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David and Art - Art in One Place

Standing in the very spots where history was made transforms our understanding and connection to the past.

I’ve written before about how we as a culture—maybe we as humans—like to interact with history primarily through place. Being somewhere where something significant happened seems to make it more real for us. This is the impulse explains historical markers. (If you’re in Texas, you’re surrounded by more than 16,000 of those things, courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission. Other states have similar agencies.) Smithsonian magazine says that the old line “George Washington Slept Here” had become a real estate cliché before the end of the 1790s and, by the 20th century was a national joke that everyone understood.

Whether it’s Washington getting some shuteye or Alexander Hamilton getting shot in a duel, we like to stand in the spot where something happened. It takes it out of the world of abstraction, which is how most of us first encountered history in a classroom, and brings it into the world we live in.

In the art world, it’s the same thing. People like to go to Rembrandts house and see it for themselves. They want to go stand where Van Gogh painted his wheat field or that starry night landscape. They want to stand at Frank Lloyd Wright drafting table or see where Buddy Holly wrote that particular song or where Mozart was born. I’m no different and maybe as a historian I’m even more intense about it. I’ve written before about the time I wound up in the little building where Jackson Pollock did many of his drip paintings and how surprisingly moving it was as an experience.

If you go to Key West, you can go into the house and stand in the room where Ernest Hemingway wrote. If you go to Malaga, Spain, you can see the building where Pablo Picasso was born which is now a tourist site and the headquarters of the Picasso Foundation. There’s power in place: National Geographic explains that on the strength of that birthplace, Malaga has turned itself into the “unsung cultural capital of Europe.”

Here in the United States, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is an organization that undertakes to preserve places where history happened, including places that have ties to cultural history. Of those places, the group says pretty much the same thing that cultural critics say about art itself: they “mirror the complexities, challenges, and opportunities that have always been part of what it means to be American....”

Every year the group releases a list of the “most endangered historic places.” This year, one of those places is a small house in a small town in central Texas where some timeless art was created. Let’s check that out next week.