WSJ Drama Critic Terry Teachout Speaks at Bradley Prizes Ceremony in D.C.
An abridged version of his acceptance remarks were printed by the Wall Street Journal and appear below!
If you would like to see the ceremony, it can be viewed at www.bradleyprizes.org.
"Freedom and the Role of the Artist"
Terry Teachout on the obligation of artists to tell the truth.
If I were to thank each and every one of the people I ought to be thanking tonight, we'd still be here tomorrow. So if I may, I'll let two great men stand for all the rest. Bill Buckley published my first magazine piece in National Review in 1981. Norman Podhoretz brought me on board at Commentary four years later. Between them, they gave me my career, and I think they would appreciate, as I do, the fact that I'm receiving a Bradley Award after having spent virtually the whole of my career thinking and writing about the arts-and, more recently, attempting to make art of my own.
I wouldn't be entirely surprised if some people have wondered, at least for a moment, why the Bradley Foundation would choose to honor a drama critic, given the state of the world today-or any other day, for that matter. But I don't think that Bill Buckley or Norman Podhoretz would be among them. Bill knew, as Norman knows, that the arts are central to any truly conservative understanding of the world, and to any life that is truly well-lived. Norman, in fact, started out as a literary critic of the highest seriousness, while Bill was an amateur harpsichordist sufficiently serious to have played a Bach concerto with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. It stands to reason that two such men would have ensured that their magazines also paid attention to the arts. And so . . . here I am.
But what am I? Not long ago I was introduced to an audience as an "intellectual." To me, an intellectual is a person who is primarily interested in ideas. What I am is an aesthete, a person who is primarily interested in beauty. That's why I write about art. What's more, I think there's much to be said for my preference. All history, and most especially the history of the 20th century, argues against placing ideas in the saddle and allowing them to ride mankind. Too often they end up riding individual men and women into mass graves.
That's one of the reasons why I choose not to call myself an intellectual. To be sure, aesthetes often take a naïve view of the way things work. If there were, heaven help us, an Artists' Party, its platform would probably look quite a bit like the one summed up by one of the characters in James Gould Cozzens ' novel "The Just and the Unjust": "Any kid can work out a program of more ice cream and less school and free movies and him telling other people what to do instead of people always telling him." Sound familiar?
But aesthetes have it all over intellectuals in one very important respect: You'll rarely catch us hustling anyone off to the nearest guillotine. We're too busy trying to make the world more beautiful. Our hands are stained with ink and paint, not blood.
Of course we, too, have our enemies. H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Now Puritanism was and is more complicated than that, but Mencken was onto something. If, for instance, you take a look at the long list of items banned by the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, you'll find "any equipment that produces the joy of music." Not just music, mind you, but the joy of music. Give the Taliban this much credit: Like the members of the Junior Anti-Sex League in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four," they didn't beat around the bush.
Unfortunately, America also has its share of earnest, well-meaning, narrow-minded folk who don't much care for art, as well as some who flat-out dislike it. I understand why they feel that way: Art can sometimes open doors that you'd rather keep closed. In addition to giving comfort and joy, art also has the miraculous ability to let us live in other men's skins, to test our perceptions and beliefs against theirs, and perhaps to be changed as a result. It does this by portraying the world creatively, heightening our perception and enriching our understanding of things as they are. Art makes sense of life.
To strive toward so noble a goal, the artist must first of all be able to tell the truth as he sees it about the world he sees around him. That task can only be pursued to the fullest degree under the aspect of freedom. Where there is no freedom, there is no art, save at the risk of the artist's neck. And this freedom includes, among many other things, freedom from the paralyzing obligation to persuade.
The artist whose chief goal is not to make everything more beautiful but to enlist his audience in a cause-no matter what that cause may be-is rarely if ever prepared to tell the whole truth and nothing but. He replaces the true complexity of the world with the false simplicity of the ideologue. He alters reality not to make everything more beautiful, but to stack the deck.
This is what Oscar Wilde meant when he said that no artist ever tries to prove anything, though I'd put it another way. Great art doesn't tell-it shows. And this act of showing is itself a moral act, a commitment to reality.
A man who thought otherwise said, "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." But Karl Marx, as usual, got it wrong. The greatest philosophers and the greatest artists seek not to change the world, but to see the world as it is, then show it to the rest of us with the transforming clarity that is beauty. That is a supreme act of freedom. It's what Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Flannery O'Connor did. What Rembrandt and Sargent and Edward Hopper did. What Mozart and Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong did. They looked, they saw, they showed-and we understood.
In writing about art, I try never to moralize, nor do I look with favor upon artists who do. But I seek to be ever and always alive to the moral force of art whose creators aspire merely to make everything more beautiful, and in so doing to pierce the veil of the visible and give us a glimpse of the transcendently true. I don't have the talent to do that, but at least I can point to those who do, and try to enhance our understanding and appreciation of what they do and how they do it.
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