Here’s my current TAC magazine piece, on the relationship between conservatives and art, especially the art of storytelling. Lots of good stuff in this piece, thanks to Alan Jacobs, Micah Mattix, Sam MacDonald and others who spoke to me for it. For example:
Societies governed strongly by tradition keep their collective wisdom alive through storytelling, says Baylor University literature professor (and TAC blogger) Alan Jacobs. So why are contemporary conservatives so lousy at telling stories?
In Jacobs’s view, conservatives have “done what other Americans have done: they’ve off-loaded the responsibility for storytelling to the mass media.
“And as, thanks to the upheavals of the Sixties, the mass media shifted further and further Left, conservatives found themselves stuck with stories told by people who didn’t share their beliefs,” he continues. “By the time they began to realize that this was a problem, they had lost the habit of making their own culture, and had no cultural institutions they could draw upon to train up their young people in really thoughtful and culturally serious ways.”
What’s more, says Jacobs, having gone through two or three generations in which serious storytelling, across all media, has been associated with cultural liberalism, the right faces a situation in which its creative children are offered a choice: serious culture or conservatism.
I get this. As a bookish kid struggling to find a place in a world of hunting, fishing, and athletics, I was offered refuge in art, literature, and music my ninth-grade English teacher. She was quite liberal, but she was the only person I knew who shared the passion for creativity awakening inside me. I came to believe that all people who were serious about art were naturally liberal—and I became liberal too, for years. Over the years, I’ve seen that most of my conservative friends who are artistically inclined became so in spite of their conservatism—that is, despite the fact that the right-wingers they knew disdained the arts as effete and impractical. A love for art and literature was not part of the conservative story, as they received it.
Micah Mattix, who teaches literature at Houston Baptist University, also gets this. That’s one reason he’s launched Prufrock, a daily e-mail newsletter compiling links to worthwhile writing on art, literature, and ideas, hoping to awaken fellow conservatives to the good within contemporary art and storytelling. It is, one imagines, a hard sell, given the prejudices today’s conservatives inherit from historical experience. Mattix explains that as long as anyone today has been alive, artists have often associated their project with the goals of progressivism and radicalism.
“Other than Futurism, most art movements in the 20th century have been sympathetic to the Left,” Mattix says. “There’s this idea that you see in Picasso, and a number of poets, of using art as a ‘weapon’ against tyranny and war—these things being embodied by Franco, Hitler, Mussolini. Though his poems weren’t very political, Frank O’Hara used to refer to some of them as ‘bullets’ in this sense.”
The point is not that art and narrative are designed to manipulate, but rather that stories are unavoidably bearers of worldview. This fact leads some on the right to conclude, crudely, that the solution is to raise up a generation to create art infused with conservative ideology—as if culture-making, of which storytelling is key, could be reduced to ideological utility.
Lots more where this came from, including comments from this blog’s frequent commenter Sam MacDonald, and another one of you readers, who makes an anonymous appearance. Read the whole thing.