In this essay called "Our Creed and Our Character," Terry Teachout notes:
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.
One might expect Teachout, who has been known in his own criticism to take pleasure in beauty, to point out the way in which this Puritan distrust of the aesthetic and accompanying demand for "functionality" distorts and marginalizes American art (not so much among artists as among critics and audiences), but instead he seems to accept David Gelernter's mawkish notion that there is such a thing as "Americanism," essentially religious in nature, of which American art is, or should be, an expression. "Secular-minded historians who fail to acknowledge this fact—and like-minded aesthetes who believe only in the gospel of art for art’s sake," writes Teachout, "are incapable of seeing either America or its earnest, achieving, incurably idealistic, and wildly gifted people as they really are."
So those of us who are "secular-minded" or who do profess "an uncomplicated enjoyment of beauty," or both, are not real Americans, are irreparably distant from Americans "as they really are"? Only those who accept "Americanism" in all its anhedonic glory need apply for citizenship, a precondition for which is knowledge of Gelernter's "sacralized reading of American history"? Only paintings of kittens or poems about Thomas Edison can really capture "earnest, achieving, incurably idealistic America," an endorsement of which is the true test of art?
Teachout almost says as much when he asserts that "one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art," as if this does indeed disqualify it from being considered art, disqualifies it from even being accepted as truly "American," since "religiosity" defines us. "Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters," he continues, "it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life. Similarly, few of our major composers have produced religious compositions of any significance—there is no American counterpart to Verdi’s Requiem or to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s G Minor Mass—and even fewer of our major painters have made use of Judeo-Christian iconography except as a kind of cultural local color."
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.
UPDATE Terry Teachout responds.