Thanksgiving Is Ruined
August 05, 2008
Jesse Helms's favorite painting
Several years back, an article in the journal October included the following information about the painting that apparently was the recently late Jesse Helms's favorite piece of art:
In an interview published in the November 1989 issue of Museum and Arts magazine, Helms discussed the art in his Arlington, Virgina home, singling out for particular praise a painting by an artist from Helms's home state of North Carolina that depicts "an old man, sitting at the table, with the Bible open in front of him, with his hands folded in prayer. . . . And it is the most inspiring thing to me."
The above is taken from Prof. Richard Meyer's "The Jesse Helms Theory of Art," in October 104, Spring 2003. Some of the essay is viewable via Google Books in a volume called Other Objects of Desire.
Meyer sources the Helms quote to Charles Babington's "Jesse Riles Again," from the November/December 1989 issue of something called Museum and Arts: Washington, p. 59.
Meyer's article does not identify the "artist from Helms's home state of North Carolina" whose painting Helms loved so much. We have been unable to find Babington's original article, so we don't know whether the painting is identified therein. But that didn't stop TiR from surfing many webpages in an attempt to figure it out.
Numerous websites showcase the paintings of North Carolina artists. However, on none of them could we find clues to the identity of the painting, or any that resembled or seemed related to it.
Searching from another direction, numerous paintings and prints exist that depict subject matter like the kind Helms described. However we found none that were painted by North Carolinian artists.
This painting, for example, hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and is believed to have been painted by a follower of Rembrandt.
This print, entitled "Grace," sorta fits Helms's description, but was made by Eric Enstrom, an artist from Minnesota. Copies of "Grace" were so widely circulated in 20th century American art that James Lileks has written about it:
A copy of "Grace" adorned my grandparents' farmhouse in Harwood, N.D. In the old days you couldn't be Lutheran and not have that picture.
Then there's cartoonist Richard Thompson's painting of a praying old man who happens to be Jesse Helms. TiR would be nonplussed if Helms's favorite artwork were a painting of himself, but this is probably not the painting.
Meanwhile, another painting on a religious theme by a North Carolina-based artist is the now basically world famous work by Kate Kretz, "Blessed Art Thou." However, given the Kretz painting's lack of old men and Bibles, and the fact that it was not painted until 2006, we sadly must reject it as a contender here.
TiR will probably keep looking to identify or find an image of the painting that Helms so highly praised. Or we may forget about it tomorrow.
Either way, at the moment, we wish we could see the Helms painting. Primarily, we're curious about what our own response to it would be.
Secondarily, we wonder about the relationship between the Helms painting and the kind of art that Helms and his like-minded colleagues hated and opposed, such as the Mapplethorpe works discussed by Meyer.
Meyer makes a number of interesting points about Helms's attitudes about art. He notes that Helms, in his eagerness to vilify Mapplethorpe's work, described certain supposed Mapplethorpe photos that seem never in fact to have existed, other than as images envisioned and printed within the darkroom of Helms's own imagination (and then in the minds' eyes of Helms's audience, after they listened to the senator's descriptions). In this way, the Helmsian censorship efforts served not to suppress forbidden images but, on the contrary, to create, reconstitute, proliferate and publicize them.
For our part, we wonder
[for starters -- though the gist of these questions has we're sure been asked before and better by others]:
If we could place the Helms painting of the old man in prayer, and a sample photo of a Mapplethorpe model, alongside each other, what properties would the two works have in common?
What assumptions, if any, would they share?
About their audience?
About the human impulse to transmute beauty, even the "spiritual" or "religious" beauty on which Helms probably would have placed primacy, into a form that we can see and imagine as tangible?
About the OK-ness or noncontroversiality of "graven images," even for Baptists?
About the place of the human (/male) body in art?
About (as Helms suggested) "inspiration," its nature and sources, and how we get to it?
About the historical love of the American mass cultural art consumer for art that's "representational" (whatever that means) and for art that depicts and is embodied in objects that can be reassuringly seen, touched, traded, bought, sold, possessed?
About how many consecutive, muddleheaded, pretentions questions can we shoehorn into the end of a blog post?
(Today? About ten.)