American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism
A painted dance in praise of the best we can do.
By Maria Popova
In the final years of a long life animated by optimism as a catalyst of democracy and the spring of action toward justice, Walt Whitman’s aged baritone unspools from the only surviving recording of his voice to read a verse from one of his last poems, envisioning America as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons, all, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old, strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.”
The paradox of progress is that the more of it we make, the higher the stakes and standards of justice become, and the more we slip into a kind of pessimistic ahistorical amnesia — we judge people and events of the past by the standards of the present and indict them as ignorant; we judge the deficiencies of the present without the long victory ledger of the past and fall into despair. Overwhelmed by all that remains to be done — which must be every epoch’s focus but not its paralysis — we forget all that has been done, and done at the cost of tremendous toil by generations who fought for the incremental triumphs with the totality of their lives. In the century and a half since Whitman’s day, much of what was to him a brave imagining — women’s suffrage, abolition, the birth of a global ecological conscience, the discovery of new worlds and new galaxies — has become a reality, unlatching larger vistas of possibility far beyond the horizon of even his most optimistic vision.
To raft an awareness of this amid the tragic tide of cynicism engulfing our culture is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance, for as Maya Angelou astutely observed, “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”
Numberless half-remembered revolutions after Whitman, after Angelou, David Byrne — a polymathic poet laureate of optimism for our own era — picks up the baton of anticynical humanism in his Broadway musical turned HBO film turned illustrated book American Utopia (public library), featuring the art his longtime friend Maira Kalman originally painted for the Broadway curtain, paired with lyric lines in a series of minimalist visual poems, designed and edited by Maira’s son and frequent collaborator Alex Kalman.
What makes her work such a burst of delight is that whatever extant reality she brings her brush to — be it the alphabet or the weather or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — the elements that have beckoned to her imagination from the immensity of the work become a meta-poem exuding a quiet philosophy of being.
So it is with American Utopia — spare lines from Byrne’s lyrics, spare gestural utterances from the body language of the choreography, spare micro-expressions on the faces of the cast come abloom as painted vignettes, tender and expressive, dancing with their own aliveness.
What emerges is not a recreation of the musical world in book form but a luminous satellite of that world, intimate yet separate, removed by a degree of artistic abstraction yet reflecting the radiance of the same guiding star.
Pair American Utopia with Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love, then revisit David Byrne’s buoyant hymn to optimism and his pencil diagrams of the human condition.
Artwork courtesy of Maira Kalman / Bloomsbury. Photographs by Maria Popova.
Published November 29, 2020