October 10, 2014

WE VALUE INTELLIGENCE, NOT INTELLECT:

Confessions of an Aesthete (Terry Teachout, 10/01/14, Commentary)

Not long ago I was introduced to an audience as an "intellectual." This was a well-meaning choice of word, and a flattering one, but it was slightly off. An intellectual is a person who is mainly interested in ideas. I am an aesthete--a person who is mainly interested in beauty. Nowadays the word aesthete carries with it the musty reek of high Victoriana. Still, there remains no better word to describe the way certain people--people like me--view the world.

It's not that aesthetes are hostile to ideas. But it's part of aesthetic wisdom that there is great danger in allowing ideas alone to take the reins and ride mankind, since too often they end up riding individual men and women into mass graves. Far too many intellectuals have been what Jacob Burckhardt called "terrible simplifiers," the power-hungry idea-mongers whose utopian visions have inspired the world's most murderous tyrants. That is reason enough to decline to be counted among their number.

And yet it is also true that many aesthetes are too impatient or uninterested to learn the details of how things actually work and end up taking a comically simple-minded view of the way they should work. If there were an Artists' Party, its platform would look much like the one summed up in James Gould Cozzens's 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."

Still, as I say, aesthetes have it over intellectuals in one important respect: You'll rarely catch them hustling anyone off to the nearest guillotine. For all their frequent foolishness, their hands are stained with ink and paint, not blood.

Anglo-American anti-Intellectualism insulated us from all of the isms, in both art and politics. One is reminded of Stravinsky in exile in America, seeking to honor his host country, and determing that in order to do so he'd have to write a classical symphony.

Posted by at October 10, 2014 5:12 PM
  

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