There’s Plenty of Conservatism in Quality Art; Conservatives Just Refuse To Embrace It
My favorite of all the books that I have read over the past year – hands down – was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I have been thinking about Wolf Hall over the past two days, after having read Erik’s weekend post on conservative art, as well as J.L.’s followup this morning. And one of the things that I am realizing is that when we discuss “conservative art” – and it being so incredibly horrible and easy to mock – we may be confusing works of art with the embracing of art.
Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, centers on Thomas Cromwell’s rise in Henry VIII’s court. In the book, Cromwell’s secularism plays the role of the hero. Christians on both sides of reformation’s battle lines are brutish bastards; whichever side is in power has no qualms torturing and killing those it rules over. Being a believer in rationalism over religion, Cromwell works behind the scenes as best he can to lessen the bloodlust. Coming from lowly status, he despises the conditions of the poor and often tries to use flattery and subtle ear bending to get Henry to make policy that might work to redistribute wealth. On the other hand, Cromwell is a self made man, having pulled himself up by his bootstraps through business and soldiering. Cromwell is enough of a conservative traditionalist that he never wonders that the world might be better off without a king like Henry (or any king for that matter), despite it’s being patently obvious. He is enough of a progressive revolutionary that he delights in continually demonstrating that the rest of the aristocracy is either dangerous, incompetent, or both.
Given all of that, is Wolf Hall a liberal tome celebrating secularism and the redistribution of capital, or is it a conservative love letter swooning over the power of rugged individualism and the moral imperative of believing in the higher power that your forefathers believed in? The answer, of course is that it is both – and it is neither. Most of the best novels that I have read, in fact, are neither overtly liberal or conservative. Rather, they are penned by writers that succeed in painting with words the human experience. And we humans and our lives simply are not the black and white cardboard caricatures that political parties wish us to believe.
And yet the difference between the quality of art we see embraced by conservatism and liberalism is not a thing of the imagination. But as I said above, that has everything to do with who embraces what, and nothing at all to do with the inherent politics of art. There’s a lot of works of art – in terms of books, painting, music, movies & TV, etc. – that have strong or weak conservative elements embedded in them. And quite a lot of it is good, and quite a lot of it is dreck; the same can be said for “liberal art.” The difference that so glaringly stands out, it seems to me, is the criteria that each side chooses to use when choosing art to self-identify.
Take the songs God Bless the USA by Lee Greenwood, and Imagine by John Lennon. One is considered conservative, the other liberal.* Each is a little overly simplistic, preachy, and kind of schmaltzy. But the way each song is treated by each side is completely different.
Because here’s the thing: Most liberals I know acknowledge that Imagine is schmaltz, and roll their eyes when pols or causes attempt to co-opt it to play on liberal heartstrings. In fact, they roll their eyes so much that liberal causes tend to avoid Imagine all together. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to embrace God Bless the USA in a kind of “you need to say you love this song, or you’re against us” way. Pick any day that conservatives think is overly important and turn on talk radio, and if you listen all day you’ll hear this song at least once. And it will be followed by several calls by listeners thanking the host for loving the country enough to play it.
Part of this comes, I think, from the beliefs pushed by today’s conservative leaders surrounding art, art expertise, and artistic elitism – specifically, that they’re a a bunch of liberal egghead concepts that only p**sies embrace.
In an attempt to build common-man credibility after years of being perceived as the Rich White Guy Party, GOP leaders have spent years stoking the fires of cultural populism. Turn on talk radio or the primetime “info-tainment” portions of FOX News that drive today’s conservative base, and you’ll get a taste. Art museums are totally gay (which is a bad thing to conservative populists); classical music is for NPR-listening communists; buying books that aren’t ghost-written screeds hawked on FOX are a sign of being a sissy. In short, any kind of art form that you might study at a college or university (cooties!) is suspect.
In other words, even though Wolf Hall isn’t a book that is liberal or conservative, you’ll probably only hear it being talked about on one side of the aisle. Liberal politicians in America tend to champion both higher education and the study of the humanities – while conservative politicians treat both with derision. Because of this, liberalism – as a movement – gives itself permission to deconstruct a book, move, song or painting with the eye of a critic or scholar. This allows liberals to highlight and take away the messages they might wish, and still embrace those other parts that fall out of line with party dogma. Movement conservatives, on the other hand, have painted themselves into a corner by trumpeting that art criticism or scholarship themselves are inherently suspect; therefore the only metric they are left to gauge the humanities is political purity. This leads to a lot of Lee Greenwood over Bruce Springsteen, An American Carol over Juno, and any book by Anne Coulter over any play by Shakespeare.
By now this hip hop video from CPAC is old probably hat (old wig?) but it is a pretty good example of what I am talking about:
Compare this to Outkast’s 2003 mega hit Hey Ya.
Hey Ya has very few actual lyrics at all, but the most prominent
“don’t try to fight the feelin’ because the thought alone is killing me right now. Thank god for mom and dad for sticking two together ‘cause we don’t know how”
is about as conservative a criticism of modern families as you are likely to find. However, the man who wrote that song, Andre 3000, is not ideologically pure and therefore for conservatives Hey Ya is right out – and those two clowns from CPAC are held up as the standard bearers. Because of these two approaches, until things change liberal-embraced art can always at least potentially be cool, while conservative-embraced art is almost always a joke. As in Christian rock, government produced anti-drug movies and feminist stand up, purity of message takes precedence over substance and style to a self-paradying degree, until the final product becomes a laughingstock.
Conservative leaders need to give up the purity-in-the-arts fight because it’s ultimately self-defeating. When together, conservatives might declare that Lee Greenwood is better than Springsteen – but when they go home they buy and listen to Springsteen. They may publicly declare that the GOP bona fides of An American Carol make it a superior comedy, but none of them went to see it – and a hell of a lot of them went to see Juno, and what’s more they liked it. Conservatives might want to sneer at art critics and European art, but when it comes time to decorate the living room they’re going to pick a print by Claude Monet and not one done by the guy who did this:
The young folks that attended CPAC? Probably most of them have Hey Ya in their iTunes at home; after they leave CPAC none of them will ever listen to the White Founding Fathers Rap Dudes.
Conservative leaders need to realize that they will never win over the hearts and minds of even their own followers with party-approved dreck. In fact, they run the risk of doing themselves great long-term harm. Tell people that watching the Hollywood movies and pop music they love means they can’t be part of your club long enough, and you’re going to eventually reach the point where they don’t really want to belong anyway. Besides, none of this approach to art is “conservative” in the classical sense of that word so much as it is highly radical. And it’s a shame, because throughout much of Western history it has been the conservative elites that supported the arts as much as or even more than liberals and progressives. Getting back to that standard is what conservatives should be shooting for.
*Though recently – true story – I did hear Glenn Beck, on his radio show, claim Imagine was originally meant to be a conservative anthem, claiming that Lennon had intended the message of the song to be that America should be a Christian nation. Seriously.