sometimes terrifying sermons helped spark America's first Great Awakening. The phrase sums up what Updike believes is an enduring feature of the American mentality: an inclination, derived both from Puritanism and the empiricism of early modern science, to find in things, clearly and exactly perceived, the "principal manifestations" of God's perfections and even another text of divine revelation.

More simply, as Updike elaborated, this mentality exhibits a deep-rooted preference for things over abstract concepts, an aesthetic memorably summed up in the words of 20th-century poet William Carlos Williams: "For the poet there are no ideas but in things." Or as Updike would also insist, for the American artist in general.

If Updike's lecture ultimately revealed as much about him as his subject, it is probably little surprise: It distilled much of what he has been up to in a prodigious body of creative and critical works that now includes more than 50 books of fiction, short stories, poetry, and assorted nonfiction.

Updike's heavily laureled career began in small-town Pennsylvania, where artistic ambitions were instilled in the only son by a doting mother who harbored similar ambitions herself. Graduating from Harvard College, Updike spent a year at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England, before settling on writing as his profession. Apart from an early two-year stint at the New Yorker, Updike has lived and worked in Massachusetts, bringing forth, among other fictional creations, the memorable Rabbit Angstrom. During these years, his critical intellect found outlets in hundreds of reviews and appreciations, many of which were assembled into books. The most recent of these collections, Still Looking, focused on American painters and might be read as the deeper background to his Jefferson Lecture—and as more ample support of his major claims about the spiritual underpinning of the American aesthetic.

"We are drawn to artists who tell us that art is difficult to do and takes a spiritual effort, because we are still puritan enough to respect a strenuous spiritual effort," Updike told NEH Chairman Bruce Cole in an interview for the most recent issue of the endowment's magazine, Humanities. "We don't really want to think that the artist is only very skilled, that he has merely devoted his life to perfecting a certain set of intelligible skills. [John Singer] Sargent misses getting top marks because he made it look too easy."

Since "we" and "us" require qualification in these correctly minded times, Updike began his lecture almost apologetically by saying that he was exploring a line of American art that originates with that "least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent"—particularly those thin-lipped Puritan founders who settled the wooded wilderness of New England.

Updike can talk about painters in this tradition with a familiar, almost offhand intimacy because he shares not only much of their spiritual orientation but many of their explicitly visual ambitions as well. Like them, and also like the great 17th-century Dutch masters of whom he has often and admiringly written, he has made the precise rendering of the physical world a kind of spiritual exercise: an attempt to recover in everyday objects a sacramental dimension that Puritans effectively banished from their institutional religious life.

Corrected on : Corrected 5/23/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the National Endowment for the Humanities as the National Endowment of the Humanities.