Tuesday, 6 January 2009


One of the outcomes of last November's An Arabesque for Marie Menken at Tate Modern, was to reveal the lack of knowledge about many aspects of Menken's art and biography. There was, for example, frustratingly little awareness of Menken's paintings or writings. 

The above clipping is a letter Marie Menken wrote to The New York Times. It was published on October 9th 1935, under the headline "OUR UNAPPRECIATIVE SELVES: Schubert's 'Serenade' Draws a Dissembling Audience of Two." 

My thanks to Douglas Crase, who uncovered the letter researching Both: A Portrait in Two Parts, his 2004 biography of Dwight Ripley and Rupert Barneby. The full text of Menken's letter reads as follows:

To the Editor of The New York Times:

I have noticed of late that huge crowds gather to watch and listen to the antics and songs of street urchins. The crowds are highly amused and toss coins for the pleasure they have received. I have noted, too, a street musician who played Schubert's "Serenade" on his violin is in the recesses of a darkened building entrance. The man played with a technique that was acquired only through years of study and perhaps deprivation, yet no one stopped to listen.

Some persons paused in their walk only long enough to drop a coin into a hat on the ground, then quickly walked away as though ashamed to be seen in this kindness. The music was satisfying and skillfully played, yet no one stayed to hear it to the end. 

Was it the sight of a learned man earning his subsistence form the street too pitiful to watch, or, let us be honest with ourselves, is the sophisticated New Yorker reluctant to stop to enjoy the song of the street musician lest he lose his hardened gloss? 

A woman stood near by, as though waiting for someone, and I pretended to be absorbed in a picture of a gallery window; but we both knew we were the only audience. 

Such songs are worth hearing at any time, and particularly on the street where one is apt to grow as hard as the pavement. We do not flatter the musician by hurrying by, nor do we flatter ourselves. MARIE MENKEN. Maspeth, N.Y., Oct. 6, 1935.