If men (and women) die every day for lack of what is found in poetry - or dance, or the visual arts, or film, or music - how then to make the world aware of what it is missing? On the one hand, popularization of art is often seen as a cheapening; on the other, art that exists within its own vacuum is ultimately pointless. And how to provide context for the arts for the vast majority of the general audience who are not pursuing MFAs or PhDs - that is, without sounding like hifalutin’ snobs or academics who have swallowed the OED? There’s the rub, as Shakespeare once said. (See what I mean?)
The Arts Club of Washington (DC) addresses this complicated issue with its annual Marfield Prize National Award for Arts Writing. Established in 2006 by member Jeannie S. Marfield, the annual prize is awarded to a non-fiction book about the arts published by a living author in the previous year. The award includes a mini-residency and reading in DC, and a hefty $10,000 check for the winning author. Past winners include Anne-Marie O’Connor,The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Climt’s Masterpiece (Knopf, 2012); Michael Sragow, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon 2008); and Brenda Wineapple,White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, 2008). Past judges have included Rita Dove, Jamaica Kincaid, Molly Peacock, Reynolds Price, Robert Pinsky, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Books are can be nominated by the author, the publisher, or the author’s agent, and books about all artistic disciplines are welcome. This year’s judges’ panel consists of poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri; writer and former NEH administrator Candace Katz; and author and professor Wayne Karlin. According to Cavalieri, “The point is to let the general public in on great artists, their works, and their lives. Although academics benefit greatly [from reading them], the larger hope is that books chosen are such interesting reading that Jane Q. Public can want it for her book club…This year we have six dynamic examples in various fields of art. Each one is fascinating reading and truly brilliant writing.”
This year’s finalists are Benita Eisler, The Red Man’s Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman (Norton); Witold Rybczynski, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit (FS&G); John Shaw, This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems (Public Affairs); Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books); Sherill Tippins, Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); and Sam Wasson, Fosse (HMH). Their common qualifications, according to Grace Cavalieri: “Good writing! And great reading.”
The winner of the 2013 Marfield Prize will be announced on May 21. Next year’s competition will open in June 2014. Details – and a complete list of past winners, finalists, and judges – can be found at the Arts Club website here.