John Updike opened his lecture about American art last night at the Warner Theatre with something of an apology. Introducing his speech, titled “The Clarity of Things: What Is American About American Art?”, he noted that most of the artists he planned to discuss—-John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, and Norman Rockwell, most prominently—-don’t exactly speak to a diverse national culture. “Inquiries into an essential American-ness are less fashionable, my impression is, than they were 50 years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent,” he said. “Yet my skimming survey of our sensitively diverse set of 40 artworks cannot avoid these founders.”

For all that, though, the lecture was an earnest attempt to locate American distinctions in painting. (Excruciatingly reductionist summary: American art is more focused on made and manufactured things, and the artist is more fixated on showing the tools of the artistic process. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which sponsored the lecture, has placed the full text of it online.) Fair enough, though oddly Updike didn’t seem particularly interested in art from the past 50 years, though the lecture was designed to be an overview of sorts. He noted Richard Estes‘ 1979 photorealist piece 34th Street, Manhattan, Looking East, but excepting brief mentions of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Mark Rothko, Updike’s story of American art shuts down with the likes of Charles Sheeler‘s 1939 painting Rolling Power (pictured above).

In an interview in the NEH’s house magazine, Humanities, Updike confesses to being somewhat out of touch, though fixated on John Currin, who specializes in richly detailed paintings (and, often, ginormous boobs). Here’s Updike:

In my own art criticism, if I can dignify it with that term, I really go kind of blank about thirty years ago. The last movement that I felt I dug one hundred percent was, I suppose, Pop, which was in the sixties. So it’s more than thirty years ago that I became personally kind of numb as far as gut response.

I recently read in the New Yorker a profile of John Currin, whose paintings are very meticulous and yet cartoonish and often bawdy. He’s terribly skillful. And yet I had to read the article to really begin to understand why he painted the way he did—why he would, you know, devote Holbeinesque attention to these forms. In one painting there’s an uncooked turkey, uncooked but prepared. And the shine of it and the look of it, you know, the little pimples on it, everything is there in this masterful way and yet . . .