The National Portrait Gallery, part of the federally funded Smithsonian Institution, is presenting an exhibition that does exactly the opposite of what true art does.
When I studied English at Princeton, I had the good fortune to be taught by a series of scholars who in their lectures and precepts drove home the point that art, whether it be in literary or other form, must ultimately be measured by its capacity to make better human beings.
A work of art -- or alleged work of art -- can do only one of three things to a person's character: It can hurt it, improve it or have no impact at all.
A great work of art could have the third result through the sheer insentience of the consumer. Yet if a work is capable of taking serious hold of a person's heart and mind, the question that matters then is the condition in which it leaves that heart and mind. Whether it is a poem, a play, a painting, a symphony or a building, the issue is the same.
The great artists of the Renaissance understood their works this way. Michelangelo designed the dome of St. Peter's to lift hearts and minds to God. Shakespeare insisted Macbeth pay just consequences for his murderous acts. The creations of these two great artists hold the same power today they held almost five centuries ago.
Sir Philip Sydney, the Elizabethan poet and warrior, explained the Renaissance view in his "Apology for Poetry," in which he argued that poetry is superior to history and philosophy because it has a greater power to teach virtue.
Sydney said, "It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet," but "it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by." The "final end" of poetry, he said, "is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of."
"I affirm," Sidney concluded, "that no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as Poetry, then is the conclusion manifest that ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed."
So to what purpose is the National Portrait Gallery employing ink and paper and other assets these days? Is it trying to move men to virtue?
As first reported by Penny Starr of CNSNews.com, the NPG is running an exhibit through the Christmas season called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."