Lapham’s Bows to the Great Goddess


“Arts & Letters,” the Spring issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, is perhaps the magazine’s most unabashed celebration of nostalgia yet, which is saying a lot for a publication that indulges as much in the work of Sappho and Seneca as it does in that of contemporary writers, artists and thinkers.

In his opening essay, Lewis Lapham walks us through the last century of America’s tumultuous relationship with its artists, becoming wistful for, of all things, the Eisenhower administration: an era when novelists made the covers of Time magazine and “Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer accorded the deference now placed at the feet of Warren Buffett.” It was a time when the government actually supported and believed in the arts as crucial to our national character, says Lapham, with the CIA “deploying American art as a Cold War weapon of mass instruction.”

The Reagan years, Lapham points out, were the beginning of the end––the prevailing view since then being that an artist’s worth is on some level entangled with the artist’s ability to make money, with art as collectible object. The pieces in “Arts & Letters” put that tension front and center. A whimsical Kurt Vonnegut conducts a lesson in plot structure that explains Kafka, Shakespeare and Cinderella, while noting the types of stories paying audiences want to hear. A “recovering” Vincent Van Gogh writes to his brother––the year before his suicide––to discuss cornfields and the usefulness of misfortune in art. A White House memo captures an awkward hug between Nixon and Elvis Presley, with a twist of anti-Beatles sentiment, and the guidelines from the Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America (1954) instructs artists that “In every instance good shall triumph over evil.” Anton Chekhov, Andy Warhol, Zadie Smith and Adolf Hitler all make appearances, as does an excerpt from the Coen brothers’ absurdist film Barton Fink.

The issue may run long on nostalgia, but the questions it raises about fame, authenticity and commodification are timeless. And with its encyclopedic roster of writers and artists, “Arts and Letters” offers more than ample evidence that the golden age of American art is far from over.

Emma Silvers is a writer living in San Francisco. More from this author →