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We had faces
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
October 11, 2012

Originally published February 17, 2005

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." Gloria Swanson spoke these lines when she played Norma Desmond, a fading star of silent movies, in the movie Sunset Boulevard. Swanson had been a silent screen star in her youth, with an unforgettable face and a memorable screen presence.

One might debate as to whether the faces of the silent movie era were more memorable than the faces of the heyday of the studio system and its bevy of enduring stars. However, when one compares the new movie actors of the last twenty years with the stars of Hollywood of 1930-60, one notices a disappearance of the interesting face and feels a sense of loss. Keanu Reeves, a faceless, talentless movie actor recently imprinted his hand in wet cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater, along with handprints of hundreds of movie stars before him. Unlike the throngs of fans who used to show up at this ceremony, only a few friends, directors, and producers showed up. The interesting faces have vanished from the screen, and the magic and glamour is gone. The crowds stayed home.

Art historian Kenneth Clark commented in his TV series and book Civilization about the rise and decline of the face. He was admiring the sculpted kings and queens (circa 1200 AD) in the west portal of Chartres Cathedral. "From the point of view of civilization, the most important thing about the central doorway...is the character of the heads of the kings and queens....Do the kings and queens of Chartres show a new stage in the ascent of Western man? Indeed I believe that the refinement, the look of selfless detachment, and the spirituality of these heads is something entirely new in art. Beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless, and even slightly brutal. I fancy that the faces which look out on us from the past are the surest indicator of an epoch...good faces evoke good artists — and conversely a decline of portraiture means a decline of the face, a theory which can now be illustrated by the photographs in the daily papers. The faces on the west portal of Chartres are among the most sincere and, in a true sense, the most aristocratic that Western Europe has ever produced."

Next to the great faces at Chartres, the Greek gods looked "arrogant, soulless, and brutal." The depraved gods of our era are rock stars who have faces which are exactly that: arrogant, soulless, and brutal. They have sensuous faces, but the sensuality is cruel and menacing. Their strut has no joy in it, but expresses the language of intimidation and perversion. Their faces are the faces of demons. In contrast, Stephen, before he was stoned, had the "face of an angel." (Acts 6:14)

George Orwell said, "At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves." Character and spirituality gradually show in the face over the passage of time. The same is true of wickedness. Leonardo da Vinci used a beautiful young man as his model of Christ for his painting The Last Supper. Years later, the picture was complete except for the face of Judas Iscariot. Da Vinci found a face of startling corruption and approached the man with that face to model Judas for him. The man broke into tears and said, "I was your Christ." Oscar Wilde wrote the disturbing novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. Every corrupt action committed by Dorian Grey showed in the portrait, while his face in the flesh remained beautiful and young. In the end, a depraved monster peered out of the portrait.

Does talent show in the face?

In the movie Amadeus, the musical mediocrity Salieri was an admirer of Mozart's music for many years, but had never met Mozart. When he heard that Mozart was at a performance for the Archbishop of Salzburg, he scanned the crowd of young musicians to see if he could guess which one was Mozart. "Is talent like that?" he wondered. "Does it show in the face?" The immortal Mozart turned out to be an ill-mannered bumpkin with a silly face and a childish giggle.

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole, was captured by the Turks and pretended to be a simple-minded soul. Lawrence, of course, was a man of unusual gifts and character and it showed in his face. The Turkish colonel noticed him and said, "You have an interesting face." For a moment the colonel pondered as to whether he had found an interesting man. He turned away and bitterly said, "No, that would be too lucky."

We can be fooled by the face. Three of the four most beautiful girls I have met were not beautiful on the inside. They looked like angels, but they proved to be spoiled, self-absorbed, silly, petty, and cruel. Satan likes to appear as an "angel of light" in order to deceive us. (2 Corinthians 11:14)

We do not dare put too much credence in the face. Man is exceedingly complex and contradictory and filled with surprises. Many persons are adept at striking a pose and putting on a face to impress us and fool us. Some of the most wicked persons are expert at the game of the false face.

The age of mediocrity

We must not be overly impressed by a pretty face. But it means something when a generation of interesting faces comes into the world and passes away. One generation, the artists are inspired by a multitude of interesting faces. The next generation, the art of portraiture fails because the artists are repelled by the mediocre faces. An age of mediocrity has a lot to do with the disappearance of great men.

"...the Lord of hosts doth take away from Jerusalem...the mighty man, and the man of war, the judge, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient, the captain of fifty, and the honorable man, and the counselor, and the skilled craftsman, and the eloquent orator. And I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them" (Isaiah 3:1-4).

The disappearance of great men and the rule of mediocrities is the judgment of God upon a nation. Everywhere we look today, we see the triumph of the mediocrities. It is most obvious in the arts. When is the last time you have heard a popular recording star sing on key, follow the timing correctly, not gasp for air, and project musically in a sweet clear melodious voice without a microphone an inch from his mouth? Instead, we hear ugly screams, broken nasal and raspy tones, nasty grunts, and words slurred and mumbled. When is the last time you heard a new musical composition that will still be cherished a generation from now? When have you seen the work of a contemporary artist who made you weep by the sheer beauty he portrays? When was the last interesting face that looked out at you from the canvas of a contemporary artist? It is very sad to live in an age of mediocrity.

Isaiah makes a point about the disappearance of great generals. Where is our Patton, our MacArthur, our Eisenhower today? Where is our Grant and our Lee? Their absence leaves a huge vacuum. Who are those minor mediocrities in uniform with stars on their shoulders who peer at us from the television screens? As for our unbelievably mediocre judges, "wise men," orators, and craftsmen, I shall leave for comment on another day.

Self-esteem for mediocrities

America's public schools are a factory for manufacturing mediocrities. Mediocrity is encouraged. Excellence is not politically correct. When a child fails to achieve excellence, and is awarded a B, the parents will sometimes raise hell with the school. "You have damaged my child's self-esteem," the silly parents will say. The self-esteem cult does not praise excellence. It pumps up mediocrity. The cotton candy, feel-good self-esteem that our schools and social sciences peddle is to feel good about oneself based upon illusions and lies.

Doctor Laura received a call from a whiney woman who complained, "I don't feel good about myself." Doctor Laura responded, "Why should you feel good about yourself when you have behaved in a self-seeking, manipulative, and slutty way?" The self-esteem movement is based upon a lie. C.S. Lewis said that no one says "I'm as good as you" unless it is a lie. A beautiful girl never says "I'm as good as you" to a homely girl. An intelligent man never says "I am as good as you" to a dunce. Lewis lived before the self-esteem movement, but the egalitarian "I'm as good as you" that was prevalent in his day was the logical prelude to our self-esteem movement. When we say "I'm as good as you," what we really mean is, "I am entitled to feel as good about myself as you do in spite of my mediocrity and your excellence."

We are commanded in scripture to respect and honor all people and to be kind and loving. We must not treat the mediocrities in a personally-condescending manner. However, that does not mean we are obliged to clap for a mediocre performance, pretend a bad painting is good, give an A to a mediocre student, or pretend that bad behavior is good behavior. We are not called upon to attack all the mediocrities of the world, but if we are to have integrity, we must not lie when we are called upon to judge a mediocre performance or product. We must give the failing student an F if he does not meet minimum standards. Just as mediocrity is based upon a lie, excellence is based upon the truth. Men and women of truth have interesting faces.

A culture of excellence

A culture of excellence must have truthfulness, objective values, high standards, honest, intelligent criticism, and honor for excellence. The Renaissance artists of Florence worked in studios that were open to the streets. Competing artists could drop in and make scathing comments about the work in process. Patrons and teachers of the arts would enter the studio with friends and openly compare the artist's strengths and weaknesses with other artists. The tough business-minded Florentines were surprisingly passionate about beauty and had a refined sense of aesthetic judgment. Their criticisms of an artist hit the mark more often than not.

When a major public work of art was commissioned in Florence, a public competition between the leading artists was scheduled with great glory for the victor. No awards were given to a mediocrity based upon political connections because the citizens of Florence would denounce it as a scandal.

Michelangelo, the greatest artist produced by Florence, was a product of the acid bath of criticism and the wounds of competition, and he had the scars to show it. He also produced some of the greatest works of art of all time. One pays a heavy price for excellence. Excellence is not for the lazy, the impatient, the timid, or the self-indulgent. Beethoven suffered over every note until each note was perfect. Whether he died in the pursuit of excellence did not matter to him. All that mattered was his vision of truth and beauty and he had no time for mediocrities or fools.

Beethoven was worshiped as a genius in his own day by his enraptured fans. Beethoven and Goethe (pronounced Ger-ta) were walking down the lane. Goethe was a great poet, writer, versatile intellectual, and scientist, as well as a high-ranking public official. A group of rich and powerful aristocrats were walking towards the two men. Goethe politely bowed and stood to one side. Beethoven forged ahead, compelling the aristocrats to step aside. Goethe remonstrated with Beethoven for his uncouth behavior as an unnecessary breach of social etiquette and an indifference to human feelings. Beethoven said, "There are only two of us and hundreds of them." Let us follow Goethe in his courtesy, humility, and kindness, and follow Beethoven in his complete freedom from currying favor from mediocre men of superficial rank. Flattery and sycophancy are for mediocrities. Let us cheer that once there was a day when excellence was exalted and one man of genius could say to another man of genius, "There are two of us and hundreds of them."

Intrinsic value

Relativism is the refuge of the mediocrity. If everything is valued only according to subjective preferences, then there is no such thing as excellence, only private taste. Relativism in judgment is the doctrine of multiculturalism that is taught in the public schools. Professor Allan Bloom resisted the academic intellectual relativism that taught all ideas are equally valid. Bloom protested this folly in his book The Closing of the American Mind. He said that the minute students believe that all ideas have equal worth, they lose interest in ideas. Only a fool would waste time wrestling with ideas unless one idea is better than another. If there is a truth that remains fixed after all voices of subjective preference are voiced, then it is worthwhile spending one's life in the pursuit of that truth. One looks to standards of excellence achieved in the past to find footholds to rise to truth.

Bloom applied this principle to literary aesthetics. There is a canon of literary classics because certain works have intrinsic value, quite apart from the tastes and fads of the era in which they were produced. The intrinsic value subsists within the work, whether or not those with uncultivated perceptions can discern it. The teacher guides the development of the student's aesthetic judgment and sensitivity, in order that the student can discern the intrinsic value of the classics. This gives the student handholds as he arduously ascends the steep mountain in his quest for truth.

Beauty exists in the world because God wanted to give us clues about Himself, the One of ultimate beauty. The aesthetic senses of man can be trained and cultivated to discern and value beauty — precisely because beauty is really there, not just a figment of the imagination.

Taste versus judgment

Some individuals of a skeptical or a mediocre frame of mind have made up their minds that all aesthetic enjoyment is a matter of taste. You can argue with them all night and in the morning, and they will still deny that certain works of art, music, and literature have intrinsic value. If this had always been the view of all men, there could be no great works of art, music, or literature, or men with interesting faces. There could only be a culture of mediocrity like we have today.

Let me use an illustrative example of the difference between taste and judgment. More than twenty years ago, my sister and I visited the National Gallery in Washington D.C. They had a special exhibit of the American luminist school of art.

The luminists of the nineteenth century painted landscapes emphasizing great distances and wide perspectives. The paint was applied in thin liquid sheets to emphasize the sky, the effects of light, the feel of the air, and the impression of great open spaces. My sister and I agreed in our aesthetic criticism. This art had intrinsic value, it told the truth about the creation, and the paintings were achievements of excellence.

However, my sister's personal tastes were very different from my personal tastes. I found the luminist works overwhelming and exhausting. My sister found them illuminating and nourishing. I told her that I was exhausted and would rest in the lobby while she delighted herself in the luminist gallery. I headed for the lobby to sit down, rest, and recover from luminist exhaustion. Just before I reached the lobby, I noticed the bust of an Italian nobleman. It was an unusually taut and vivid work of Italian baroque art. As I drew closer, I was startled. Surely they could not have a Bernini, could they? If they did, they surely would make it the center of attention and protected it with guards, would they not? They surely would set the treasure aside in a hall like this where anyone could touch it but few people would notice it, would they not?

As my excitement was building I bent over and squinted to read the small plaque. Eureka! An authentic Bernini! The most skillful and subtle sculptor who has ever lived! I spent perhaps twenty, thirty minutes inspecting every square inch of the statue. The texture of the skin, the curves of the facial bones, the eyes that seemed alive, the magical shadows across the face, the perfection and subtlety of the cloth and the hair! It was wonderful beyond all my hopes and dreams! I stood back to view the face of the nobleman from afar. What a face! Renaissance and Baroque men did not need dialogue. They had faces!

The first thing that came across from the perspective of distance was that this was a great man of strength, character, and gravitas. He was obviously tired and his health was starting to fail. But somehow in the cast of his deeply-set eyes, the set of his mouth and jaw, and the audacity of his strong cheek bones and noble brow, one could tell that he was unwavering in his purposes and uncompromising in his integrity. As I drew closer to that special face, I felt a deep sympathy, almost a tenderness well up within me. It was something about the indentations under the eyes and between the eyes and the prominent patrician nose, and something about the taut, rugged emaciation of the face that revealed it. This man has suffered deeply and wept bitter tears. He has loved profoundly and lost heavily.

Yet in the midst of his heaviness of heart and the opposition of enemies who continuously vexed him, a hint of victory slowly shined through as I watched that noble face in veneration and rapture. The man was a wounded hero! A man who had seen the ordeal through and had prevailed. For me, this was a life-giving insight. I had been bent with a weight of exhaustion and slowed with heavy feet when I crept away from the luminist purgatory. But now I was filled with warmth and vibrant energy. My sister emerged with a shining face from the luminist dungeon. I said eagerly, "Look Leila, it's a Bernini." She squinted at it for a full minute and said, "Yes, this is extremely good. But I would find it depressing to stare at that thing all afternoon. Let's go." I felt like dancing as I skipped down the museum steps. The sky seemed very blue, the air was sweet, and the beautiful capital city was bathed in a golden light. I had a spring in my step. Had I been alone, I would have gone back to spend more time with the precious Bernini, an eternal work with profound intrinsic value.

My sister and I were in complete agreement in our aesthetic judgments. We could not have been further apart in our aesthetic tastes. There was an objectively real intrinsic value built into the luminist masterpieces and the Bernini masterpiece. This truth was correctly perceived by both of us. Our judgments had nothing to do with subjective taste. It was a matter of objective perception and judgment. Precisely because there was a reality of truth and beauty captured in the art, it was possible for the luminist works to be nourishment and joy to one kind of person and overwhelming and exhausting to another kind of person. Precisely because the Bernini was a work of the highest genius, integrity, and truthfulness it was possible for it to be energizing and life giving to one person and depressing to another person.

Great works of art have intrinsic value contained within themselves. Aesthetic judgment and appreciation of the achievement of the artist is one thing. Personal taste and enjoyment is quite another thing. If it were not so, there could be no great works of art, people who appreciate them, and people who are devoted to them. There could be no experience of greatness in a museum. There could be no human individuality and complexity that make for interesting faces.

I am deeply grateful the creator made things His way and not according to the lies of the mediocrities and the relativists. He gave us faces! The wonderful world He made is really there! He sent great men to tell us about it! His glory shines through it all! Hallelujah!


A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31