Staking out my aesthetic

Still lifes of flowers? Why bother. The true calling of an artist is to paint the naked female form

Published November 18, 2009 12:18AM (EST)

I was in Chicago with time on my hands and the sweet woman murmured to me -- you know how this goes -- "Would you like to see the Art Institute?" and I was thinking No No No God No, and I said, "Sure. Fine." "You wouldn't rather do something else?" she said. "No," I replied. That's the correct answer when a woman asks you about art. Yes, absolutely, ma cherie.

What I'd rather do is watch a couple of welterweights whale on each other for 10 rounds or a lanky blonde dance as she peels off her long white gloves and unsnaps her garter, but it's 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, so into the citadel of art we go.

I've been here before. The sweet woman loves galleries and French impressionists and the sunny gardens of Pierre Bonnard. While looking at them, she is likely to say something about color and texture. But I am an American man and color and texture are not my strong suits. And so I staked out my aesthetic at the start. I said, "I see no reason to paint flowers. You can buy fresh flowers. Still lifes are only an exercise. And abstract expressionism is for the lobbies of big insurance companies. The true calling of an artist is to paint women and the greatest challenge is the naked female form. That's what separates the true artists from the wallpaper-hangers."

I said this in the room that houses some rather erotic Georgia O'Keeffe flowers and "American Gothic" with its squinty lady, and I spoke on behalf of American men everywhere. At the age of 67, I have stopped apologizing for looking at naked women. I don't stand directly in front of a nude and stare at her, lest I be taken for a pervert. I stand in front of the painting next to the nude and sneak sidelong glances, but nonetheless I am moved by her. Deeply.

A man gets to say what he likes. In Chicago, the city of the big shoulders, he does. In New York, where men have exquisite thin shoulders and glossy skin tone, they are more into texture. I glanced at a plaque on the gallery wall, something about "his work references as a multifaceted narrative structure that re-contextualizes the ambiguity of alienation and aims at disrupting the viewer's habits of perception." Well, pardon me for living, but I am fond of my habits of perception. I stroll past the spatter art and angst-ridden photography and junk sculpture, and when I see a naked woman, my heart leaps up.

Is a man's heart not supposed to leap? Should it squat instead?

Rubens did big naked porky women who could lie on a man and smother him, and many artists have done pale, cold goddesses, but I want a sweet woman bathing or reclining on a couch, someone I'd like to know. She makes my heart sing.

She reminds me of beautiful naked moments from real life -- skinny-dipping in the Mississippi, intertwining underwater on Oahu, sitting in hot water in the big round iron tub on the deck in Utah, the sweet woman lowering herself gingerly into the water, slowly, slowly, as her delicate anatomical parts feel the heat rising -- and coming from fundamentalist people in a cold-weather state, nakedness means more to me than to, say, a Southern Unitarian.

We hiked around the Art Institute and didn't discuss texture. I saw a couple of nude women and other women who looked as if they were thinking about undressing, and then we went back to the hotel and, for some reason that now I forget, we went and sat in a steam room together and admired each other's multifaceted bodies and got recontextualized and so on and so forth and that's what happened to me in Chicago.

What does this have to do with healthcare reform and our enormous indebtedness to what used to be known as Red China before Republicans became reds? Everything.

Politics and policy mean more to those who love life itself. We want government to stave off lawlessness and war and chaos and economic misery so that we can wholeheartedly enjoy the pure goodness of life, which, when you come right down to it -- and I come right down to it as often as possible -- is a naked woman lowering herself into hot water that you yourself are sitting in, waiting.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of "77 Love Sonnets," published by Common Good Books.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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