family

How Did They Place a Value on the Art?

Above is a feature from the Rachel Maddow Show on an art performance in support of the Detroit Institute of Art’s fight to retain control of its art collection.  (I had wanted to embed the original Detroit News feature, unfortunately embedding non-youtube videos here is beyond my technical capability.   Follow the link.)

I have been following the stories about the DIA with interest, because were it not for the museum, I would not be alive. If this sounds like overly dramatic hyperbole, I assure you it is not.  My parents met at the DIA.  I could show you the very spot, overlooking the courtyard.  I have stood there many times as my father recounted the tale to my brother and I of how my mother, a college student who was taking an art appreciation course, approached the intellectual factory worker and asked him how to get down to the cafeteria.  He could have pointed, and she could probably have found it without his help, but he led the way and bought her lunch. The rest, as they say, is history.

When Christie’s auction house came to appraise the DIA’s collection, how did they value the art?

Did they value it the way my father did as a poor kid growing up in the inner city?  Living with an abusive step father and a mother who worked two jobs to make ends meet, he found his escape in books and art.

“I was blessed as a child with a mean bastard of a step father who was illiterate, who slapped me around every time he caught me reading,” my father once wrote. “He convinced me that somewhere in those black marks on sallow pages was a power so great that it scared the bejesus out of that ignorant bastard. Somewhere in one of those books was the answer to what it all means.”

The Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts provided his escape. Among the books and art works he found inspiration, the material to imagine a different life.

At the age of 14 he broke free from his home and went “bumming around the country.”  After a stint in the marines, armed with A GED and the GI Bill, my father worked his way through college at one of Detroit’s auto factories. This was where he was in his life on the fateful day that he met my mother.

When the folks from Christie’s came to appraise the DIA’s collection, how did they place a value on the art?

When I was 16, my father wrote a letter to me. “Artists tend to see the way life is, and fertile minds envision the way life could be, and deal with a certain sadness over the disparity between the two. Yet the up side of the so-called gift is that you have the rare ability to see the universal, to share it with others. A deep satisfaction can come of expressing insight; a great hollowness can come from keeping it in, failing to utilize your gift. For, in fact, it isn’t a gift, but a given. If you are an artist then you have no choice but to express yourself. To go into some practical field will not be satisfactory in the long run. You would be far better off to accept your gift, and its limitations, early in life and to concentrate on perfecting it.”

This was not something my father learned from his school or his home environment. He didn’t learn it in the military or on the factory floor. He learned how to be an artist through exposure to art. It all started with the power of the imagination. That is what he discovered in the corridors of these great Detroit institutions, the public library, the art museum.

He went on earn an MFA in creative writing and to write 15 books. He finished his career as the primary speech writer for Edsel Ford. My brother and I grew up in a stable, supportive home where our dreams were valued and encouraged.

My father never did stop dreaming.

“My higher purpose is my writing,” he wrote in January 2004, “and at 61, I’m only beginning to acquire the knowledge and skills I’ll need to approach my goal. And, probably, actually hopefully, I’ll die on the road… somewhere between here and the destination that has sustained me. Think it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who wrote, ‘Your reach should exceed your grasp, or what’s a heaven for.’ Amen.”

My father died on May 1, 2004.

“I was born in Detroit,” my father once wrote, “but that’s not what makes me, or any of us, Detroiters. We are Detroiters because this is where roots are. This is where our great grandparents, or parents, or even our own generation, came to make a better life. We came by wagon, ship and shanks mare, and even by stealth in the underground railroad. We came to pursue dreams as diverse as the people ourselves. Detroit is home. This city’s fortunes, and misfortunes, ultimately have visited all of us. What we are now, and may yet become, is intricately linked with this place. Any person without this sense of belonging is disadvantaged. For a person without a community and heritage is like a tree without roots.”

My father’s ashes rest at the base of a tree outside the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When the folks from Christie’s came to Detroit, how did they place a value on the art?

What Time Forgets

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This is a photo of my great-grandfather, William Jewell, when he was a child actor in Michigan.

I’ve been working a bit on my family history.  By pouring through old census records and city directories you can learn quite a bit about your ancestors.  You can discover their parents’ names, their occupations, with a bit of research you can imagine them in a context, how did people dress then?  What were the rituals of their church?  What were the big events in their communities?  If you’re really lucky you will find an obituary that notes something about the person’s life.

Yet as much as you discover, there is always a big hole in the center.  There is something vital, something that gets to the heart of who a person is, that never makes it into a genealogical database.

Yesterday I came across an old letter written from my great-uncle to his sister, my grandmother.  As I read his memories of his father, I realized what is missing from the records.  Everything that the person did not do. Their unrealized potential.

The goals that seem just beyond one’s grasp that we can’t help chasing, these are what animate a life and give it meaning.  When a person dies we mourn not for what they did but for what they could have done and never had the time.  The world may see your resume, but only those who know you best know what lies behind it, what you wish to accomplish and haven’t, not yet.

When you examine the census records in your search for William Jewell, you will find his occupation listed as “salesman” but his business card said, “Wm. F. Jewell,  Fine Arts.  Theatrical Work a Specialty.”

His sister Ada, just two years older, had become a Vaudeville star with her husband Dick Lynch.  Bill, as he was known, made a poor businessman when he tried to run a family candy store in Detroit.  He did better selling ads for the Detroit Journal.  In his free time he would pick up extra cash and drinks by doing recitations in the local bar.  Even the members of his family, who bore the brunt of his legendary temper, admired the acting talent he showed when he recited the old stories.

The story of his life lies in what drove him, what fueled his ambition, what he was never able to achieve.

“He needed only the opportunities that I gave you children,” said his wife, the woman who has been dubbed in family lore “Saint Clara.”  “To me he was truly a successful man.”

And what of her dreams?  Clara was “a practical, pragmatic, wonderful lady,” who wanted a stable home and family and who had the fortune or misfortune to fall in love with a man with big dreams and big disappointments. His dreams and her dreams crashed into each other.  And that is the story of a life.  It is not what we manage to accomplish that makes us who we are. The real work of a life is bridge building.  It is the story of the bridges we try to build to cross the distance between our dreams and the reality of our lives.

Don Quixote, Da Vinci and the Invisibility of Children in Literature

In Encounter Milan Kundera made the observation that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”

I found this to be quite thought-provoking.  I disagree, however, with his conclusions as to why this is.  He hypothesizes that the novel makes the protagonist “irreplaceable… the center of everything.”

If Don Quixote had children, he argues, his life would be prolonged.  His narrative would go on in the form of his children and the story wouldn’t be finished.

This makes no sense to me as the full life of a character from birth to death is not usually the span of a novel.  Novels usually focus on a particular period in a character’s life starting not at birth but just before a particular drama unfolds.  Some novels end with the death of the main character, but this is far from a requirement.  The story is finished when the drama as the author conceived it is over.  (“And they lived happily ever after” is as common in story telling as “And then they all died.”)

Stories do not include children for the same reason they do not include a lot of elements of life— the drama of a novel is stripped down to those characters and situations that are essential to portray the particular struggle being illustrated.  Children exist in our stories largely as plot devices rather than characters because adults are, for the most part, not that interested in exploring the depths of the immature mind.

The biggest problem I see with a Papa Don Quixote is that we are meant to view Don Quixote as a hero because he refuses to be constrained by ugly reality and chooses instead to live in beautiful fantasy.  He makes his own dream world rather than living with the constrains and responsibilities of his social environment.  There is a part of us that is always at war with the constrains of society, and that part loves Quixote.  But it is much easier to admire Don Quixote’s beautiful madness if it is not at the expense of an abandoned family; a wife and children who might depend on him to be present in the real world back home.

It would be even more outlandish for us if he were a woman.  Imagine Donna Quixote:  A wealthy Spanish woman who chooses a world of fantasy over reality.  She would have a hard time.  If she was childless our culture would have us assume one of two things about her.  Either she was traumatized by her barrenness (her madness might be attributed to it) or she was selfish enough to put her own needs above child rearing.  She could be either a damaged victim or unsympathetic.  Those are really the only two choices we have in our culture, especially historically, for childless women.  Neither makes for a great hero.  If Donna Quixote had children, on the other hand, how forgiving would we be if she went off to have adventures as a knight and left the kids behind?  Much less so, I imagine, than we would be for the warriors of classic literature.

Which leads to another observation about the great literary characters.  I am making this statistic up out of thin air, but my guess would be that while a full 50% of the world’s population is female, 98% of the great literary characters are male.

Historically, children were a woman’s responsibility and they were interesting to men only as heirs.  This being the case, they would rarely figure in the drama of a man’s life.  He might find his princess and she might have his children, but that would have little impact on his adventures at sea.

Kundera’s analysis of the purpose of children in literature, in fact, takes the view that the only meaning of a child is as an heir.  The child is not a responsibility or a person with whom you have a relationship.  If more of the great books focused on the lives of women then children might be more present.  In stories about women, children often exist as a pressing responsibility.

I was thinking about this question again the other day when I was reading one of those books on the search for the historical Jesus.  The book speculated on whether or not Jesus was a married man.  It would be unusual for a 30-year-old Jewish man of his day not to be married, and the author concluded that it was likely that he would have been.  The popularity and appeal of this view of Jesus is attested to by the great success of Dan Brown’s best seller The DaVinci Code.

Of course, when you speculate about the marital status of Jesus, the next question is whether or not he had children.  The author of the book on the historical Jesus touched on this question.  Just as Dan Brown does in The DaVinci Code and as Kundera does in his musings on Don Quixote’s childlessness, he frames the question of Jesus’s children as one of his bloodline. Does Jesus have descendants walking around somewhere?

This sidesteps a rather important question: If Jesus had children what kind of father was he?

We know that Jesus did not have many positive things to say about family bonds.  He told his disciples to leave their families and follow him, and he turned away his own mother and brothers (Matthew 12:47-49) and said that his disciples were his real brothers.  Would this detachment from his mother and siblings extend to the next generation as well?

It is easy to see how the idea of a Christ with children becomes problematic.  If he favored his own children over others, it undercuts his message of universal love– a love that shines out on everyone and everything with equal unconcern.  Jesus loves the beggar, the prostitute and the tax collector with the same depth and quality as he loves his mother, no more no less.  Yet as human beings, the idea of a father who does not favor his own children and give them special attention over other people is abhorrent to us.

It is much easier to avoid the issue all together by leaving his family, if indeed he had one, out of the story.