05/22/2011 09:58 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2011

The American Academy

On our car on the uptown C Train last Wednesday there were very few people, one of whom was quite well dressed. "He's going where we're going," I said to my friend Nancy Crampton, the photographer, who had invited me to join her at the annual Ceremonial of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in its August McKim Mead White building at 156th Street and Broadway.

Sure enough, he got off when we did. Being somewhat younger and spry-er, he made it to the Academy before we did. Amazingly, he turned out to be the friend of a friend. The world is exceedingly tiny.

The American Academy was founded a little over a century ago, partly in imitation of the French Academy. The French outfit is charged with maintaining the purity of the French language. Happily we don't worry about purity. One of the original members of our Academy began a book with the wonderfully impure sentence, "You don't know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter."

There is something appropriate about the remoteness of the Academy, which, along with the Hispanic Society, the last of the great New York museums to have free admission, is housed on Audubon Terrace. When it was built on land that had belonged to Audubon the location -- what we now call Washington Heights -- was still bucolic, suggesting its apartness from the hurlyburly of the city. Soon, however, the subway, proceeding steadily uptown, would make this neighborhood accessible.

While the neighborhood may be more accessible the Academy, metaphorically speaking, is not. Although some of its members are relatively well known, most of its honorees are not.

The composer Edward MacDowell, one of the original members, was a recognizable name a century ago, if only for his piano pieces, which were popular at a time when every respectable middle-class home had a piano. Of the current musical members, only Ned Rorem might be familiar, perhaps because of his racy diaries rather than his music. None of the composers honored Wednesday is a familiar name. My hunch is that they are all academics, known largely to fellow academics, partly because they write in a style that is essentially cerebral.

I am not necessarily hostile to contemporary composition. A few weeks ago I attended a marvelous concert at Zankel Hall by violinist Colin Jacobsen and pianist Bruce Levingston. In addition to some juicy pieces by Anton Dvorak, Leos Janacek and Astor Piazzola, they played three new works by contemporary composers. Jacobsen and Levingston are both extraordinary musicians, who play with a passion and sensitivity that make every note throb.

These pieces could not have had more sympathetic readings -- it must have been gratifying for the composers, all of whom were present. I found them of interest, but did I make an emotional connection? Somewhat in the case of "The Shadow of a Blackbird," a piano solo by David Bruce, but mostly these were works that provided aural stimulation and pleasure but no emotional engagement.

It is simply a fact of life that there is a disconnect in modern life between work of high quality and what the public seeks out. I am among those who consider the novel that begins with the impure sentence I quoted above among the greatest works of American literature. It is also among the most popular. Now there is little correlation between quality and popularity.

The Academy honored numerous poets, including one with whom I am acquainted and whose work I genuinely love, Mark Doty. But, compared with a century ago, when poetry was fully a part of American life, it is now as remote as Audubon Terrace.

This year the Blashfield Address (which, when I first attended the Ceremonial 32 years ao, was given by John Updike) was given by Rocco Landesman, the theater producer who is now chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. Landesman raised the great question, Is Art to human development what the appendix is to humanity?

In arguing that art maintains some relevance he introduced the fascinating statistic that arts programs in city school reduce truancy by 35 per cent. Since arts programs are increasingly fewer and far between, alas, truancy is likely to remain high.

Landesman pointed out that the creation of Art is one of the things that distinguish us from other animals. "Other animals do not engage in sexual foreplay," he said. "Nor do they engage in music or art." The exception, of course, is birds, who do create a kind of music, though they do so unintentionally. Presumably the sounds they make are a form of communication with other birds. That they are musical is a happy by-product. We, on the other hand, seldom create art unintentionally.

I was pleased that the greatest applause of the afternoon was for theater critic Eric Bentley, with whom I studied at Columbia back in the Pleistocene. Bentley, who received the Academy's gold Medal of Honor, was introduced by Edward Albee, who commented, "I hope he is still proud of his enemies, as he should be, and still as tolerant of his admirers."

I am unaware that Bentley had enemies. His perspective was so broad it rose above any kind of factionalism. What could be more impressive than the fact that his biography of Bernard Shaw was admired by no less than Bernard Shaw?

In accepting the gold medallion, Bentley cited Samuel Johnson, who said, "The writer's duty is to make the world better."

"That was not Karl Marx," Bentley quipped. "It was Sam Johnson. When I was young I wanted to make the world better by abolishing war, abolishing poverty. The world is no further along that road now than it was then."

On a more positive note, he concluded, "The artist makes the world better by making a work of art. The critic makes the world better by creating a book or a review."

Post Script: I ought to have mentioned my delight at two other people the Academy honored who are by no means esoteric -- the New Yorker's excellent classical music critic Alex Ross, whose writing makes a huge range of music accessible, and John Patrick Shanley, whose plays (like "Doubt") and screenplays ("Moonstruck") have brought millions extraordinary pleasure.