For a few lucky Wash. U. alumni, home is where the art is

Is St. Louis becoming an invisible city?

In Italo Calvino's slender masterpiece Invisible Cities, adventurer/explorer Marco Polo entertains the great Kublai Khan in the emperor's garden with detailed descriptions of the cities he has seen on his long journey: thin cities, trading cities, continuous cities, hidden cities, cities such as Melania, where travelers would hear the same dialogue in the streets even if their visits came years apart.

After a while Khan grows suspicious of Polo's travelogue and questions why the foreigner never speaks of his native city, Venice. "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice," Polo says. His beloved Serenissima, now far at the other end of the world from him, has become a city, and cities, of his imagination.

The renovation of 1627 Washington Ave. is progressing visibly.
Jennifer Silverberg
The renovation of 1627 Washington Ave. is progressing visibly.

Even with St. Louis' omnipresence to those living within it — with its diminishing population, its decay, its brick buildings and its brick mentality — it has been moving toward invisibility status over recent months, a city more imagined than real.

St. Louis 2004 has been running the longest invisibility project. Not nearly so profoundly as the poet Wallace Stevens (whose life's work explored this theme), 2004 acknowledges a delicate bridge between the imagination and reality. The convivial band of wise consultants haven't been quite so absurd as the blind men and the elephant. Compare them instead to Calvino's Marco Polo, their heads filled with places they've been, to the extent that there is little room for the place they've come to see.

They came, they saw, they conferred, and noted the realities (things are bad), and then imagined how things could be better — better like Minneapolis or Seattle or Denver, those other cities that they came from that serve as imaginal blueprints to impose over the real city of St. Louis.

St. Louis 2004 begat "Imagine St. Louis," the weekly fairy dust provided by the staff of the Post-Dispatch. "Imagine a St. Louis that isn't like St. Louis," each installment could read, "a St. Louis without St. Louis history and the St. Louis character formed by that history. Imagine a St. Louis more like Minneapolis or Seattle or Denver." Each week in the Post-Dispatch the St. Louis that is dissolves and the St. Louis that isn't becomes the substance of news. Maybe Cole Campbell deserves to be discussed alongside Wallace Stevens. Stevens kept his musings on the relationship between reality and the imagination within the province of poetry; Campbell has moved the dialogue into journalism. The Post-Dispatch resists the pressures of reality (to borrow a phrase of Stevens') to give readers invisible St. Louis.

When journalists and former congressmen (such as Jack Danforth of 2004, the wonderful man who gave you Clarence Thomas) take on the role of the dream weavers, artists shift to the relinquished territory of reality. (Stevens straddled both worlds, being both one of America's greatest poets and vice president of a major insurance company.) Artists such as Vito Acconci, Jenny Holzer and Mary Miss sit among bankers, developers, judges and city managers and make proposals, compromise and actualize artistic works in the public sphere that approximate their original visions. Is the purity of vision corrupted by the pressures of the boardroom? Always. Anyone who's chosen to leave adolescence behind understands this.

Local artist and teacher Pat Schuchard, even in his late 40s, still looks like a kid and, like most middle-aged American men, is a work-in-progress in regard to the shirking of childish things. But his proposals for life and art in the city carry the weight of possibility. As an artist, he traverses various realms: He heads the painting program at Washington University; he works in the field of public art; he makes art that fits into the museum and gallery systems — representations of old album covers made of felt and wax, screaming wax heads, familiar objects (such as the felt piano he has in his living room) made disquieting by their unfunctional presence; and he makes portraits by commission, realist paintings that honor and commemorate their subjects. He's been successful in all of these worlds and does not set for himself a personal hierarchy of one being more valid than the other. It all fits within what Gary Snyder, another artist whose work within his community is as much his art as the poetry he writes, memorably calls "the real work ... what is to be done." (Note: Schuchard and I are friends and have been in an ongoing discussion of the relationship between life and art, and the artist in the world, for a number of years.)

In 1997, Schuchard was awarded the post of E. Desmond Lee Professor of Community Collaboration at Washington University. Lee, a Missouri gentleman who disparages the fortune he made out of manufacturing wire coat hangers, is this city's, and one of the country's, most prominent philanthropists. An article in Worth magazine listed him as one of the top 100 givers in America — higher than Warren Buffett, whose fortune makes Lee's a pittance in comparison. Anyone who would care to take note of the visible rather than the invisible St. Louis would observe that Lee was the only member of the city's wealthy class to make the list.

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