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Ross Douthat on Conservatives and Art

Ross Douthat has weighed in [1] on Adam Bellow’s piece on the need for more conservatives to create and support the arts—specifically literature, film and television.

He agrees with Adam Kirsch’s contention that there is no lack of conservative themes in the cream of America’s literary and cinematic crop. It’s the middling, “mass-market territory” of second-rate novels, films and television shows where conservatives are missing:

But this suggests a rather strange-sounding riposte to Kirsch’s question, posed after his elevation of writers like Foster Wallace into a kind of conservative literary pantheon. “With all these books to read and admire,” he asks, “why does Adam Bellow continue to believe that conservative writers are a persecuted minority?” Well, one might say, because there aren’t enough mediocre conservative writers and artists at work! Which could just be taken to prove Kirsch’s point that conservatives mostly just want more “simpleminded ideological dogmas” from their fiction … but actually reflects a subtler point that a culture’s biases are manifest in the mean rather than the extreme, and that the proof of conservatism’s marginalization in today’s cultural scene can be seen among its middling and mediocre participants, not among its finest talents.

That subtlety notwithstanding, though, there’s still the question of whether a project that’s too cognizant of these realities, too explicit in its desire to close the “hack gap” in the arts, won’t just end up branding conservative artists as, well, a still-lower and more painfully ideological sort of hack. I don’t know the answer, which is why I’m ultimately ambivalent about Bellow’s exhortation: I, too, would like to see far more conservative money and energy invested in the arts, but to the extent that it’s conscious of itself as a conservative investment — as opposed to an aesthetic one, which is how most writing programs and fellowships are conceived even when their politics are fundamentally liberal — it may be foredoomed to failure, or at the very least be putting a limit on the quality of the work it fosters, and a ceiling on its potential success. (Better a consciously religious investment, in part because religion has a different relationship with the aesthetic than political ideology and thought … but that’s a subject for another post.)

Douthat clearly sees the problem with Bellow’s project (at least as he presents it in The National Review), but he seems unwilling to reject it completely. He worries that any attempt to “close the ‘hack gap’,” as he calls it, will make conservatives look bad. (It will.) And he writes that a conscious “conservative investment” in the arts, “as opposed to an aesthetic one, which is how most writing programs and fellowships are conceived even when their politics are fundamentally liberal” may “be foredoomed to failure, or at the very least be putting a limit on the quality of the work it fosters, and a ceiling on its potential success.” Agreed.

But conservatives should not reject Bellow’s proposal because it will make them look bad or be unsuccessful. They should reject it because it is not conservative. It inescapably treats art or culture as a tool, or weapon, in the struggle for power [2]. This, it seems to me, is a progressive or revolutionary conception of art.

Even Douthat falls into discussing art and culture in terms of utility or “success.” Part of this is because he’s responding to Bellow’s argument regarding just these things. But it also risks obscuring conservatives’ defense of a proper view of art.

And I’m not sure that there’s a huge difference between a religious investment in the arts (I am thinking of a Christian one here) and a conservative one—if both of these are properly understood.

Both should treat art, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, which, paradoxically, also makes it useful. Put another way, using art or literature or film to proselytize or indoctrinate empties works of their distinctive value. At the same time, works of truth and craft, created for those ends alone, are valuable to the extent that they affirm a larger context—the inescapability of making truth claims and the reality of morality and beauty, among other things—without which they would make no sense. I think.

Update 1: In the comments, Alex Wilgus says I haven’t read Douthat’s argument closely enough: “He makes the same point that you do: the best art isn’t ideologically motivated, and when you’re dedicated to really capturing something of the essence of reality, you’ll get themes that endear themselves to conservatives and liberals alike without really trying to. He’s saying that the crappier forms of art we see on TV are the ones that wear their ideological commitments on their shirtsleeves, and it’s not worth mucking about in that realm unless one really wants to balance out the sorts of assumptions shows like “New Girl” take for granted with equally hackneyed themes from the other side.”

I don’t know. Douthat certainly writes that “that to be truly great, truly lasting, a novel or any other exercise in storytelling has to transcend cliches and oversimplifications, has to capture something of the deep complexity of human affairs.” Yet the reason he rejects Bellow’s proposal in his piece (he states he’s “ambivalent” and says he agrees with other aspects of Kirsch’s critique) is that it won’t be successful.

On the art for art’s sake stuff (a phrase I didn’t use in the piece), which a couple of folks have commented on, here and on Twitter: I am not proposing aestheticism or some pursuit of pure style. As a Christian, I think that all good things reflect God’s glory and my pursuit of or engagement with art is ultimately a pursuit of or an engagement with God. At the same time, art works have a definite character that is experienced simultaneously (a character that includes a reflection of mental or physical reality). If the overarching object for the Christian in, say, cooking good food or doing good research is to love God through these activities, the more immediate one is to cook good food and do good research. So too with art. And if you don’t have the latter, it seems to me you lose the former, too.

Update 2: Douthat responds [3] to the above with a “yes, but…”

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Ross Douthat on Conservatives and Art"

#1 Comment By philadelphialawyer On July 31, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

“It’s the middling, ‘mass-market territory’ of second-rate novels, films and television shows where conservatives are missing….”

Nonsense. Mass market products are produced on the basis of whether they will make money for their corporate creators. Book publishers, movie studios, and TV networks all hire “gatekeepers” whose sole expertise is being able (allegedly) to predict what books people will buy, what movies they will go and see, and what TV shows they will watch.

They, the gatekeepers and their corporate paymasters, don’t give a damn about ideology. And, indeed, most best sellers, most blockbuster movies, and most hit TV shows are either not ideological at all, or, in fact, reflect at least some notion of “conservatism” (eg, hoo ray for the police, the military, etc), because that itself is popular with a mass audience.

The entire project is a solution in search of a problem.

#2 Comment By Alex Wilgus On July 31, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

I don’t think you read his article closely enough. He makes the same point that you do: the best art isn’t ideologically motivated, and when you’re dedicated to really capturing something of the essence of reality, you’ll get themes that endear themselves to conservatives and liberals alike without really trying to. He’s saying that the crappier forms of art we see on TV are the ones that wear their ideological commitments on their shirtsleeves, and it’s not worth mucking about in that realm unless one really wants to balance out the sorts of assumptions shows like “New Girl” take for granted with equally hackneyed themes from the other side.

I also think you’re wrong that art is “an end in itself.” Art is not its own end. That’s only what it’s lately and lamentably become. Its proper end is to express “how it is” and get at (often hidden) truths that cannot be easily laid hold of with words.

#3 Comment By Matthew Walther On August 1, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

“Foster Wallace”?

#4 Comment By stef On August 2, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

Sure, lots of art is ideologically motivated. Let’s list some: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huck Finn, to a certain degree. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance. Les Miserables is highly ideological. So are Brave New World, Animal Farm, 1984, and just about anything by HG Wells.

Black Beauty is a passionate defense of animal rights. All Quiet on the Western Front explores the meaningless of modern warfare. Stranger in a Strange Land is a libertarian manifesto with far more charm and appeal than its dreary contemporary by Ayn Rand.

However, what all these ideological works have in common is that they are largely “progressive” or “liberal” (and I include 1950s-style libertarianism as a liberal political and social philosophy), and *not* traditionalist or traditionally conservative.

Maybe the novel just isn’t your medium, conservatives. Although I have no idea what is.

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 2, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

stef:

UTC, 1984, and Animal Farm are pretty much crap, in terms of artistic merit. UTC is grotesquely melodramatic. 1984 is almost sadistic in its reveling in the Winston’s suffering (it seems more influenced by Orwell’s negative experiences at boarding school than anything else!), and its portrait of communism, like Animal Farm’s (which is really just a fable, not a novel at all) is total nonsense. HG Wells was a third rate novelist, at best. All Quiet on the Western Front is pretty good as fiction, and works well an antidote to God and Country ideology. It is much less effective as a positive statement FOR any ideology, such as pacifism. In Huck Finn, an excellent novel, the anti slavery ideology is quite subtle, and it only informs the novel, not overwhelms it. I’m sure some folks can read it and not “get” the “message” at all. Stranger in a Strange Land, at least the first part of it, ie the part that deal with the libertarian lawyer, is a hoot, and is a great statement of, as you say, liberal/libertarian ideology. But that can’t sustain the book as a whole, and the rest of it (which deals with the BS Martian philosophy) is pretty much unreadable. Same could more or less be said for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The point is not that art and ideology can’t or don’t mix at all. They obviously do, as your examples show. The problem is that great art usually can’t survive in a work dedicated to an ideological principle. And the more narrow the principle, the more overtly “political” and less social or cultural, the harder it is to make great art. If you must have some examples of “conservative” ideology and a great novel, you might consider Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, pretty much anything by Dostoyevsky, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. But these, like Huck Finn, incorporate ideology in a subtle way, and do so from a broader perspective than mere partisan politics.

#6 Comment By palinurus On August 3, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

Stef – think your post, and in particular, certain of its confusions, are enlightening.

First, as other commentators have nicely pointed out, you play fast and loose with the term “art,” moving willy nilly between great works, very good or minor great works, and popular pot boilers. That Brave New World was not a great novel was acknowledged by the author himself, who, in a later prologue, acknowledged the work’s flaws, in particular the overly simplistic dichotomy presented by the novel’s two main characters.

That it was not simply a “liberal” novel, much less “progressive,” should also be manifestly evident. Brave New World is a dystopian vision of the “progressive” or “liberal” project; it illustrates the dehumanizing effects of the state’s effort to use science to engineer happiness through the reduction of suffering.

BNW shows how even a less-than-great novel can, by compellingly questioning liberal assumptions, serve as a helpful corrective to the blinkering effects of ideology. Whether even lesser works, such as popular films, tv shows, and best sellers, can have the same sort of salutary effect is open to question. Some seem to think that the mere mixture of conservative and liberal themes or ideas in these mediums makes for better art and might have a broadening effect. I’m not so sure it’s so simple. Most people, their partisan inclinations notwithstanding, harbor a confused mix of contradictory ideas and sentiments. It might be that by mirroring their confusion, these mixed hack works serve primarily to confirm people in their confusion, to make them more comfortable with their contraditions, rather than to spur them to thought by making them painfully aware of them.

Blithedale Romance, one of the novels you cite that does rise to the level of greatness, illustrates the failings of a 19th Century utopia envisioned by Transcendentialism. Your reference to Hawthorne points to another, and more interesting, confusion in your post. This is your manifestly flawed effort to expand liberalism broadly enough to contain all the novels you cite or that others could.

Setting aside the historical anachronism of applying contemporary notions of liberalism and conservativism to 19th Century America, let alone Europe, however you define the terms, Hawthorne was no partisan liberal or progressive. One of his works’ primary themes is man’s irremediably sinful nature, whether in the excesses those who, like the Puritans, were overly mindful of it, or in the folly of those who, like the Transcendentalists or the scientist in Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, were insufficiently mindful, believing they could perfect man through social engineering, science, or other means. Hawthorne was not advocating for a return to the past or a hastening of the future. He was instead showing man’s nature as it is, and exploring the various ways man’s sinful nature might manifest itself in the good, bad, and ugly of various characters and human endeavors.

Hawthorne also shows that while great art may have political ramifications, and even a political project, it is not narrowly ideological. Hawthorne’s works are too broad in their focus, too profound in their plumbing of the depths of human nature and society, to be cabined in the narrow confines of a political ideology. Their works tend to undermine the consensus and conformity that ideology seeks to engender and enforce; they show that the different sides of most political questions only have a part of justice on their side.

And to the extent novelists have had a political project, it has not traditionally been a liberal one. Great artists made claims to and on behalf of various forms of greatness rooted in nature – great passions, great ambitions, great beauty. Their claims to greatness put artists at odds with liberal societies that, in their devotion to equality and hostility to old regimes that purported to rest on claims of superiority, were increasingly hostile to any claim to greatness. Great art has a result has tended to adopt an adversarial posture toward, and to exist in tension with, liberal democratic societies; artists have not liked their prospects in societies where greatness has been housebroken by being tethered to public opinion (celebrity), capitalism (wealth), or trivial distinctions (athletic prowess rather than warriors). Indeed, it’s a good question whether and by what means great art can survive in such societies.

#7 Comment By Ed On August 7, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

Tom Clancy? Orson Scott Card? I’d say conservatives weren’t completely unrepresented in ‘the middling, “mass-market territory” of second-rate novels, films and television shows.’

Of course, conservatives are underrepresented in Hollywood, and the entertainment industry does love to find conservative or big business or old White guy villains. But isn’t there something “conservative” in a broader sense about a lot of genre fiction and its film and television counterparts?

One could complain every day about there not being enough conservative themes and characters in mass culture, but when you take a look at what high culture has had to say about middle class life over the last century or more, and then turn back to mass culture, it doesn’t look very threatening to middle class values.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 8, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

“As a friend of mine once put it: Resist! Surrender is futile.”

Great turn of phrase — laughing.
___________________________________

“They, the gatekeepers and their corporate paymasters, don’t give a damn about ideology.”

But it is also a factor, in my view, that ideological bias may play a role in marketing and selecting certain texts, movies or other artifacts. I watched several documentaries of film makers last month and this: Milius and Altman, in both ideological biases played a role in marketing. How much is another question and would be difficult to measure with an intensive examination of the record.
_____________________________________________

What constitutes great art or good art is so very a matter of subjective conclusion through the eyes of an individual for the popular viewer. It’s impact. Not so for those involved in the art. An artists evaluation is far different than mine. The artist trained in color, form, light and shade (chiaroscuro) is examining the art from a totally different vantage point, perhaps more objectively in combination with sensory data. A collection of artists who then write about the selection or promote the selection have some force that a lay person in the field does not – credentialing.

I am unaware of a conservative guild that acts as promoters of conservative art. And while one may chagrine art as a promoter of anything in the end it promotes something. That artifact communicates messages or symbols that are interpreted. And as such one cannot evaluate art as conservative, liberal or anything minus a frame that defines what constitutes those concepts. And we might like to lean high road of intrinsic value of art, it is intrinsic communicating some concept. So conservative art will reflect a conservatie concept and almost unavoidably In order to adopted as conservative is promoted in the same — as conservative.

Art can and could be viewed as argument without any guilt of its utilitarian (tool/usefulness)in promoting what is designed to reflect.

One could even do conservative art dependent on interpretation, even if done by a non-conservative artist. I picked this quotation,

“”A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment
a single man contemplates it, bearing
within him the image of a cathedral.”

– Antoine De Saint-Exupéry”

From: [4]

The opening art selection in my view is decidedly conservative (in my view)

I think defaulting art ownership to liberals is granting far too much.

She has a artwork of an angel (not the opening selection) that I certainly could embrace as conservative — a recognition that is a God and this angel reflects our understanding of him in accordance with old and new testament. Traditional.

Even reading about her I have no idea if she is a conservative or not.

But her artwork to me is beautiful. And that’s at a glance.

#9 Comment By nan On August 11, 2014 @ 11:57 am

@palinrus: My (college-aged) son asks why aren’t you a professor?

So enjoyed your post.

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 11, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

“They, the gatekeepers and their corporate paymasters, don’t give a damn about ideology.”
——————————————–

“But it is also a factor, in my view, that ideological bias may play a role in marketing and selecting certain texts, movies or other artifacts. I watched several documentaries of film makers last month and this: Milius and Altman, in both ideological biases played a role in marketing. How much is another question and would be difficult to measure with an intensive examination of the record.”

I fail to see how the second statement either contradicts or in any way nullifies or even modifies the first statement. The gatekeepers don’t care about ideology, per se. If a particular ideology is popular, like the one implicit in Milnius’ “Dirty Harry” movies, well then, of course, that ideology might be selected for and will then be featured in the marketing for the movie that showcases it. But it is not the “correctness” (however defined) of the ideology that moves the gatekeepers and their paymasters, but rather its popularity. They have no “ideological bias” at all. Rather they have a “bias” for profit, in the case of the corporations, and a “bias” towards keeping their high paying jobs, in the case of the gate keepers.

#11 Comment By Simon On August 14, 2014 @ 10:28 pm

For things to stay the same, they must change.

#12 Comment By Naomi On February 10, 2016 @ 10:38 am

Just like our educational system, the arts are overwhelmingly controlled and administered by liberals. In my little corner of the world, I have met so many artists who do not do “political” art, but nonetheless have been ostracized from participating in certain venues with their art. What they ALL have in common is that they hold CONSERVATIVE VIEWS. The community I live in is quite liberal, and like much of America, many art venues are overrun with those holding liberal views. They control whose work “gets in” (via juried shows, etc.) whose work “gets seen” (via media, etc.) and it does not matter how “good” your work is – it matters what VIEWPOINTS you hold. I live in a community that shouts “diversity” but is intolerant of any who disagree with any part of the overall liberal agenda. I dared to express a Christian, conservative viewpoint on an issue of great concern to the community at one time, and a show I had been juried into for three years promptly juried me OUT the next show. I can’t prove it – and that is the trouble with so much of this. Artists who hold conservative views are not a cohesive group. They have trouble proving what is happening. Individuals are often afraid to express their views simply BECAUSE of what can happen, as happened to me. As artists, we have been silenced. Individuals have little power against the well-oiled liberal-controlled arts machine. Until artists holding conservative views can come together and make their own stand as a group, individuals like me will continue to be victims of religious and political discrimination.

#13 Comment By Naomi On February 10, 2016 @ 10:47 am

P.S. – Conservatives in general give little thought as to who they are supporting in the art world. At conservative fundraisers I’ve been to, where they’ve had artists donate work, many, if not most, of the artists chosen are liberal. Many excellent conservative artists get overlooked, simply because they have not gotten the press (controlled by liberals) or the awards (given by liberals) regarding their work. The liberal establishment has SEEN to it, as I explained above. Until conservatives bother to gain awareness and make a TRUE effort to support artists who hold conservative views, liberals will continue to have a tight grasp on the art world.