The Voice of Fire
by Robert Genn

May 4, 2010

Dear Rodney,During the last while there have been a few letters relating art to various belief 
systems in which little or no evidence exists to prove or disprove their magic. To 
try to make our readers' positions clear, a work of art may be deemed worthy by 
critics, dealers, collectors, and even the general public, and yet show little or 
no evidence of meaning. In apparently talentless work, one needs a leap of faith to 
think there is something there. More than anything, some art cannot work without a 

Yesterday, I was in Canada's National Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario. A dozen or so 
kids were on the floor below the large Barnett Newman "Voice of Fire." "I want you 
to look at this painting and tell me what you think," said their teacher, allowing 
significant time for contemplation. A timid hand went up. "It's not very good," 
said a boy. "It's just three stripes going up," said another. 

The enthusiastic teacher allowed his students might be willing to change their 
minds. He launched into a well-informed history and deconstruction of the painting 
that had me, the eavesdropper, in thrall. I took notes. By the time he got around 
to saying how much Canadian taxpayers had paid for the painting, and the foofaraw 
it caused, the kids and I were well into a second look. So you might get an idea of 
what we were looking at, we've put the painting at the top of the current clickback.

We were told, among other things, that Newman was a spiritual man who was angry 
about the US entry into the Vietnam War. To protest, Newman wanted to reinvent the 
power and majesty of pure form. We were told that the painting's extreme simplicity 
helped us in our sense of awe, and that Newman intended that we should see it up 
close and be impressed by its towering strength. The kids and I looked up and let 
it tower over us.
"Some art is more than you think," said our teacher. "It may appear simple but it 
may also have a depth which only time and appreciation can bring. Real lovers of 
art seek out the spiritual qualities beneath the surface, the unseen magic. If he 
does it right, an artist can convey another kind of truth." I was hooked. As the 
kids moved on to the next room, I remained behind--for the time being at least--a 

Best regards,


PS: "We have lost contact with man's natural desire for the exalted, for a concern 
with our relation to absolute emotions." (Barnett Newman, 1905-1970) 

Esoterica: The teacher read from Newman: "My goal is to give the viewer a feeling 
of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the 
same time, of his connection to others, who are also separate." The title, "Voice 
of Fire," he explained, was taken from the Biblical announcement of God's presence 
to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Mystery modified by liturgy. On the way 
out one kid got in the last word: "He was a few peas short of a casserole."