From the margins of art history

The New York Times obit today reported the death, at 100, of Hedda Sterne, a member of the group of abstract expressionist, avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. Sterne escaped Bucharest and fled to the U.S. when the Nazis rounded up and massacred Jews in her home city. She worked prodigiously “at the margins of art history,” the Times noted, less famous than her movement contemporaries such as Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning. She stands out as the only woman in a famous 1951 Life magazine photo of the movement’s leaders.

Why write about her in a political-oriented blog, readers may wonder? It is because her observation about her art struck this author as especially revealing. “Every drawing teaches me something,” Sterne wrote. “Leonardo drew things to explain them to himself.” For writers, that observation is central. Forget writer’s block. We often do not know precisely what we think about a subject until we try to express our thoughts about the subject with pen on paper (or, today, electronically on computer).

The essential quality of a work of art, I believe, and Sterne noted, is the authenticity of our understanding of our subject. We sometimes are not sure of what that is until we begin to develop our ideas — on paper, canvas or whatever the medium.

There is a political peg to this idea. It concerns the clever line about politics being poetry while governing is prose. We should demand that politicians go beyond the inspiring poetry of their campaigns — “Change You Can Believe In,” “A New Awakening,” “A Great Society” — and push them to spell it out, explain what their promises are and how they intend to fulfill them.

Ms. Sterne’s observation helped me understand the psychological-intellectual underpinning of what I do. I nod to her valuable insight in learning of her passing.

 
Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney and author.