Tuesday, January 20, 2009

And Surely the Age of Great Speeches Isn't Over

Tony Woodlief comments on Sunday's Inaugural concert:

Sunday's inauguration concert was designed to evoke strong emotion. It was certainly held in a dramatic setting, cast at the feet of Lincoln, in the place where Reverend King gave his nation-changing speech. The danger of standing where giants have tread, of course, is that doing so invites comparison. There was certainly little to be compared, this day, between the transformative words of these great men and the canned lines of the very small playactors selected to give speeches between the concert's musical acts...

...It was revealing that one of the speeches most worthy of note, from the incomparable Forest Whitaker, was essentially a selection from William Faulkner's Nobel acceptance speech, an uplifting affirmation of art and truth that is at the same time a denunciation of the worst of post-modernism and relativism. What we have forgotten, as unwittingly attested by the voices at this concert (excepting Mr. Obama, of course, who is a first-rate speaker), is that actors are not, in a classical Aristotelian sense, artists. They are skilled, to be sure, but they are empty vessels, to be fitted to parts as suits the real artists, the writers and photographers, the costumers and make-up specialists. This is not to deny the accidental beauty of Marisa Tomei or Jamie Foxx, or the emotive skill of Denzel Washington. But something is strangely out of whack when speeches are to be delivered at the foot of Lincoln, on ground hallowed by King, and the deliverers we choose are none of them thinkers or writers...

The reality, of course, is that most actors today are nothing without smoldering looks and other people's words, and so each in turn took the stage to read the words of their intellectual betters. Perhaps this is the way of art in a highly specialized economy—if even Christian rock stars these days have to be sexually appealing, then surely we can't cast stones at average Americans who prefer their speeches to be given by beautiful people.

Yet there was a time when scientists and thinkers were among the household list that today is entitled: Celebrities. There was a time when speeches were given by people who could write them, and further, could deliver them with greater force than the pale, this-is-how-we-talk-on-the-Academy-Awards-stage style of Judd, Jackson, et al. And surely the age of great speeches isn't over, as witnessed by the performance of the most gifted speaker on Sunday's stage, Mr. Obama himself. Might there not have been room, then, amidst all the glamour, for an Irving, a Goia, and perhaps—God forbid, given sensitivities about speakers who affirm the validity of the entire Bible—the booming voice of a pastor?

In President Obama we clearly have star power, and one hopes thoughtfulness and moral courage as well. Perhaps the modern American bargain is that we can no longer have the latter two in our public officials without a healthy dose of the former. The danger, of course, is that too few of us seem able to discern the difference.

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