In the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, each book—the written word itself—is a subversive thing; a thing to be burned. So each member of the underground becomes a book, commits it to memory and passes him- or herself on to someone of the next generation.
There are some today who would purge our libraries of “dangerous” books, strip our galleries of offensive images; they would eliminate certain words from discourse, or shift their meaning to control and redirect speech in approved channels. These people frighten me.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Everyone has played jenga: remove a wood block from the tower of blocks but leave the tower standing, more precarious with each removal, until it collapses and the game is done. There’s another sort of exercise—a renga—which derives from a form of Japanese poetry but involves both addition and subtraction.
In a jenga, each player adds something to the evolving composition—a line to the poem, a note to the melody, an object to the assemblage. The parallel with jenga, however, sets an arbitrary optimal number of components that can be added to the assemblage—say twenty pieces. So the twenty-first play must also involve a subtraction; for each new component, another must be removed so that there are always twenty in the composition. Someone begins the process, and each subsequent player modifies that direction in sudden or subtle ways; each choice is influenced by and responds to what has come before.
Agincourt’s community art collection has been that sort of exercise. We just haven’t reached the optimal number yet.
A Community of Art
From the eighteen or twenty pieces gleaned out of the 1912 G.A.R. exhibit, our community collection has grown to nearly 200 works, mostly two-dimensional, mostly paintings. But its renga-like evolution has been hard to follow. Some players have bullied the process; tried to dominate the course of play beyond their own involvement. Amity Burroughs Flynn was such a one.
Mrs Flynn, widow of Agincourt mayor Ed Flynn, believed herself the arbiter of taste hereabouts. Coming from Boston (or so they said) to Agincourt in the 1890s, the Flynns cut a broad swath through local society, made some money, wielded some political influence, and then Ed died suddenly during his first term as mayor, while petitions circulated for his impeachment. Flynn’s widow, Amity Burroughs Flynn, stayed on, unsullied, living large among those who had bought the Flynn mystique. Her pronouncements carried weight among those who sought her approval. Luckily, however, Flynn’s narrow view of what constituted Art seems to have been largely overlooked.
When Mrs Flynn retired to her atelier in the sky in the 1920s, Karl Wasserman returned from school in Chicago to join the faculty at Northwest Iowa Normal; in truth, he became an art faculty of one and remained for more than twenty years. Wasserman advised the informal group who managed the collection, but his greater contribution engaged students with the art itself: arranging exhibitions and writing interpretive essays. Never has a modest collection received such loving attention.
Growing at a rate of less than two new works each year, the collection has never been large or pretentious. And as “Modernity” changed the public face of art after World War II, our collection must have seemed increasingly conservative. When it was noticed at all, “Landscapes and Livestock” was the best that could be said—according to one anonymous letter-to-the-editor of 1953. Modern abstractions are present in the collection but tradition plays a larger role, appropriate I guess for a small town in the sticks. It cannot have begun with this intention, but at some point each addition seems to have explored our sense of place and time.
In the next installment, I’ll introduce you to the collection’s categories and a handful of its works.
If Bradbury had chosen art rather than literature as the vehicle for his story, what artwork would you become?