David A. Smith
A Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, David A. Smith can be reached at http://davidasmith.net.
There’s really no way art can be reduced to mere numbers. It’s too complex and humanistic an endeavor to be accurately quantified, even though so many facets of our lives are these days.
In writing last week about painter Amy Sherald, I mentioned she still remembers her first school trip to an art museum. Her experience is a perfect example of how for many young children, a visit like that, or the first time hearing a real live symphony orchestra, are remembered for a lifeti…
I’ve greatly enjoyed hearing from many of you who have shared your thoughtful responses, either written or in conversation, to my column last week on the portraits of former President and First Lady Obama that were recently unveiled in Washington, D.C.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., holds the largest collection of presidential portraits in the country, stretching back to some very famous paintings of George Washington, whose birthday is today, Feb. 22. A small part of that collection makes up a popular ong…
One of my favorite TV shows growing up was “WKRP in Cincinnati,” which ran for four seasons in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. You may remember it: the show followed the misadventures of a quirky bunch running an album-rock AM radio station in Cincinnati. A couple of episodes were among the f…
I’ve occasionally written in this column about the years I played music in Austin and my fondness for the people with whom I played. At our peak we were playing probably three or four nights a week and loving it. And why not? We were working in the city that was even then known everywhere as “the live music capital of the world.” We made enough to pay the bills (or most of them at least) and were, snide remarks aside, professionals.
“Something’s comin’ / I don’t know what it is / But it is gonna be great.” So sings Tony when he’s overcome by the premonition that something big is about to happen to him. And of course that something big is meeting Maria, a name that instantly becomes the most beautiful sound he ever heard.
Italian astronomer Galileo took a considerable amount of heat for daring to assert that the Earth was not the center of the solar system. His ideas ran him afoul of no less than the Pope, and in a dramatic confrontation the astronomer was grudgingly forced to take it all back. Time, however, proved him right.
My father, who’s in his mid-80s and two years a widower, recently moved from the house in the Dallas area in which he’d lived for 50 years to a retirement apartment here in Waco. It was a tough transition, exacerbated by an unexpected stay in the hospital which made acclimating to his new surroundings even harder.
Times are tough all over, as the saying goes, and this is certainly true for many of the nation’s leading museums. Less than a year ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, arguably the country’s premier repository of great art, was looking at a deficit of around $40 million. As a result, the museum had to postpone ambitious expansion plans, curtail temporary exhibitions and cut about 90 people from its staff.
There’s controversy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thousands of people have signed an online petition demanding that the museum remove from display a 1938 painting in its collection called “Thérèse Dreaming” by a French painter known as Balthus. Those who want it removed call the painting of a young girl “sexually suggestive” in an inappropriate way. The Museum has responded by saying it’s not going to remove the work, but that the affair represents “an opportunity for conversation.”
A couple of weeks ago I had the wonderful treat of catching up with an old friend. He was passing through town and we met over lunch, the first time we’d seen each other in 20 years. When I lived in Austin, he was the drummer in the band for which I played bass, and we travelled and played all over the state together. Now we immediately fell into reminiscing about gigs and car rides and it was as if we’d not been apart at all. I have little doubt that if we’d had our instruments we’d have fallen right back into the groove. As we chatted, we appreciated the unique kind of bond we had formed and continue even now to have, based on our years of playing music together.
It’s been a theatrical week in my family. Last Friday, my son played the part of Don Pedro in his school production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing,” and two days later my daughter played a shepherd in an intricate Christmas musical at our church. Both roles required them to invest a great deal of time and concentration.
A couple of weeks ago the Moscow Ballet’s traveling production of “The Nutcracker” came through Waco. Like many touring companies that stage the ballet, it used local children to dance several of the parts, and my daughter got to be in two numbers.
Through a series of rather unexpected events, I found myself early last Saturday morning sitting in a deer blind out in the vastness of southwest Texas. The utter stillness in a place like that at daybreak is unlike anything I’d experienced before.
Jesus Christ, Superstar. That pretty well sums up the attitude of the art world just now. Last week in New York, a portrait that was probably (depending on whom you ask) painted by Leonardo da Vinci about 520 years ago went under the gavel at Christie’s. When the last bid came in and the auctioneer said “Sold,” no one in the room could quite believe what they had witnessed. With the attached fees, an anonymous buyer had spent $450 million — almost half a billion dollars — on a painting called “Salvator Mundi,” Savior of the World. It is far and away the most expensive painting ever sold.
Much attention has been devoted to this year being the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I. It’s a date certainly worth commemorating as American participation tipped the balance of that ghastly conflict in favor of the Allied Powers and set the stage for vast changes that shaped the remainder of the 20th century.
In May 1917, just a few weeks after the United States entered World War I, a motion picture called “The Spirit of ’76” debuted in Chicago. It was advertised as “a historical romance dealing with the American Revolution and its causes,” and its depiction of the British was particularly negative.
If you’re a hunter, you probably don’t need to be reminded that deer season starts here in Texas on Nov. 4. You may even have all your equipment ready to go. While the worlds of hunting and art don’t overlap that often, now is a good time for anyone interested in either to take the short drive up to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Ft. Worth to see an exhibit called “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art.” It’s one of those exhibits that after you’re about two-thirds of the way through, you begin to realize what a good idea it is.
“We are all in the gutter,” says the character of Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “but some of us are looking at the stars.” That famous statement begins in good egalitarian fashion, but few lines I know of in literature have such a boffo turnabout contained in them.
I could tell she was worried as she sat beside me in the car. My 9-year-old daughter was dancing with her group later that afternoon at the Waco Cultural Arts Festival, and as we drove toward Indian Springs Park she was uncharacteristically quiet. After a lengthy silence she finally said softly, “Daddy, I’m nervous.”
I often wish we still had our Patrick Dougherty sculpture here in Waco. For those of you who don’t know the name or the story, Dougherty is an acclaimed sculptor whose works are in museums, public parks, university campuses, and botanical gardens all over the world.
I haven’t thought too deeply about why I’m doing it, but I’ve started playing jazz in the classroom before each of my U.S. history survey classes begins. I doubt that many of my students are keeping a running list, but so far they’ve heard Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.
Last spring when I was in New York, I was walking through Madison Square the night I arrived and encountered a striking piece of public art called “Big Bling,” by contemporary sculptor Martin Puryear. It was in the middle of a lawn so you couldn’t just walk right up to it, but I circled it a few times from the pathways, looking at it from different angles, and took some pictures. I initially didn’t know what to make of it, but I liked it.
Of all the artists today who incorporate political content into what they do, the most widely known is Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist born in Beijing in 1957. He knows well the troubles that can plague artists in his homeland. In 1958, his family was sent to a labor camp because his father, an acclaimed poet, had run afoul of the government. A decade later, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, his father was again censured and forced to be a communal toilet cleaner. Ai left China and lived in the United States from 1981 to 1993.
I first heard their music when I played an arrangement of their tune “Black Cow” in high school jazz band. There was something about its jazzy grove that instantly intrigued me. But I already had my favorite music and was as comfortable in my tastes as any high school student.
As a historian, one of my pet peeves is when my fellow professionals write and speak about history as though other historians were their only audience. (None of my colleagues in the Baylor history department are like this, I hasten to add.)
I can’t decide if I’m surprised by the news from late last week that all the members of the presidential Committee on the Arts and Humanities had resigned. They cited as their reason the president’s comments following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, along with a host of other administration policy positions of which they disapproved.
As I write these words I’m listening to a song called “Gentle on My Mind.” In 1967, a singer and guitarist named Glen Campbell won two Grammy Awards for his recording of it, along with two more that year for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” When he recorded these songs, Campbell was known in the business as a talented musician whose solo career just hadn’t taken off. Now it did.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading up on the Peloponnesian War, a long and destructive conflict that took place about 2,500 years ago between the Greek states of Athens and Sparta. During part of the war, Athens was led by a military commander and politician named Pericles. He was also the person most responsible for building up the Acropolis in Athens, including the famous Parthenon.
Last week I was on a Disney cruise ship, plying the waters of the Caribbean in a way that would make Frances Drake green with envy. While we made some of the same stops he did over the course of his swashbuckling career in the 1500s, I dare say our accommodations were better.
When the number nine hitter comes to the plate with one on and no outs in a close game, he’ll often square to bunt. As the pitcher begins his windup the first and third basemen charge in and the person playing second wheels over to cover first.
Over the years, I’ve written about efforts by art museums around the country to get more people in the door. Some tactics I think are more appropriate than others: In general, I approve of those that take images of art to people outside the museums hoping to pique their curiosity as to what they might encounter inside.
In the wake of last week’s column about composer Charles Ives, I’ve been asked a couple of times if he was any relation to another famous American artist with the same last name.
One day last week, I was listening to some music by an American composer named Charles Ives. Born in Connecticut in 1874 — the son of a bandleader in the American Civil War — Ives isn’t widely known among the general population, but he’s often mentioned as one of the few American orchestral composers who ranks alongside Europeans. He wrote his remarkable Second Symphony between 1897 and 1902, but it wasn’t performed until 1952.
In November 1937, Orson Welles and partner John Houseman staged a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theater on Broadway in New York City. They decided not to clothe the actors in traditional togas, but to use contemporary dress that evoked the style of fascist Italy.
Practicing an instrument is solitary business. There’s just no way around it. To get a piece of music right takes an enormous amount of time with just the player and the instrument. (Writing is often this way as well, marked by solitary work that, as Shelby Foote once said, is best done alone at a table drawn up in front of a blank wall.)
“What exactly is it that you’re doing?” The question from a senior citizen attending a lifelong learning program I’d just addressed took me by surprise. My topic was the centennial of the United States entry into World War I and, as is my usual practice, I hadn’t planned out what I would say beforehand.
Is President Donald Trump good for the arts in the United States? That may sound like a trick question given that he’s the first president to try to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, but some observers actually think the answer may be yes.
When I mention a ballet about dancing confections, chances are you’ll immediately think of “The Nutcracker,” the perennial Christmas favorite penned by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky in 1892. In fact if I were to ask most people to name any ballet at all, that would be the one. With its memorable music and family-friendly plot there’s a good reason that it’s so well known.
The U.S. presidency is much on people’s minds these days, to put it mildly, and there’s a lot of talk about what kind of image the current occupant of that office is putting forward.
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the end of the year concert by the bands at Lake Air Montessori Magnet here in Waco. I was there in part because I serve as the head of the education committee for the Waco Symphony Orchestra and Lake Air is our Adopt-a-School partner.
Every time I teach the second half of the U.S. history survey course, the first artists I talk about in the Gilded Age are the ones grouped together under the classification of the “realists.” These were painters like Thomas Eakins, who sought to dispense with romanticism and idealization of life and to show things how they really were.
Two reports came out last month that shine light on the current status of the arts in America, both in terms of education and the different places around the country where they’re most vibrant. There’s much to mull over in the data.
I recently finished reading American playwright Moss Hart’s enjoyable autobiography, “Act One.” Hart isn’t exactly a household name these days, but when his book came out in 1959 he was one of the most celebrated figures in American theater.
There was a large crowd gathered around the statue when I first encountered it — so many people, in fact, that it took me a few minutes even to get to a point where I could see it at all. It was shorter than most people in the crowd, so it was hard to spot.
I was in Virginia last week participating in a conference at Shenandoah University on the state of the humanities in modern culture. It occurred to me that the challenges facing the humanities (the study of history, literature, philosophy and the like) in today’s educational world are strikingly similar to the problem facing the arts. Indeed, they are in essence the same problem. How do you justify studying the arts or literature in a culture such as ours that is relentlessly utilitarian and perhaps getting more so every day? How do you make the case to a materialistic world that they’re an integral part of a complete and nourishing education and not just a diversion?
A major figure in recent American art died last weekend. James Rosenquist was a primary creator of Pop Art, one of the most culturally resonant, but short-lived styles to emerge in the past century.
I confess that when I was younger, my mind would sometimes wander during church on Sunday mornings, particularly if the sermon was long. At times like that, I’d pick up a hymnal and go through the names of all the people who’d written songs. One name that came up time and time again, and still does today for many Waco browsers of hymnals, was Fanny J. Crosby.
On Friday, the Waco Symphony Orchestra played an all-Gershwin concert, the centerpiece of which was “An American in Paris.” It’s approaching its 90th birthday, but still sounds as brisk and creative as when it debuted. I’ve heard the WSO a lot over the years but I’ve never — ever— heard it play a piece as well as it did this one.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was born in 1875 into one of the wealthiest families in America. Growing up she divided her time between her family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York and their summer home in Newport, Rhode Island.
When I find myself driving around some other town in a rental car, my standard practice is to listen to the local public radio station, which is often run by a local university. I usually find it to be a dependable source of news (I’ve discovered that I never turn the TV on in my hotel room), a good barometer of the local art scene and a way to hear some music I might not otherwise hear.
Each year since 1982, the U.S. House of Representatives sponsors an art contest for the nation’s high school students. Students all over the country submit entries to their representative’s local office, where panels of artists select a winner from each district. (Members of Congress have no role in judging the contest.) Now, however, there’s controversy.
One of the many ways you can describe what art does is to say that it gives us new ways of seeing or hearing something. The fauvists, for instance, gave us a new way of seeing color. Stravinsky gave us a new way of hearing rhythm. Without such a prod now and then, we can get into an artistic rut, thinking of things always the same way, through the same set of assumptions, and lose track of all the things that art can be.
Last Sunday with considerable excitement my church unveiled a new piano in the sanctuary. Outwardly it looked about like the older grand piano it was replacing, albeit newer and, somehow, more luminous maybe — there seemed to be a glow about it. But the real difference hit you when you heard it the first time. It sounded fantastic. The tone was richer and fuller by far, the pitch more secure.