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Ross Douthat on Conservatives and Art

Ross Douthat has weighed in 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. 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 to the above with a “yes, but…”

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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