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David and Art - The Signature of Man

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Art is one of our links to the past and shows us who we are.

The Smithsonian's "National Museum of American History" on the Mall in D.C. is sometimes referred to as "America's Attic" and that calls to mind the jumbled and chaotic clutter that we assume to be present in other people's attics. The clutter in our own, we think of quite differently.

I've gone up in my attic before with the intent of cleaning it out and throwing things away only to be thwarted by my emotional connection to the things that are up there. It's not just junk. It's the little table and chairs that my children sat in when they were little. It's the box of books that my mom read to me that I then read to my children. It's their stuffed animals. It's that favorite Christmas decoration that maybe the rest of us got tired of. These things are tangible links to my past and vivid reminders of what has shaped me as a person.

Art museums may appear to be less personal than that but the images in them provide us with a visual representation of how we, as humans and as members of a particular civilization, have made sense of the world and of ourselves in the centuries upon centuries that have brought us here today. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth is a perfect example of this, one of the best you'll find, in fact. In offering a thorough and complete catalog of American art it tells the American story better and more emotionally resonant than any textbook.

In 1925 G. K. Chesterton wrote that "art is the signature of man." A signature is a validation of sorts. It's proof of an authorized presence. Back when I was at the Library of Congress doing research for my George Dewey biography, I held in my hand papers that he had held. I held his little datebook in which he jotted notes; I held typewritten letters from all stages of his life that he himself had signed. The presence of that signature was what validated what I was holding as something that he had held and read. It connected me with him.

Art is the signature of man. Its existence validates that we were here. Think of those prehistoric cave paintings in France and the connection they create for us. Think of the poetic lines written down in the 1770s by an enslaved young woman named Phylis Wheatley who was born in West Africa and died 31 years later in Boston. Those are precious things in our attic. Now think of that ancient Greek drinking cup that made it across two and a half thousand years and all the way to Dallas and before it was smashed.

The destruction of art, whether by fire or theft or a malicious will carried out in a sweeping systematic way — amounts to an erasure of who we are.