28 February 2011

In search of conservative art

For the past couple of weeks I've been pondering an op-ed Sam Guzman wrote for The Christian Science Monitor calling upon conservatives to create more art. A conservative himself, Guzman laments the absence of "arts and culture" sections on conservative websites, interpreting the absence as an abandonment of the cultural field to liberals. He blames this in part on liberals' more romantic, lyrical sensibility, while he finds conservatives complacently committed to blunt reason. In his words:

Liberals understand that rooted deep in the human soul is a love of beauty, a fascination with story, and an intangible sensitivity to the singing of songs. That's why liberals have sought to control not only the Senate, but the symphony, the storybook, and the silver screen. Reason is a blunt instrument. It can smash with all the force of a hammer, but it is art that subtly serenades and seduces. When the conservative forms a coalition, the liberal forms a chorale, and it is the liberal who wins.

Guzman actually does historical conservatism an injustice here. Nineteenth-century conservatism drew deeply from the era's Romantic movement precisely because that movement rebelled against the perceived soulless rationalism of the Enlightenment. The conservatives of that era had a profound love of beauty and as strong a fascination with story. They had a mythic, folkloric sensibility that stressed the unreasoning "mystic" ties that linked people to blood, soil and heritage. For just this reason a lot of modern "high fantasy" literature, and J.R.R. Tolkien's work especially, is often regarded as essentially conservative in its emphasis on (admittedly made-up)tradition and hierarchy. For Guzman to say that conservatives have some kind of aesthetic handicap says more about his notion of conservatism than it does about conservatism's philosophical heritage.

So what is Guzman's notion of American conservatism. What is it that he'd like to see expressed in art, yet deems difficult to express? His long-term goal is to shore up "the foundational values -- like chastity, faith and free enterprise -- that make America both good and great." In the short term, he'd like to see a movie that "depicted a business positively, or acknowledged the progress capitalism brings."

You can see Guzman's problem. Where's the beauty in all that, after all? Art, however, doesn't have to be beautiful. H. L. Mencken, in his capacity as a literary critic, considered prose one of the highest art forms because he thought it could express tough truths in a powerful if not necessarily beautiful way beyond the capacity of poetry. But the tough-minded prose works he praised tended to share his blithely pessimistic worldview, his view that life was, at best, a cosmic joke. By that standard, there's arguably room for a great work of art that's anti-utopian, dedicated to bursting the bubbles of liberals and progressives by imagining exactly how their projects are doomed to fail. Such books, of course, have already been written, but don't meet Guzman's need. What makes Guzman's ideology problematic for any artist is his apparent insistence on affirmation. However beautiful the end product, his ideal ideological artwork must argue that chastity and faith (and deferred gratification, no doubt) will be rewarded, that business is not merely practical but a noble way of life, etc. While conservatism's authentic impulse is to accentuate the negative, and its ideal literary form is satire, Guzman, probably without realizing it, wishes for a capitalist counterpart to the "socialist realism" favored by Bolshevik despots, didactic stuff full of moral lessons simple enough for peasants to understand. Nobody called that stuff art unless there was a gun to their heads, and it'll be no more artistic if it praises CEOs instead of Comrade Stalin.

Sam Guzman, described by the Monitor as an "essayist, columnist and poet" and "a grant writer for a nonprofit organization," is a creature of his historical milieu. When he complains of the absence of conservative art, that should raise the question of whether what he believes in is even conservative.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Guzman seems to want to ascribe reason or logic as a "conservative" value, while creativity and art are more "liberal". That woudn't explain why a far larger majority of scientists are progressive, rather than regressive.

No, I think the truth lies in the fact that art - even in it's ugliest form - is trying to find beauty and beauty simply does not exist in that heart of darkness we call American conservatism.

That's why liberals have sought to control not only the Senate, but the symphony, the storybook, and the silver screen.

Right here he shows the root of the problem - the fact that conservatives bring everything down to a brute level of competition. If the people recognized as the best in creative fields tend, in general, to be politically left, it isn't because some amorphous being called "liberals" seeks to control it. It is because human beings with that artistic spark tend to be more sensitive and compassionate towards others. They are more concerned with creating a work of lasting beauty and the sense of almost parental pride in the doing, than with just making a product to put on a shelf and sell.