At the crescendo of his stirring cri de coeur, “Word and Anti-Word: A Christian Humanist Meditation,” Bradley Birzer asks how we might best undertake the renewal, inspired and grounded in the best intellectual traditions of the Christian West, that is so badly needed in our ever-darkening times. For an answer Dr. Birzer turns to Russell Kirk’s claim that one of the principal tasks of the renewal we need is the formation of the moral imagination, a claim that Birzer finds confirmed in the words of the novelist and painter Michael O’Brien:
“Because art has an inherent restorative power, and furthermore because it always has an authoritative voice in the soul, we must trust that over time works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources will help to bring about a cultural reconfiguration and reorientation of man.”
The very title of this on-line journal, The Imaginative Conservative, attests to the centrality of the arts, of beautiful works of imagination grounded in the full truth of the human person, to a robust Christian renewal of Western culture. That centrality has been particularly underscored in the past week or so, not only by Birzer’s edifying post, but also by Stratford Caldecott’s reflection on the nature of beauty, and Christopher B. Nelson’s lecture, “Story Telling & Judgment: Cultivating the Imagination.”
I hope you will indulge me as I add my own note to this chorus. I do so as a philosopher who takes his chief inspiration from the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. But today, I want to address the problem of the arts and cultural renewal primarily in my role as an artist, as a writer. In whole-hearted agreement with Birzer’s diagnosis of our cultural predicament, I want to move now from the theoretical to the practical and ask: what at the level of artistic practice is most needed to bring about the renewal of the moral imagination? My concern, therefore, is with the social problem: how to get artists in our tradition in a better position to be seen, heard and appreciated by the general public.
I say “better position,” because I know there are many contemporary artists who, like myself, are working hard to produce, in O’Brien’s words, “works of truth and beauty created from authentic spiritual sources” and that reach as wide a public as possible. Some of these artists I know, others I have not yet encountered. But I trust that many, if not most, of these artists would agree with me that much of our work remains at the margins of popular consciousness. So I want very briefly, and perhaps tendentiously, to suggest some ways in which this situation might be ameliorated.
First—and foremost—we artists must commit to excellence in our respective crafts. It is not enough to sincerely want to change the culture. As Samuel Goldwyn reportedly once said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Our first, professional task is not to be a teacher or a preacher, but an artist. It’s not that works of art don’t “say” anything. But what is said must always be articulated within the discipline of beautiful craftsmanship. Artists seeking to reform culture with the enduring wisdom of the Christian humanist tradition must therefore not take the approach of the Protestant world and seek to make art a melodramatic extension of preaching, even as, at the institutional level, some evangelical film production companies are extensions of evangelical churches.
But though we don’t want our artistic institutions to be extensions of churches, that doesn’t mean we don’t need institutions. We live in a marvelous time when artists don’t need to depend upon getting picked by traditional gatekeepers. Even popular writers with long and acclaimed track records (Stephen King, David Mamet, and, in a way, J.K. Rowling) are seizing the opportunity to self-publish their work, and so to become owners in a way they never have been before. I have nothing against getting picked by a traditional gatekeeper (a New York agent, the Sundance Film Festival), but this exclusive part of the market, to mix my metaphor, is pretty well saturated. So time spent storming the castle might better be spent picking ourselves and forming institutions—publication companies, film production companies, theater repertory companies—of our own.
Forming an institution can be enormously expensive. How to finance it? In two ways. First, artists in our tradition need to be as innovative in the financing of their work as secular artists are. Crowdfunding, trusting in the audience to think enough about the work to want to support it financially, is a game-changing phenomenon in the economic lives of artists. If the dubious Amanda Palmer can raise over a million dollars with a Kickstarter campaign, then why shouldn’t our artists try to do the same?
Crowdfunding, however, cannot accomplish everything. Artists and artistic institutions in our time also need angels: teams of investors and benefactors who understand the situation Birzer describes and who commit to the formation of the moral imagination with their financial support. The artistic riches of Europe we turn to so often for inspiration are due in large part to generous patrons of the arts. We wouldn’t have Dante or Shakespeare or The Sistine Chapel without them. So we need to revive this great tradition of patronage. For without it, the artistic reform we need will never be able to take practical effect.
All of this effort, finally, should have both a counter-cultural and popular aim. By this I mean that our artistic products should not be watered down for the general populace. Drawing upon our rich artistic heritage, we should make works of art that, in significant ways, will necessarily run counter to the mainstream taste. But precisely in doing so, and to quote T.S. Eliot, we will create the taste by which we are to be enjoyed. At first, our audiences will be small. But they will, hopefully, be rabid, and function thus as what Seth Godin calls “sneezers,” passing along their enthusiasm for our works to the wider world like a virus. Filmmaker Whit Stillman is a good example of an artist who started out making small, idiosyncratic, independent films, but who then, with the aid of some “sneezers,” was able to bring his work to a much wider public.
This, as I see it, is a sketch of the agenda that artists seeking to truly reform culture must take up. At any rate, and with respects to Gandalf, this is what I have decided to do with the time that is given me.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.