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.
It was a concert, to be sure, and one can hardly expect, in today’s entertainment-focused America, a crowd of onlookers to prefer Dana Goia to Jack Black’s goofball-turned-briefly-serious speechifying. Who needs some stuffy poet, after all, when you have available the artistic genius behind Shallow Hal? Sure, John Irving wrote a couple of books good enough to become movies, but we’ve got the star of Snakes on a Plane, for crying out loud! Besides, reading is for elitists.
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.
As Woodlief writes, “It’s a gentler kind of reflection we seek these days, not an inward look at what is good and evil within this country, within each of us, but instead a reflection that is all glitter and shine, delivered by beautiful people who have distinguished themselves by an ability to show us what we want to see.”