The Painters Honeymoon bareselAsk a conservative why conservatives tend to be underrepresented in the arts and the answer is likely to be “liberal bias.” Ask the same question in the artistic world and the answer may well be that good artists are more commonly liberals than conservatives. If we are looking at contemporary realities rather than the great conservative artists of the past, both answers have more truth to them than just about anybody would be happy to admit. Rather than gripe about a liberal bias which we cannot change, it would seem more constructive to look at what conservatives can do to facilitate the work of conservative artists, what conservatives can do to be taken more seriously at an artistic level, and at what conservatives may be failing to do.

It must be understood in the first place that quality art requires innovation unless it is to be a second-rate imitation of previous art. Such innovation must be based on authentic aesthetic standards and, at least for practical purposes, must be a growth out of the artistic tradition—but innovation it must be. Few writers of the past century were as insistent upon formation in the great literary tradition as was T.S. Eliot. Few literary styles of the past century were as innovative as the poetic (as opposed to religious or philosophical or political) modernism of T.S. Eliot. Certain conservative writers contemporaneous with Eliot expressed disapproval of his departure not from aesthetic standards, but from the form in which they had historically been manifested. Despite their many merits, it is not surprising that at a strictly artistic level such writers fell short of Eliot, as well as of that other conservative literary innovator (and admirer of Eliot’s poetry), Evelyn Waugh.

Conservative journals publish essay after essay on writers in the “great tradition.” Essays on the writers of today who are continuing that tradition are comparatively rare. Lord Julian Fellows, Martin Mosebach, and Piers Paul Read are all serious Catholics committed to Western civilization. The first two of these even prefer to attend Mass in Latin. Allan Massie, A.N. Wilson, and David Lodge are not easily categorized as either conservatives or as liberals, though Mr. Massie would insist upon being designated a conservative. All three have produced literature of solid and traditional artistic quality. Equally solid writing has come from the pen of writers of whose politics I know nothing, such as Kazuo Ishiguro. There are even some of politically-liberal views but artistically-conservative practice who engage seriously with much of the Western tradition. Conservatives ought to be engaging with all such writers. Even those holding reprehensible views on the most important issues of the day have made real contributions to the development of certain areas of the arts. No small amount of the writing that we consider foundational to our civilization was viewed by the early Christians as a product of the predominant and hostile pagan society in which they lived, yet the good in such writing was still embraced by those very same Christians.

Unless we make an effort to engage in a sustained and regular way with all legitimate developments of the artistic tradition—wherever we happen to find them—we will contribute not to the preservation of the tradition but to its ossification into a relic of the past, admired by an increasingly marginalized subculture. We will also fall into the caricature of conservatives as stuck in the past—a past upon which it is our proper task to build. Our tradition cannot be static. It must either grow or die.

Such engagement ought not, however, to take place solely at the political level but must also take place at the artistic level. Regular contributors to conservative journals are overwhelmingly what I will call “philosophers” (writers primarily concerned with truth) rather than what I will call “artists” (writers primarily concerned with beauty). A philosopher may write an essay on the importance of beauty but in doing so will be primarily concerned to articulate truths about beauty. The philosopher who reads T.S. Eliot can appreciate the beauty of Eliot’s poetry but will be primarily concerned with the truths which Eliot expresses. In contrast to this, the artist will appreciate the truths which Eliot’s poetry expresses but will be primarily interested in Eliot’s beauty of expression. The artist will express truth in his writing but will be primarily concerned to express it in a beautiful way.

One factor in why conservatives are alleged to produce bad art is the fact that certain efforts at “conservative art” in fiction and film are, in fact, the work of “philosophers” rather than of “artists.” In these cases, the outward form of a novel or of a movie is used as a mere vehicle for the expression of conservative ideas. The ideas may be entirely correct but the artistic failure will not give aesthetic pleasure and will not convince anyone of the ideas expressed aside from those who already accept their truth. A good novel can only be written by someone who is primarily concerned with the beauty of his work rather than with the ideas which it contains.

It is also of importance that the truly bad art—or pseudo-art—which is all too prevalent today be criticized on an aesthetic basis rather than purely because it is different from the art of the past, or because of its association with erroneous social and political theories.

The degree to which conservatives can publish within mainstream artistic journals, if they focus their critical essays on the aesthetic qualities of the work under discussion, may surprise some conservatives. There are journals that really are willing to publish writers who hold just about any views. There are journals that wish to seem open-minded. But there are, of course, journals with a strong liberal bias. The more such a bias comes to dominate, the more necessary it will be for the conservative artist to have alternative forums in which to publish critical writing. It is possible for an essay published on aesthetics to hide, without contradicting, the writers’ religious and political beliefs, but to accomplish this throughout a lifetime of writing is at the very least difficult.

Given the purpose of conservative journals, it is perfectly correct that the majority, even the substantial majority, of essays published in them be “philosophical” rather than “artistic.” Such journals have a whole range of issues to analyze, of which literature and the arts are only one. It is entirely correct that such journals give attention to the relationship of literature and the arts to the primary topic (politics) with which such journals concern themselves. It is entirely correct that such journals call attention to the great art of the past and to the artistic works that are of the greatest significance. But the inclusion of regular engagement with the contemporary, mainstream artistic world (particularly with those positive developments which do take place within it) and regular engagement with the arts at a non-political, aesthetic level would be a useful addition if our aim is to conserve and to develop the whole of our cultural tradition.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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13 replies to this post
  1. If you’re talking about “liberal” or “conservative” art, you’ve already gone wrong. There’s just art. When the agenda is front and center, it’s more accurately called propaganda….

    It’s almost as bad as talking about “Christian” art and “non-Christian” art. As soon as I hear about a Christian film, for example, I know right then that it’s something I can safely avoid. On the other hand, there are genuine moral and spiritual themes in the Coen brothers’ films.

    I guess it’s easier to hear God speaking through good art than merely good intentions.

    • So Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” and Caravaggio’s “Calling of St Matthew” are simply propaganda and not serious works of art?

      All art is imbued with the artists worldview. Some are more hidden than others, sure, but if you were to take most of the contemporary “not so obviously propaganda” films of today and show then 50 years ago, people would have seen the as secular humanit propaganda. It simply doesn’t look like propaganda to us because we’re inundated with it.

    • It depends on what you mean. There are few magazines and journals (if any) which would refuse under all conditions to publish an article from a conservative. That doesn’t mean conservatives will have an easy time being published in all periodicals.

      There is in the first place the question of a writer’s general standing in the artistic world. Someone like Julian Fellowes (who has won awards for Gosford Park and Downton Abbey) or someone like Martin Mosebach (who has won multiple mainstream literary awards) will likely be able to have an article accepted in just about any periodical to which they care to submit. Having a contributor of the highest standing will usually outweigh political considerations. The fact that such men are able to reach the heights of their professions and to win such awards confirms my general point.

      There is also the question of content. Here there are three categories:

      1) Articles which are a-political in their content but submitted by writers known to be conservative.

      2) Articles which are predominantly a-political but give occasional, perhaps subtle, indications of the writer’s conservative views.

      3) Articles which are strongly conservative as to their content.

      Only editors of the most extreme ideological commitments would refuse to publish articles in the first category. Articles in the third category will be harder to have published. Editors are more likely to accept work which has nothing to do with their editorial positions one way or the other than they are to publish work which contradicts their editorial positions.

      This does not mean that conservatives are not under a disadvantage in the artistic world. It does mean that provided they focus on art rather than politics it is possible for their conservatism to be known and for them to still be successful.

  2. A really good article, in part because I can relate. I am attempting to do something like the above, mainly, write a book that also has a message wound into it.

    I suppose that if someone else asked for my advice on how to do this, I would say “First, focus on writing a great story, then work your message into it.” Don’t do the reverse, meaning putting most of your effort into your message and then try to fit some sort of plot around it almost as an afterthought. A great sample of the latter are the “Left Behind” books, which even devout Christians will concede contain terrible writing, unrealistic characters, bad dialogue, etc.

  3. There are serious conservative & Libertarian visual artists, but we are rare. Thanks to Facebook we know each other. We have been able to find just a few dozen across the country. The problem is that liberal artists are supported (liberals buy liberal artists work), whereas conservative artists are not supported. Conservatives & Libertarians who do buy art buy liberal artists work. (The Koch brothers for example.) When regular everyday conservatives buy art they tend to buy schlock, mostly Duck & Wildlife art.

  4. One last thing I would say (and I got this advice from Vince Flynn in a writing class he did locally about a decade ago) is – write for the general public and NOT the critics. The latter tend to be snobs, and if you want to have real influence, it’s the public who counts, not them. And literary awards and literary magazines are a complete waste of time. No one reads them and no one cares who gets the awards. Indeed, trying to please this lot will probably make your writing worse, if nothing else but by sucking the originality out of it as you try to conform to their standards instead of being true to yourself.

  5. Having made a living in the arts for over thirty years as an actress and married to an actor, and having been a “conservative”, but only in the Russell Kirk sense of it as a person concerned with “spirit, character and the inner order of the soul”, I am thrilled and delighted by your conclusion “regular engagement with the arts at a non-political, aesthetic level would be a useful addition if our aim is to conserve and to develop the whole of our cultural tradition.” Having been on the front lines of show biz, I am perhaps harsh in my judgement of contemporary conservatives, but their retreat from engagement in contemporary culture is, to put it mildly, a shameful dereliction of duty. We have abjectly failed in our duty to serve our fellow man, we who believe in the soul of that man.

    What our lack of engagement in pop culture has fostered is decadence. Like so many, I always thought decadence would look like an Aubrey Beardsley painting, all dark, drugged out, sinister and amoral. In fact, decadence does look like that, but it is caused by a dominant set of ideas taking hold which no one dares to question or bothers to challenge. What remains to amuse the minds of the general public is trivia and smut, because people do need something to think about. If you don’t engage their better selves, their spirit and character, you will find someone else has made a gob of dough engaging their vices. Ergo, the drugged out, sinister, amoral fascinations take hold.

    I will mention my book here because I am writing for the general public and concerned with their souls. It’s my true story and a romance that has a surprising conclusion. It’s my conviction that romance is essentially conservative because true romance is all about character. The book is called THE BLUE FLAME.

    The contemporary popularity of Vampire love stories is a romance with the dark side, but at least it’s a romance. We, who believe in the power of love, have become gun shy about loving anything in contemporary culture, because there always is the hidden barb of the sneering liberal inside. We have to believe in ourselves again. We must develop the confidence to trust our taste and sensibility by practice and speaking up for our viewpoints and feelings. Hey, we used to own Hollywood. Remember John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, Westerns, screwball comedy, and on and on. We conservatives wrote the book on film culture in those days. So it’s not that we can’t do culture.

    I am trying to reach a larger audience with my books, but getting very little help. However, the soul, the spirit, and love can never be defeated by mere politics. As you are all conservatives, you should know that and believe it. If you have any doubts read THE BLUE FLAME.

    My only disagreement with you, Mr. Baresel, is your contention that great art must be innovative. The purpose of art is enlightenment, understanding, and refining the sensibility of humanity to better appreciate the works of our creator. There, I’m done, for now. Thank you for letting me vent after enduring thirty some years of complete frustration with the culture scene.

  6. It might be that the arts and artists have often had a desire to look closely at issues of social justice and political/economic disparity. In my experience these only become priorities for conservatives when taking action related to these issues threaten to bring about change that will effect the status quo.

  7. I agree that Art is Art but there is a lot pressure from the Art community on artists to be liberal if one is not.

  8. The Art is Art argument is valid in a university painting class but ends there. the charge, the job, the reason for being an artist is to define Culture. In doing so, the audience engages in a number of things – First a visual dialog. The viewers hopefully are nourished through the imagers and content in the work. This then translates into the viewer then using our visual content to enhance their life. Propaganda as we know does not do this.

  9. I think it depends on how you define art. I think conservatives write some great fiction, both in the form of the pulp novel and the motion picture. No one can deny the conservative undertones in something like Rocky or Dirty Harry. The classical monomyth story has been retold again and again, successfully by conservatives (eg the classic Nietzschean overman versus the corrupt system, the knight versus the dragon, etc). Illustration as well, though in my experience conservatives tend more towards propaganda in this regard if not sticking to the traditional monomyth story. When it comes to art – taking traditional mastery of basics and building upon or subverting them to make something new and shine a mirror on the viewer or the current culture – I don’t think a conservative is capable of such a feat. It is anathema to step outside of adherence to tradition, God, family, etc for a conservative and without that ability to break free of those shackles you can’t ever really see or explore the bigger picture. I think commentor Marcyo above expressed it best:

    “My only disagreement with you, Mr. Baresel, is your contention that great art must be innovative. The purpose of art is enlightenment, understanding, and refining the sensibility of humanity to better appreciate the works of our creator.”

    Shackling creative vision to the service of some exterior force – in this case the creator – one has already limited how far one can explore or see. The willingness to break these shackles and transgress convention and God for the greater good or the possibility of greater wisdom is the hallmark of social liberalism.

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