Home/Rod Dreher/How (Mostly) Not to Build a ‘Conservative Counterculture’

How (Mostly) Not to Build a ‘Conservative Counterculture’

An artist dependent on welfare from wealthy patrons image by Michael Hogue

I applaud David Marcus for sketching out a vision of how conservatives ought to approach building a cultural alternative to the liberalism dominant in the mainstream arts. This is exactly the kind of thing we on the Right need to be doing. But I can’t agree with all of what he has said. Consider this a friendly critique.

My problem with Marcus’s “Five Principles” is that it sounds too much like a Republican Party version of Socialist Realism: the idea that art must be put into service of a particular ideology. Consider:

1. Marcus says that conservative artists must disdain the network of arts patronage that the cultural Left depends on:

 There is a place for donated resources, in developing content creators and establishing infrastructure. But the works themselves should compete without the overbearing influence of these funds—not only because free markets are conservative, but because they produce the best products.

Well, I contest the idea that “free markets are conservative” — they are not; they are classically liberal, and often undermine conservative morality — but mostly I think this fails to take into consideration how much artists need, and have always needed, patronage to do what they do. None of the great artistic works of Western civilization were done without patronage. Dante depended on the charity of wealthy supporters to write the Divine Comedy. In fact, he dedicated Paradiso to Can Grande della Scala, one of his most generous patrons. Arts patronage is an investment in artists.

I have written two books — The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and the forthcoming 518dJC7NWaL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-45,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_How Dante Can Save Your Life — that emerged out of writing that first appeared here on the TAC site. Granted, I got the book deals on the open market, but the basic material that led to the book deal in both cases came from TAC. If not for the generosity of the magazine’s donors — their patronage — I wouldn’t have been able to do this. There is no magazine of opinion, on either the Left or the Right, that would be able to make it on its own. But these magazines are incubators of ideas. This fall, a major university is planning a conference on the Benedict Option, as Christians and conservatives are considering the idea more seriously. I am planning a book about it, as a contribution to the public debate. Again, the patronage of TAC’s donors makes this kind of thing possible. Because I have seen how this kind of thing works from the inside, if I ever become wealthy, I will donate to support small magazines and websites that publish writing I consider good and important, but which don’t (yet) have a market.

Of course it’s very, very easy for patronage to become a subsidy for mediocrity and ideological blatherskite. No argument there. But the free market argument supports the same kind of bad stuff. The Fifty Shades of Grey movie has made more money than the other seven Best Picture nominees (minus American Sniper) combined.

2. Marcus says that identity politics are deadly to art, and rightly counsels conservatives to avoid them. But in advocating “Individuality Over Identity,” I wonder if he considers that the Individual-as-sacred is not a traditionally conservative position. Conservatives don’t believe that we emerge fully free from a social context. We have ties, we have obligations, whether we choose them or not. Conservatives draw the identity lines in different places than liberals do, but we do draw lines. I completely agree with Marcus that the creation of art must not be subjected to a litmus test of cultural politics, even if the one submitting the artist to the test is the artist himself. That said, if we don’t believe in identity politics should confine artistic vision, why are we talking about “conservative” artists? There is a tension here that deserves further exploration.

3. Marcus’s third principle is “Advocacy of American Values.” He writes:

The conservative counter-culture needs find ways to celebrate our society’s unique and wonderful contribution to the world without the constant caveats of history’s crimes. Shows like “Sons of Liberty” may suggest we are ready to do just that. What is good about America and free markets and democracy? These are the questions we should ask ourselves. There are already enough artists here telling us what is bad about them.

Outside of colleges and insular coastal visual arts scenes, where are the artists telling us that free markets and democracy are bad things? More importantly, how, exactly, is what Marcus says a prescription for anything other than an art that is every bit as ideologized as what the Left does? Art may celebrate aspects of American history and culture, and it may criticize the same, and still be art. But what makes it art is not the Message it sends; this is precisely the error that Marcus justly criticizes on the Left. It seems to me that an artist who wishes to work in the conservative moral and intellectual tradition would identify what Eliot (and after him, Kirk) called “the Permanent Things” — the most profound ideas that have emerged out of the Western tradition over the centuries, and that have withstood the test of time. It is entirely possible that an artist can be profoundly conservative and yet implicitly or explicitly criticize some fundamental aspect of American life.

For example, if a playwright wrote a drama exploring how the free market dissolved family ties, and a traditional community, would that be a conservative play, or a left-wing one? It could be either. The idea that “conservatism” is the same thing as “19th-century liberalism” is problematic.

Besides, why not let’s encourage conservative people to make art, and let’s see what emerges? Marcus’s post makes me think that he wants to see the Republican Party at the Easel. That is not an improvement over left-wing agitprop. Is Jacob Collins, a painter and top figure of the Classical Realist school, a conservative or a liberal? Politically, who knows? But his work represents a rediscovery and revitalization of traditional approaches to painting. Culturally, this is conservative, even if Collins is a dope-smoking socialist polyamorist. And cultural conservatives who love beauty should support his work, and the work of artists like him. (So should cultural liberals, simply because his work is beautiful.)

I can sign on to the rest of Marcus’s post without hesitation. He advocates “courage” for conservative artists, and argues for community building. Yes to both. And I congratulate him for launching this conversation. Consider this my contribution. May it continue.

(Hey readers, I’m going to be away from the keys for much of the day. I’ll approve comments as I am able.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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