We're All the Best, and None Is Better

October 30, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- This depressing incident occurred in a photography class, but it could easily have happened in many other contemporary settings, especially academic ones.

The students, a bright group on the whole, were considering and generally admiring the work of a famous photographer. It was noted during the discussion that the photographer was known for making very few exposures in the process of producing his best prints.

He did not, in other words, shoot hundreds of frames in the hope of coming up with one or two good ones -- which is one way quite ordinary photographers occasionally produce exceptional pictures. Instead, before making each picture, he had recognized the exact image he wanted to record, and had then proceeded to capture it.

This is of course the way most works of art -- photos, paintings, sculpture, poetry -- are created. The artist needs both an aesthetic sensibility and technical skills. Both can be developed through experience and hard work, but outstanding artists need something more, some quality that distinguishes what they do from what everyone else does.

One of the students in the photography class, thinking along these lines, was moved to comment on the photos under discussion. Both the photos and the process used by the photographer to create them demonstrated his considerable talent, she said.

That was not, it turned out, the correct thing to say. Talent these days appears to be an unmentionable concept.

It smacks of ''elitism,'' other students objected, to suggest that the abilities of one photographer might be greater than anyone else's. Certain of his photographs might be considered excellent, to be sure, but there should be no implication that anyone else -- any student in the class, for example -- couldn't do just as well.

The instructor later reinforced that point from a different angle. If you say that one photographer has talent, he said, aren't you implying that others don't? And isn't that implication going to be deeply discouraging to young people hoping for a photographic career? Surely their self-esteem would be diminished if they were given reason to think their abilities in any way inferior to anyone else's.

The student who had committed the faux pas let it drop. She liked the course, her instructor and her classmates. Why make an issue of it, after all? She resolved not to mention the concept of ''talent'' again, at least until elitism is repealed as a serious social crime.

But believe it or not, that could happen. Advocates of repeal are popping up in all kinds of unlikely places, and some of them are saying the unsayable with eloquence and passion. I have in mind particularly the late William A. Henry III -- journalist (Pulitizer prize for criticism), proudly liberal Democrat, and author of the recently-published book ''A Defense of Elitism.''

It was a brave defense to undertake. Elitism, as Henry notes, is ''the foremost catchall pejorative of our times.'' Dressed up in different outfits, it is attacked with equal fervor by both the left and the right.

The left uses it in economics to bash capitalism, in the arts and education to attack the concept of strict standards. When the right speaks contemptuously of ''elites'' it means the web of lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists and academics who provide the main base of support for various Democratic initiatives.

The great post-World War II American tension has been between elitism and egalitarianism, Henry suggests, and in recent years ''the wrong side, the unthinking and nonjudgmental egalitarian side, has been winning. A brand of anti-intellectual populism is running amok.'' This has infected debates over social issues (feminism, multiculturalism), education (de-emphasis of grades, tests and study of the classics), and much of our culture, including our politics.

''Talent, achievement, practice and learning no longer command deference,'' writes Henry in his honest, pithy little book. ''Everybody is a star. Andy Warhol said everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, and nonachievers by the millions have come to expect it as a birthright.''

Instead of trying to ride the runaway egalitarian train, Henry writes, people of intelligence and good will, whatever their ideology, ought instead to be trying to bring it under control. For egalitarianism carried to loony extremes undermines the quality of our public debate over great issues, corrodes our social structure, exacerbates racial and other frictions, and over time can do immense harm to our country.

It's time to abandon the foolish notion, says Henry, ''that a good and just society should be far more concerned with succoring its losers than with honoring and encouraging its winners to achieve more and thereby benefit everyone.'' We might begin by encouraging students, all of whom have talents of some sort, to talk about the T-word in class.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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