“Here’s a rare thing, a painter who can write.”
While watching a PBS American Masters special on Thomas Hart Benton, a populist American artist who’s been both praised and panned, a brief comment about his autobiography, An Artist in America, caught my attention. First published in 1937, it won wide praise for its colorful writing and fresh, feisty take on the art world.
In a glowing Newsweek review, Sinclair Lewis praised Benton’s book as “a report on America which is neither prettified for the local real-estate men nor yet sour with envy of the Europe which is so charming that all of our 40,000,000 ancestors got out of it as fast as they could.” Lewis also applauds Benton “for his rediscovery of the laughing, swaggering America that Mark Twain knew.”
This reference to a painter who had a great way with words reminded me of some more recent glowing reviews I’ve read about Just Kids by Patti Smith, the singer-performance artist. One reviewer described it as “her beautifully written new memoir, a haunted elegy….” Others must share this view because Just Kids won the National Book Award.
Interesting, isn’t it, that some creative performers in other art fields such as music and painting can make the leap into wordsmithing with great success? And yet, though I may be off base on this, it’s seems much more unusual for writers to find success in a second artistic field. Now, it’s true that Winston Churchill, certainly a graceful and accomplished writer, loved painting landscapes. And I know that Stephen King and Amy Tan and a bunch of other writers have put together a rock group called the Rock Bottom Remainders, but I don’t think any record companies are knocking down their doors.
I wonder if it’s true that writers tend to stick with writing and rarely make their mark in a second artistic field. And if it is true, I wonder why it’s so? Do you think it’s because writers spend so much of their free time reading other writers?