Politics & Policy

The Gold Standard

From the May 3, 2004, issue of National Review.

A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale, 438 pp., $35)

Some critics hope to revive beauty, others high culture, but it is a curious thing that any hopes to revive both. Beauty is immediately accessible, and thus, from the perspective of high culture, heretical. Like the orthodoxies of high modernism–serialism in music, Bauhaus in architecture, abstraction in painting, free verse in poetry–high culture demands discipline, hard work, and self-denial. An ascetic as well as an aesthetic discipline, it inures the audience to the cheap grace of pleasant images.

Though the 20th-century priests of high culture–T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Dwight Macdonald–preached modernism, they believed an ancient religion. Like Plato, they feared that their flock might confuse mere representations with the real thing. Like Plato, they were forthrightly elitist, which explains the otherwise puzzling affinity of the would-be Trotskyite vanguard of Partisan Review contributors for the reactionary bootstrap-aristocrat T. S. Eliot. Unlike Plato, however, they unwittingly succeeded–at least if one judges by the near-total irrelevance today of new poetry, painting, and music–in banning the poets from the city.

A small-town American by birth and jazz bassist by training, Terry Teachout lives by a different creed. He has applied his formidable critical acumen not only to string quartets, ballets, and novels, but also to movies, TV shows, cartoons, and musicals. Unlike more radical critics, however, whose limicolous pop-culture wallowing subverts all sense of propriety, he tirelessly upholds the existence of standards. But, unlike many traditionalists in the aesthetic culture wars, he refuses to see high and low as synonyms of good and bad.

In contrast to Teachout’s respectful yet ironical detachment from middle-class life, the 20th-century priests of high culture evinced in their very anti-bourgeois stance a too-bourgeois sincerity. Is there not in high culture, after all, a hint of the middle class’s own worldly asceticism, Protestant iconoclasm, and rejection of aristocratic luxury? Expecting the artist to do all the work smacks of feudal indolence; capitalism demands that the audience do just as much work, if not more.

To be sure, there is real beauty, or at least real sublimity, in the best of modern art. But the beauty of, say, the Seagram building differs from that of Giotto’s bell tower; that of The Waste Land from that of The Divine Comedy; that of a Mondrian from that of a Raphael. The later works have an almost purely noetic beauty that cannot long sustain the soul. When poetry, for example, becomes nothing but a pastiche of allusive figures and erudite cryptograms, you can be sure that as an art form it is finished. If the great modernists still loom over us like Titans, it is only because they actually succeeded in convincing us, in Eliot’s words, that “this [i.e., modernism] is the way the world ends.” Ye shall know them by their fruits: While a second-rate Palladian villa, Petrarchan sonnet, or piano sonata can still please, the knock-offs of great modernist works remain dreadful beyond description.

Likewise, there really is something execrable in lowbrow kitsch and sentimentality. But modernism did not merely fail to abolish these things; by abandoning the production of beauty to the mass media, it made them ubiquitous. Some critics have redoubled their efforts to put the Humpty Dumpty of high culture back together again; Teachout, by contrast, sees in pop culture its own corrective. Our best artists, he observes, were such All-Americans as Charles Ives, Louis Armstrong, Aaron Copland, Willa Cather, Chuck Jones, and Tom Wolfe–all of whom “ennobled popular culture even as they popularized serious culture.” The priests of high culture, by contrast, were as anti-American as they strove to be anti-bourgeois. Each European import they championed displaced, with disastrous results, a vibrant indigenous tradition. Thus Bauhaus did away with prairie style, logical positivism with pragmatism, and atonalism with real jazz music. Americans even used to build the world’s greatest pipe organs before European emigrés showed them the superiority of strident German models.

This unique critical approach makes Teachout’s new anthology, A Terry Teachout Reader, more than a useful compendium: It is a rewarding venture in its own right. Many of the essays will be familiar to readers of The New Criterion, Commentary, or the New York Times, but now they can see how Teachout has over time revisited, applied, interpreted, and elaborated the major themes of his criticism. No mere parade of arresting but unrelated insights, the Reader offers a sustained and careful analysis of contemporary culture.

For example, Teachout attributes the decline of standards not to the overthrow of the demanding high-culture elite, but to the collapse of the less-than-demanding “middlebrow” majority. This is surely correct: Though standards perdure, whether a work is considered “demanding” changes with taste. What was once low culture, such as jazz, is now high; what was once high, such as impressionism, is now low. It was the middlebrow, throughout–”that earnest fellow” who “watched prime-time documentaries and read the Book of the Month”–who kept standards alive by sharing with others his aspiration toward self-improvement.

Middlebrow culture disintegrated, in Teachout’s telling, in the solvent of alternative media. Cable TV, VCRs, and the Internet, though they allowed an astonishing freedom of cultural choice, made impossible the notion of common standards. Some critics see this as cultural flourishing; Teachout rightly sees it as decadence. As anyone who has succumbed to an hour’s worth of channel-surfing can tell you, the lotus flower of cultural diversity, by gratifying every taste and whim, makes us forget distinctions of good from bad. Or, as a middlebrow might put it, quantity is not quality.

Teachout’s sensitivity to the strengths of American culture sometimes flirts with reflexive pro-Americanism. For example, he contends that Osama bin Laden disabused us of the notion that standards of beauty do not exist; in the terrorist’s view, as Teachout characterizes it, “earthly beauty is a mere illusion, a distraction from the One True Cause.” But isn’t it more likely that bin Laden’s aesthetic theory is somewhat simpler–that he saw the ugliness of popular culture in liberal democracies and found it abhorrent? Meanwhile, the false friends of freedom will continue to view the decline of all standards as healthy and liberating.

Some might object that Teachout is too forthright in linking politics and art. But this is too fastidious: If we must divorce art from politics, to say nothing of morals or religion, we must also rule out as propaganda such works as the Parthenon, or Shakespeare’s histories, or the novels of Dostoevsky. Even Social Realism had more merit (in some cases, more than its modernist alternatives) than its detractors–ironically, too eager to score a political point than to worry about aesthetics–have allowed. Once critics expunged from art the creator’s message, his intent, and his effect on his audience, they left it with nothing but moribund abstraction–the reductio ad absurdum of high modernism. Teachout willingly puts these things back in, and thus helps bring art–American art–back to life.

Mr. Bramwell is a law clerk in Denver.

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