OUT OF THE WASTELAND
A Spiritual View of Art

June 1991By Arthur Quinn

Arthur Quinn is Professor of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley. Among his books are Figures of Speech, Broken Shore, and Before Abraham Was. The themes of this article are expanded in a book soon to be published by Harvard University Press (co-authored with Leonard Nathan)

Several summers ago I was in the Arizona desert. It was not the time of year to be there, temperatures rising every day to over 105F, sometimes over 110.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, the chief funding agency of the U.S. government for advanced studies in the humanities, had decided to hold an institute there on the ancient Greek poet Homer. The bureaucrats decided that discussing the Iliad and the Odyssey in the desert in the summer would be what they called in their announcement an "epic experience." It was, and in a way that was unexpected.

Surprisingly, the people who live in the desert seemed to have a heightened aesthetic sense -- not just the intellectuals and artists, but ordinary people, working people. I wondered why this was.

The beauty of the desert itself was not sufficient to account for it. Where I live in California is at least as beautiful -- San Francisco Bay, California coastline, redwood forests, lovely valleys. But this beauty does not seem to produce the same effect on the people who live there, at least to the same degree.


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