Smart Letters

Last Saturday, the Smart Museum of Art held the Yours Truly Letter Writing Workshop, inspired by the museum’s current exhibit, “Your Pal, Cliff: Selections from the H.C. Westermann Study Collection.” Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, the exhibit contains over 800 letters Westermann wrote to others in addition to about 1000 letters the sculptor and printmaker collected and received over his lifetime. Jennifer Adams, a professor at DePauw University in Indiana, gave an enthusiastic lecture entitled “The Materiality and Lost Art of Letter Writing” about the history and function of letter writing. Before a small gathering of mostly middle-aged women, Adams presented information drawn from her dissertation on the same subject, which incorporated theory from critics such as Barthes, de Beauvoir, and Bakhtin. Contributing to the alleged debate, Adams claimed that letters might be perceived “as art objects in addition to their place as personal documents.” She drew attention to a few documents in order to examine “elemental pieces” of letters, such as the stationery or the individual’s handwriting, that may reveal the care or hastiness that the author applied to the piece.

The question weighing on everyone’s mind was how these significant principles translated (or didn’t) in emails and text messages. While Adams’ presentation was not a formal comparison between the status of letters of the past with the rise of technology, she acknowledged the concern. Adams believes that the foremost distinction “between texting or email and letter writing” pertains to objecthood. At the heart of this concern is the threat that the content of our message is influenced by the form we use to convey it–in this case, as an object or “virtual.” Thus the nature of the workshop was partially sentimental–the listener was necessarily nostalgic for this bygone skill, and worried about the possibility that today’s replacement suffers considerably in quality.

The sobering message was followed by a letter writer’s fantasy buffet of materials to craft elaborate letters themselves. A long table packed with papers, stamps, markers, pencils, calligraphy tools, glues, and glitters beckoned attendees to resurrect this “lost art.”