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August 1, 2007

TT: Inconstant reader

I'm not in the habit of complaining about bloggers who misconstrue my work, but Mr. Reading Experience has gotten me so wrong that I feel obliged to point it out.

In my latest Commentary essay, I make the following observation:

No less deeply rooted in the national religious past, one might add, is our distrust of art for art's sake. Over much of the country's history, many artists, like most of their countrymen, have favored an art that exists not autonomously but in the service of some cause whose goodness or functionality justifies its existence. In the 19th century, that cause was usually religious; nowadays, it is far more often political. But in both cases, it is hard to escape the conclusion that something in the American national character is inimical to the uncomplicated enjoyment of beauty. We prefer our art to be earnest, and that preference is another survival of American Puritanism.

To which Daniel Green responds:

Is Terry Teachout proposing "earnestness" (understood mostly as an expression of "religiosity") as the primary standard for judging works of art? Is indifference to religion among artists a crippling flaw? I realize that this is a view very commonly advanced by certain "conservative" cultural commentators, but I always thought Teachout managed to avoid such a narrow, agenda-driven (indeed, thoroughgoingly "political") approach to art in most of his better criticism. I'm disappointed to find him vouching for it here.

Apparently Green decided to criticize my piece without reading it more than casually. I did indeed say that Americans in general seem to "prefer their art to be earnest," but I didn't say anywhere in the essay that I share this preference, or think it a good thing. Nor have I ever said so elsewhere in my writings. In fact, I've consistently said the opposite, and I've said it on many occasions in many different places. See, for instance, the essay in A Terry Teachout Reader called "The Importance of Not Being Earnest," which appeared in the Sunday New York Times not long after 9/11. Or any number of essays in Commentary and postings on this blog, etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum.

Green has a lot more to say about me in his posting, most of it harrumphingly huffy (as is his wont) and all of it irrelevant, since everything he says is based on an interpretation of my essay that comes perilously close to inverting its plain meaning. My larger point was not that serious artists have an obligation to write about religion, or that art must be religious in order to be good, but simply that American artists who overlook the place of religion in American life are to that extent misunderstanding the American national character, in whose formation and development religious belief has historically played a crucial part.

Now I don't expect Green to have read everything I've written, but I do think he ought to read what he's writing about with somewhat more care. Of course it's possible that I failed to make myself clear, but seeing as how no one else in the blogosphere appears to have jumped to the same conclusions, I'm disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt--especially since he then goes well out of his way to beat me up for being "political" and "conservative," complete with scare quotes.

Green's failure to understand what I was saying leads me to wonder whether he might be viewing the world through politics-colored glasses. I know I don't. As I wrote in this space in 2004:

If this blog has a credo, it is that the personal is not political. Anyone who believes it to be, or tries to persuade other people that it is, will find no comfort here. Needless to say, my own political views are far from secret (or simple), but I check them at the door of "About Last Night." I think it's important that there be at least one politics-free space in the blogosphere where people who love art can read about it--and nothing else....

I can't say it often enough: first comes experience, then understanding. I don't think Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony is a great piece of music because it's tonal--I think tonality is valid because it is the basis for great pieces of music like Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony. No more would I allow my response to a work of art to be conditioned by my political convictions. If anything, it's the other way round: my experience of reality, which includes the reality of art, is the ultimate source of my philosophy, from which my political convictions spring. In art, experience is truth, and there is no greater sin than to say, "I know I liked that novel when I first read it, but it can't be good because it's inconsistent with my theory of fiction, so I guess I won't like it anymore." That's the trouble with political art and politicized criticism: they start with theory instead of experience. I can't think of a more efficient way to make bad art.

Enough said, I hope.

UPDATE: I wish I'd known about this lecture when I wrote my original essay.

Posted August 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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