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Art Offensive

"Events" in Washington, by which I mean public discussions of public subjects, are, even on a quiet week, abundant. They vary in prestige, according to the quality of the expert panel, the urgency of the issue to be discussed, and the availability of food. I have attended many such gatherings in my two years in Washington, due to my employment first at a think tank (think tanks forming the backbone of event society) and then at this magazine. Owing to this broad experience, when I heard the clinking of bottles and ice as I approached the ballroom where this year's Jefferson Lecture was to be held, I deduced that wine might be served, ranking this particular event, on the hierarchy of a freeloader's hedonism, with those hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations (the evening receptions) and some of the ritzier European institutes.

ASIDE FROM THE POSSIBILITY OF WINE, the Jefferson Lecture—established by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1972—seemed at first like any other Washington event. It quickly became clear, however, that this was not your average Washington meet-and-greet. The first clue was the peppy marching- band music that wafted through the cavernous ballroom. My companion and I assured ourselves that the music was canned, a method of keeping the audience of easily distracted humanists on pace toward its seats. Then we saw a cluster of red uniforms beside the podium and realized that the marching band was live, growing louder with each step. It was, in fact, the President's Own United States Marine Band, playing for Harvard Professor Helen Vendler, the esteemed scholar and critic of poetry who was this year's lecturer.

STRANGE THOUGH THE MARINE BAND seemed—the band plays at precious few Washington events, let alone scholarly ones—its presence set the tone for the evening. The NEH mandates that the Jefferson Lecture serve as "the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities." The audience rose for the presentation of the color guard and sang the national anthem, while a JumboTron displayed a close- up, first of the flag, and then of Vendler's thoughtful face. The pomp underscored the extent to which the Jefferson Lecture was to serve as a bridge, uniting disparate things with disparate goals, the scholar and the state.

THE JEFFERSON LECTURE IS A VERY public affair, but it has little to do with public intellectual life in Washington. The lecture is to be delivered by a humanist of the highest caliber—which, almost by definition, means a scholar who lives intellectually and most likely physically outside Washington. It is not that Washington suffers from a lack of serious thinkers or of people who consider themselves such. But Washington is not a city of arts and letters—it is a company town. It houses enough museums and theaters to entertain its workers in the off hours. But the city's universities are known less for English departments than for well-endowed schools of public affairs.

THE NEH HAS STRUGGLED IN THE PAST to balance the demands of contemporary relevance with the narrow precision of scholarly achievement. "No matter how visible the lecturer is," William R. Ferris complained in 1999, when he was chairman of the NEH, "very few Americans have heard of the Jefferson Lecture." Ferris attempted to rectify matters by inviting an extremely well-known man to deliver the following year's lecture, one who was also his boss: President Bill Clinton. (Clinton's opus was not sufficiently scholarly for the tastes of anyone beyond the NEH board, and the uproar that ensued forced the White House to demur.) Nor have the lectures always succeeded in their public mission. These pages noted in 1994 Gwendolyn Brooks's regrettable observations on the likeability of Jews and the merits of single-parent homes. In 2001, Arthur Miller delivered a frustratingly incoherent talk on theater as a presidential activity. And, even when the lecture is enjoyable, there has often remained a tension between the popular context and the scholarly oeuvre. The humanists either defensively insist on the importance of their work while ruefully acknowledging, in Miller's words, that the "release of art will not forge a cannon or pave a street," or, conversely, they defend themselves against scholars dismissive of their mass appeal. After David McCullough was lauded in the introduction to his 2003 lecture as having achieved "the secret dream of every historian: [having] his books ... sold in airports," the popular American historian felt it necessary, as if his life's work was not already testament enough, to remind that "no harm is done to history by making it something someone would want to read."

WHAT MADE HELEN VENDLER'S lecture, soon to be published in these pages, so remarkable was its diffusion of this central tension by a judicious disregard for it. Vendler simply assumed our need for the humanities and contended something more radical instead: that the arts, not history or philosophy, should be the humanities' main concern. Even more, Vendler suggested that the arts "have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as microbiology or mathematics." In her conception, the humanities are important not just because they are useful--a revolutionary premise in a city where "history" frequently masquerades as "case study" and philosophers can be broken into two camps, the realists and the utopians, both operating out of the Pentagon—and the genres of humanities commonly viewed as most peripheral to the exigencies of daily life are, instead, the most central.

VENDLER'S INTERPRETATION OF THE task before her in the Jefferson Lecture signified a pointed and welcome rebuke to the speakers of recent years, one that bodes well for the future of this Washington event. She did not attempt to fit her study of arts and literature into a rubric of utilitarian good--rather, her idea of utilitarian good was one built on the necessity of scholarship before or alongside everything else. Vendler was able to make her argument, perhaps, precisely because she lays no claim to the "public intellectual" status of Brooks or Miller or McCullough. She was a private intellectual making a public speech. And, not least for this reason, listening to her was a capital thrill.

This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004 issue of the magazine.