Cowboys Aren’t Really Art Aficionados

by swellsbennett

Back in the 1930’s, Clare Boothe Luce, a well-known playwright and the wife of magazine king Henry Luce, commissioned Frida Kahlo to paint a portrait of a mutual friend who had recently committed suicide. Kahlo’s portrait, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, was not exactly what she was expecting. In fact, she so disliked the portrait that she planned to destroy it. However, cooler heads prevailed, and the painting was instead put in storage. Years later, she donated it to the Phoenix Art Museum, reportedly telling others that no one would ever see it there.

When I first read this story – which was hanging next to the painting at the museum – I laughed. I thought that Luce had clearly failed to see how metropolitan Phoenix would eventually become.

Then at lunch with my Beta Sigma Phi sisters last weekend, I realized I may be the one who is deluded. None of my sisters are from Arizona originally, and their perception of the state is considerably different from my own. Apparently, we live in the Wild West. Cowboys still walk the streets – at least as far as much of the rest of the country is concerned. When I mentioned this to my husband, I was surprised to find that he agreed with them. “It’s the Del Webb commercials from the Sixties,” he said. “All those commercials about the Sun City retirement community sold a version of Arizona that relied heavily on the ‘Old West’ perception.”

I never saw those commercials…I lived here, you see. So, here I am, stripped of my delusion at last. It appears that my father-in-law’s perception of me as “pioneer stock” may, in fact, be the way all non-Arizonans see me. My belief that Arizona is as metropolitan as the next major city is not shared by my fellow residents. And, in a state where a striking majority of the population is transplanted from elsewhere, Joe Arpaio suddenly seems like the obvious choice for sheriff – after all, he looks pretty good in a cowboy hat.

I suppose Phoenix’s image isn’t too unappealing, since we still draw a ridiculous number of people from other states. Dan, who is originally from Chicago, tells me it’s not unusual for people to ask him about the corrupt politics and mob activity of his home city. To be fair, though, Chicago politics haven’t changed much in the last hundred years. Phoenix, on the other hand, is nothing like the dusty desert town that existed before air conditioning.

So, for anyone who has never been here, you should know that few, if any, real cowboys roam our streets. While some people go for sunset rides on their horses, I would venture to guess that more people take that twilight cruise on a motorcycle. If you ever do get to Phoenix, I recommend a visit to the art museum, if only to see the Kahlo that Clare Booth Luce tried to hide.

If you want to see an “Old West” town, try Tombstone. Of course, their cowboys are mostly fake too.

Suicide of Dorothy Hale

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