I have hesitated to comment on this Terry Teachout essay about political art because there's so much in it with which I agree. I've not seen the plays he judges to be "crude and predictable" (including The God of Hell, by Sam Shepard, whom I generally admire), but I'm pretty sure he's right. I also agree that "Turning messy fact into orderly fiction necessarily entails simplification; turning it into artful fiction demands as well that this simplification acknowledge the full complexity of human nature and human experience." And that "Any work of art that seeks to persuade an audience to take some specific form of external action, political or otherwise, tends to be bad." (Although I am more dubious about his further qualification that "it is possible to make good, even great art that is intended to serve as the persuasive instrument of an exterior purpose." Perhaps some great art has had a persuasive effect of this kind, but I doubt many artists have conceived their work primarily as "instruments" for an "exterior purpose." It's hard for me to see how one could maintain the integrity of one's "art" while focusing on the potential propaganda value of what one is creating.)
But Teachout does say some other things about the nature of art that I find puzzling:
Exactly what is it that art does? Countless books have been written to answer this question, and I can do no more in the compass of an essay than to suggest something of what they tell us. To begin with, it’s generally agreed that great art has some mysterious yet ultimately intelligible relationship to truth. The nature of that relationship was nicely described by Fairfield Porter, a major American painter who was also a gifted art critic. “When I paint,” Porter said, “I think that what would satisfy me is to express what Bonnard said Renoir told him: make everything more beautiful.” No matter who said it first, this statement points gracefully to one of the most important things that art does: it portrays the world creatively, in the process heightening our perception and awareness of things as they are. . . .
I've probably read many of the books to which Teachout is referring, but I don't recall any such general agreement that art is a way of seeking "truth." I, for one, don't agree with this at all. If Teachout means to say that art takes "life" as its subject and for that very reason winds up (at its best) disclosing something truthful about it, then this seems trivial to me. Where else would art finds its subject? If he means that truth in this context is something less tangible, something inherent to ordinary reality but not necessarily perceptible by ordinary means, then this already starts to make the pursuit of "truth" rather slippery. Whose truth are we talking about? Surely he can't mean that all artistic truths are equal, as long as they are ultimately "intelligible." One doesn't read Terry Teachout for a celebration of aesthetic relativism.
"Make everything more beautiful." Doesn't this contradict the notion that art aspires to truth? If art makes "things as they are" more beautiful, isn't this indeed a deliberate falsification? Life is something less than beautiful and art improves on it. This is a perfectly good thing for it do, but whatever "truth" emerges has to be truth about art, not about life. Again, if Teachout thinks this is where the truth in art resides, I'd happily agree, but somehow I don't think he means to suggest this. Perhaps he believes that in making everything more beautiful some "inner truth" about the world emerges, but once more the need to discriminate between artistic truths arises. "That truth is really true," the critic must say, "while that one merely masquerades as truth." Certainly some critics do engage in this sort of thing, but in my opinion it takes them outside the realm of art into morality and metaphysics.
It's hard to disagree with the notion that art "portrays the world creatively, in the process heightening our perception and awareness of things as they are," except that this seems a secondary effect of art, not its raison d'etre. According to John Dewey (to whom much of my own view of the nature and efficacy of art is indebted), art does indeed heighten perception and awareness, but what it most immediately heightens is our apprehension of what an experience can be like. The experience of art, Dewey says, is the most acute kind of experience we can have, and before we move on to the "subject" of the work we first of all clarify our perception of the art work itself, becoming aware (ideally) of the efforts the artist must have made in creating the work. To say that art primarily directs us to "things as they are" is to deny the "creative" integrity of art in favor of the representation of reality it purportedly gives us. Presumably, for Teachout it is the "truth" of this representation that is most important.
It is certainly the case that political art most insistently points us to "things as they are," and Teachout is correct in contending that political art is, usually, bad art, or at least that it's very difficult for most political art to succeed. Political artists are almost by definition more interesed in the representation of reality they convey than in the subtleties of form and expression. They are after Truth in its most unadorned manifestation. They want to heighten our awareness in no uncertain terms. But I don't think that the way to counter bad art of this kind is to delineate more intricate gradations of "truth." I think you should just commit yourself to the art and let truth take care of itself.