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Daniel McInerny

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

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13 replies to this post
  1. While I cannot guess what an 18th C book cost in 2013 dollars, they were relatively more expensive, and many in my library contain lists of subscribers who paid to have the book written and published. i see no reason why a well-connected or established author could not do it again.

  2. Finally, a man who makes sense. As I stated years ago, while up in Russel Kirk’s Italianette home in Mecosta, to change the culture, we must control our own art economy – we must present works that are not only higher minded, but also with precision craftmanship, that leaves little doubt, to anyone, of their worthiness.

  3. Excellent thoughts, Dan. I know that I had to struggle mightily to overcome the dual impediments of being both a protestant and a preacher with my fiction. Some may think I have not actually gotten over them yet–nevertheless your point is right on the money–the craft comes first. A poorly told story is a disservice regardless of the “message”–it is probably in some sense heretical for having a discernibly orthodox message.

    You touch on something obliquely here that I would like to see developed more in the “pages” of TIC and that is the proper relationship of the servile to the liberal arts. While it is true that the servile arts have the mastery in our popular institutions–and we are slaves for it–life is not possible in this world without them. We need to redeem the servile arts by returning them to their proper places as servants of the liberal arts. (A paradox of Chestertonian proportions.) I think this article is a step in that direction.

  4. As young aspiring writer who has had the unfortunate experience of “storming the caste” of the traditional publishing market (I was forced to retreat to the domain of self-publishing), I appreciate this article as a call to move in the practical direction of innovative reform at an institutional level. Certainly if we are to sound the trumpet of community, we ought to put its principles into practice. I can think of few things more noble than a group of imaginative conservatives coming together in effort to patronize the arts they hold so dear.

    My only complaint/suggestion that I would respectfully make (if I may be so bold as to address my elders), would be that you not alienate Protestants in this effort. Surely it is unfair to characterize the artistry of the entire “Protestant world” as a “melodramatic extension of preaching.” Certainly there are notable exceptions (C.S. Lewis), if this can even be said to be a rule at all. I certainly do not believe this has been the intention, but as an economical precaution, I would warn against divisive rhetoric as it regards to religious differences. Limiting the base of this proposed market before its very creation does not seem wise.

  5. Thanks, Gentlemen, for your thoughts and observations on my post.

    Stephen–nice point: crowdfunding and the subscription model have a long history in relation to the arts.

    Gary–it’s good to make your acquaintance. Are you an artist yourself? Where can we find out about your work? In any event, you make a great point.

    Christopher–thanks for your patience with my rather sweeping point about Protestant approaches to the arts. My complaint is mainly about evangelical approaches, which, in the case of film, seem to get started with the thought: “Here’s a powerful medium by which we can get our message out to the world,” rather than with a thought like, “I love where Orson Welles put the camera in that shot. I’d like to try something like that.” It’s the difference between a preacher’s approach and a craftsman’s approach. But again, I’m not denying that a work of art shouldn’t be trying to say something. All works of art have messages. But it all comes down to how deftly they are incorporated into the craft. In any event, Christopher, it seems that you’re dealing with your “impediments” quite well!

    I also like your point about the relationship between the servile and the liberal arts. I wasn’t thinking of the argument in my post in these terms, but that’s really what I’m talking about, I suppose, though I’m not sure literature, say, or filmmaking, should be classed as a servile art??? The contemplative element in the fine arts makes me want to class them with the liberal arts, though their practical aspect, the aspect of making, makes me want to class them with the servile arts. But I do think you’re right that the servile arts need to take their direction from the Truth, Beauty and Goodness discovered and contemplated in the liberal arts. Much more reflection is needed on this point, and the implications for economics, which I know you have a interest in, are enormous.

    Thanks again, everyone!

    • Dan, I agree with your assessment that we Protestants tend to turn everything we do into a reworking of, The Pilgrims Progress–it has a lot to do with the Nominalism of most Protestantism. When it comes to servile arts I was thinking more about the fund-raising/patronage, and the business side of publishing. We know the tail is wagging the dog in the vast majority of what is going on in publishing. It takes principle and strength of will to keep first principles in place.

  6. Alan, you are right to correct me on my sweeping judgment of Protestant approaches to the arts. Thank you. As I said in reply to Christopher Wiley’s comments, my beef is really with evangelical approaches to film and literature, and I should have been more precise in saying so. Again, my apologies.

    And I encourage you in your literary efforts. But I would also encourage you not to think of self-publishing as a “forced retreat.” It’s simply one way of adjusting to the reality of the market. Keep in mind: the role of the literary agent is hardly 100 years old. The role of the publishing house is only several hundred years old. Such roles and institutions are not carved in granite somewhere. Shakespeare never sold his work to a publisher. Never had an agent. He simply gathered together with some folks and put his work out there.

  7. IMHO the thing about Protestant art is that it lacks a sense of subtlety in most cases. It puts the moral lesson right in your face and leaves nothing to mystery and grace, a sense of coming to the point through contemplation and meditation and personal experience. This is something that I feel needs to be addressed in Christian entertainment in general.

    Great post, by the way! I’ve been a very frequent visitor to TIC and the one thing that has always lingered in my mind has been how to take the important theoretical and immaterial aspects and lessons of this and other conservative minds and to put it into practice. At last, I feel that I am beginning to see steps toward application. Thanks so much and God bless!

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