The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Treasonous Clerk: Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, Part I
James Matthew Wilson - 08/27/09
Aristotle and Homer's Bust

Even before the elections last November, particularly astute conservatives had lamented that many of the supposed victories for their cause were in truth nothing to celebrate. Most of these persons were paleo- or traditional conservatives, who saw in the Bush administration little that was genuinely conservative and much that testified to the further usurpation of the word "conservative," and of the Republican Party by a neoconservative agenda. That agenda was largely repugnant to those who believed in local and limited government founded on enduring cultural traditions, stable and self-sustaining communities, and, above all, the Christian intellectual legacy which informs all things by means of faith and reason. They, naturally, saw even less to admire in the candidacy of John McCain. But the traditional and neo-conservative animus was not then and is not now reducible to competing definitions of "conservative" or even to competing public policy platforms.

When, at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Patrick Buchanan, that arch paleo-conservative, railed that America was locked in a culture war, his observation was perspicuous but generally understood in unhelpful ways. The media and even most admirers of Buchanan drew the lines in that war between an abstract conservative theory of culture on the one hand and those who "manufacture" culture in our society, the culture industry mostly located in Hollywood and New York. As such, the culture war appeared to be little more than disgruntlement of the heartland against the coasts, of consumers against retailers, of passive recipients against makers, or, at best, armchair theorists against commercially successful practitioners, the categories of whose success went undisputed.

The conservatives generally did not attack the conceptions of art that modern artists and the culture industry maintained, but couched their anger in terms of what, to the artists and industry, appeared extrinsic matters—e.g., they protested against certain features of content from nudity and vulgarity to blasphemy, without accounting for why, first, so much of this offensive material enjoyed commercial success or, second, how that content related, or failed to relate, to a thoroughgoing vision of the nature of the fine arts. At their best, conservatives opposed Andres Serrano's and Robert Mapplethorpe's photography with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and William Bennett's The Book of Virtues. But they seldom read the books they championed and it seems not to have occurred to them they might just take better pictures on their own. Instead, conservatives let the walls hang bear—or covered them with banal abstract oil painting, the radical art of a past age that never so much shocked as bored.

Needless to say, not all critics of contemporary art and mass culture were so visceral and limited in their jeremiads. A small but insightful handful of thinkers have orbited about the conservative discontent with contemporary artistic practices and standards in variously tight and wide circles. In the past couple of years, Patrick Deneen and Jeremy Beer have observed that the supposed conservative revolution of the past thirty years foundered largely because it focused almost exclusively on party politics and institutional power. Whatever Reagan Republicans were doing in Washington, they largely left the culture industry to form and reform American consciousness. So absolute was this aporia between institutional success and cultural neglect that most of the children raised in the age of Republican ascendancy have arrived at adulthood with, perhaps, their explicit political principles informed by a vague belief in free markets and low taxes, but with their imaginations and sensibilities entirely formed on the mass cultural excretions of music, film, and television—and their cultural politics in turn molded by that sensibility. To offer just one consequence of this, most persons in their early twenties cannot conceive of why one would oppose the legal codification of homosexual unions, because in their moral imaginations a free and expressive sexuality is a continuous presence taken for granted. Their music palpitates sex and their narratives have promiscuous misadventures as the chief element of plot—and none of this strikes them as having anything at all to do with the removed realm of the political. To make matters worse, our civilization as a whole has forgotten that politics is just ethics by other means, and so the young especially have come to identify legal with moral permissiveness.

Deneen's keenest arguments testify to the organic nature of culture and insist, therefore, that Republican obsessions with electoral and legislative victories not only blinded conservatives to their intellectual and emotional foundations but also mutilated their arguments. And Beer has noted that matters might have been different had conservatives worried less about success in Washington and entered more into the practice of transforming the culture from within. Had there been fewer bureaucrats at the FCC and lobbyists decrying blasphemous art, and more talented conservatives starting production companies or writing good books and poems, our present climate might look considerably different, more decorous and more flourishing. Instead, an aging cohort of Reaganites chant and re-chant their political principles while even their children find such slogans—and even such sound ideas—unintelligible because increasingly disconnected from a complete way of life. We now bear witness to what some have diagnosed as the William F. Buckley Jr. problem: sharp, sardonic, and refined argument cannot long stand athwart the Jacobin transformations of history when such bearers of conservative wit leave to their enemies the writing of a culture's stories and the shaping of its tastes.

This belated awakening to the need to cultivate and inform a culture rather than merely rail against its malformations does not tell the whole story, of course. Some few persons have found a foothold in the higher precincts of culture, where they have at least provided a critical voice for compelling conservative judgment of the arts and a forum for new work of true value. One thinks above all of Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball's The New Criterion; their magazine has done as much to promote new, good art and to excoriate the bad as one can by means of a confident hauteur and astringent sensibility. Nevertheless, the greater achievement of that periodical has been critical rather than cultivating; the new writer one discovers in its pages is more likely to be a forgotten great than an inchoate unknown, and the journal's standards remain overly (not to say exclusively) beholden to the canons of high British modernism. Of even greater creative import, Gregory Wolfe's Image magazine has, in an appropriately meek way, sought to rekindle in contemporary art and letters a sense of the transcendental nature of Beauty (of which, more anon) and the particular vocation of the artist in Christianity. I might mention also the poems that appear in First Things, and poetry journals such as Measure and The Formalist (now defunct), which have provided substantial forums for good work for that smallest of contemporary audiences—the readers of poetry.

The mention of poetry perhaps suggests how restricted these nonetheless important successes have been in the reconstitution of a conservative sensibility and the generation of "conservative" fine arts; it also suggests how impossible it would be simply to rechannel conservatives' previously intense focus on institutional politics to the diffuse and broad cultural landscape. None of these few good efforts has penetrated, much less touched, the major centers of the cinematic arts—and there may be little point in hoping they might, since the real victory for our society will come not when we click on the television to find better programming, but when we click it off with indifference and finality.

The controversy a few years ago over Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ was outrageous for a number of reasons, among them that the film was problematic theologically and as a work of art; but none of those more vital, critical questions could be raised for sustained discussion because of the shrill voices of secular identity politics which are even more deaf to questions of art and beauty than are the most dogged conservative party hacks. I mention that film and the ridiculous frolic of denunciations it received only to suggest that the real practical task for conservatives concerned with the arts would be the extension of good art outside of certain small intellectual circles in New York and the only slightly larger circles that have formed on provincial college campuses such as at Sewanee, West Chester University, and the University of Evansville, where at least some good new fiction and poetry sees the light of day. Everywhere conservatives have access to the public realm, they ought to be working for the creation of a new, or rather regenerated, practice of the fine arts as they do for the more typical partisan causes; this includes, of course, the conventional political action in education policy and school boards, but especially means cultivating more serious attention to resurrecting high and popular arts in our daily lives. The difficulties posed to any such project are forbidding—quite apart from the present lack of resources, venues, or audiences for good art and literature and the astronomical timeframe entailed in a cultural politics that seeks conversions of heart rather than changes in officeholders.

I have long since noted that the conservative sensibility that found a voice in the culture war and continues to speak against the decline of humanities education in the college classroom is beholden to a particular aesthetic, one that I would call a "politicized aesthetic." Because I have used the term "political aesthetics" in another context, I would like to outline carefully how I differentiate it from the phrase just introduced in this one. Political aesthetics indicates the intrinsic identity of the forms of political arguments, of politicians and political programs, ideas, events, and characters, with the formal principles of art and beauty. When one speaks of political aesthetics, one primarily intends that politics is not merely a matter of dialectical argument, nor even a matter of the beauty consonant with rhetorical persuasion or other superficies; rather, the whole enterprise, like the whole of reality, has a form and therefore it is somehow bound up with and comprehensible in terms of beauty. But when I say that conservatives have tended to sympathize with a politicized aesthetic I mean something else.

Let me approach the concept anecdotally. Years ago, I matriculated into a Masters of Fine Arts program in poetry writing. My ambitions were fourfold: to find time to write, relieved of the demands of a full-time career; nonetheless to be able to subsist by teaching courses on a rural university campus; to take graduate courses in literature, anticipating my eventual departure for a doctoral program in Literature; and, finally, to commune with other young aspirant poets. The last goal was the one least satisfactorily met. Aside from having no particular interest in or potential for the intellectual life, my classmates were generally engaged in the composing of what I thought to be trash—not merely in execution, but in theoria, in formal principles. Their work consisted chiefly of brief effusions of juxtaposed images plastered on the page with no attention either to meaning or rhythm. Their chief impact on my own work was to inspire me to write satires on theirs. As years past, the prominence of disjointed, fragmentary, deliberately ugly and unintelligible poetry in literary magazines convinced me that my classmates had pursued the dominant conventions of our day and that there was very little positive I could learn for my art from that of other living writers (I have given a fuller criticism of these present fashions in the essay series I have been publishing during the past couple years, Our Steps amid a Ruined Colonnade). Nonetheless, I appreciated that such a creative writing program had its uses, for it exposed me to what I instinctively loathed, giving me opportunity to formulate counterprinciples. When I left in disgust after two years without the degree I had intended, I nonetheless felt that I had apprenticed myself in writing by engaging my contemporaries in a meaningful manner.

After my first year in the program, however, I recall meeting a bright conservative undergraduate while on vacation. When he learned of my academic program, he remarked on the spot, "Oh, so you all read Hesiod and Horace!" He said this with such relish that I only reluctantly disabused him. Very little reading required in the program involved things written more than a few years previous, and, strangely, that meant very few of the students in the program knew how to write anything but tattered words trickling in unpredictable daubs down the page—a practice that, could they only have known it, they inherited from the surrealists with none of the interesting if naive theories by which the surrealists had justified their practice. As I argue in Colonnade, David Yezzi of the New Criterion was correct to diagnose these ignorant heirs of surrealism as mere "unrealists." Having noted the presentism and scarcity of reading in the program, I reported to this undergraduate that I had actually been spending my days reading and rereading the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and lyric poems, and so benefited in my own writing from the extended contemplation of a properly English classical period, rather than the Greco-Roman one, the very thought of which sent my friend careening toward the vastness of the sublime. What troubled me in his expression, however, was the indifference to what it might mean to study writing as a craft, to write great literature rather than to stroke its gold-stamped leather spine.

It is, again, the fit of joy this friend experienced that I want to scrutinize, for I think it representative of something typical of conservative arguments about culture in general—something good in itself, but also restricted and inadequate. Conservatives in our age, if they have any intellectual calling, have tended toward law and the social sciences, particularly—as might seem appropriate—political theory and history. As such, while they often have a profound enthusiasm for certain works of literature and great art, their tastes tend to be informed not only by their a priori political commitments (which can be a good thing) but by their commitment to the explicitly political as well. This can prove stifling. The catalog of favorites tends to begin with the political allegories of George Orwell, swiftly skips back to the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, and then plummets into the sublime and ennobling depths of Shakespeare and, at last, the classical world. Homer! Hesiod! Virgilio mio! More generally, one hears the rich-toned deference and reverence at the mere issuance of the phrase "Great Books."

I do not mock this sensibility; I am its willing vassal as much as anyone. But we need to understand its source and its shape if we are to see not only that it remains incomplete but also that it can provide only narrow foundations for the revival of the arts in a fashion amenable to the other great principles conservatives share.

In brief, this is a politicized aesthetic: the reverence and deference conservatives naturally and rightly feel for inherited institutions and the legacies and traditions of their forefathers gets applied—not thoughtlessly but secondarily—to works that have accrued a handful of characteristics. First, their content is immediately comprehensible in terms of ethics; while Homer's is not a bald didacticism, one must truly be numb not to experience a kind of moral fear and awe when confronted with a full vision of the noble virtues of Achilles. I would not argue that conservatives tend to admire only artworks with patent ethical content, as if they could skip over questions of beauty or artistic achievement entirely in the rush to celebrate the stirring moral. Rather, as I shall elaborate, conservatives tend to venerate only one form of moral beauty.

Second, much literature before the age of the novel gave absolute primacy to both public life and public virtues. As such, the classical authors remain keenly attractive to those already by nature inclined to attend to the explicit prescriptions of public and social life to the neglect of the obscure subtleties of the private sphere. If a work is Christian, conservatives seem to appreciate it more if it is "religious" than theological; if I may risk obscurity, they consistently prefer the allegorical to the ontological. Sir Walter Scott's romances are but scarcely novels in the modern sense, but are prose narratives that anticipate the techniques of the novel while retaining many conventions of classical epic and history. And, of course, Orwell's fictions were intended neither to be conservative nor to be novels at all. That his sensibility tended to exploit the genres of the fable and dystopian fantasy suggests that it was in a key way alienated from an age that loved the interiority of the novel—and his alienation is something in which his conservative readers share. They appreciate such works not merely because they are ethical in content, but also because they are concerned with external or social forms in the same way that political theory or the other social sciences generally are.

Third, in their own right and by dint of venerability, the kinds of works conservatives tend to cherish are, in several senses, Great Books. That is, they have in themselves and in their dusty surfaces attributes of the noble or great. Here lies, I think, the decisive feature of the conservative politicized aesthetic: a somewhat isolated sensitivity to only that kind of beauty that merges with what the classical tradition called the sublime, and which we might more helpfully call the noble or grand.

This identification of nobility with beauty—or rather, the making of nobility into the particular kind of beauty conservatives can appreciate—has itself a noble history. Aristotle, in the Rhetoric, says, "The Noble is that which is both desirable for its own sake and also worthy of praise; or that which is both good and also pleasant because good. If this is a true definition of the Noble, it follows that virtue must be noble, since it is both a good thing and also praiseworthy" (1366a.33–35). But this is not the only acceptable translation and conceals something central to Aristotle's argument. "Noble" serves to translate the Greek Kalon, the usual translation of which is "beauty." In rhetoric, the only art form that is intrinsically more public even than architecture, nobility bleeds into beauty, or rather, nobility characterizes the kind of beauty that is especially suited to rhetoric. If we remain unaware of this translation, we are left to think that the Noble pertains only to the context of rhetoric and virtue (ethics). But what Aristotle reveals to us with that crucial Platonic word Kalon is the substantial identity between these things and beauty. Nobility clearly pertains to ethics insofar as the exercise of virtue is inherently noble; but nobility and virtue alike are caught up in the Beautiful. Indeed, Umberto Eco's The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas translates this passage as "The Beautiful is that which is both desirable for its own sake and also worthy of praise." The Noble is at once an ethical and aesthetic category.

Conservatives verifiably have a particular appreciation of noble words, and the kinds of artworks they appreciate best tend, naturally, to be Great Books—that is to say, those kinds of literature that most obviously embody a nobility of spirit and remain valuable for that spirit even should they lack nearly all the other species of the beautiful or attributes proper to the fine arts. This limitation in taste became, in our age, a limitation in argumentation. Those to whom the prose of National Review delivered a certain tremor felt their aesthetic sensibilities satisfied and may not even have realized that there is more to art and beauty than noble rhetoric.

Complacent with rhetoric, they ignored poesis, the making of plots. By this, I do not mean conservatives were indifferent to narrative and story. On the contrary, they have shown themselves admirably enamored of the essential stories of our civilization at a time when the Left is signified chiefly by its hatred, terror, manipulation, and silencing of the past. But admiring noble stories told and telling stories are two different things. More to the point, someone who venerates the great and noble comes to do so in virtue of his having taken some path, having lived some story of his own; while instinct or intuition certainly play a role in one's coming to admire greatness, that is not the whole story and such admiration is neither irrational nor incommunicable. But it has been treated as such, and so conservatives have frequently proved negligent in telling the stories that show the fusion of reason and intuition. Nobility is not self-evident and so if you want others to venerate what you venerate, you must equip them to do so by means of narrative. If you would do this, you must enter into the arts.

I have argued elsewhere that, because Mnemosyne is the mother of the muses, the recollecting of memories, the making of plots, is the activity in which all art forms engage (even music, despite superficial appearances to the contrary). Conservatives have proven themselves connoisseurs and conservators of the great stories on which a flourishing human culture depends, but in their veneration of the Great they have often admired the verdigris more than the substance; they have been derelict of duty in sowing in our culture new stories, new works that might strengthen our culture in the resources it needs if it is to recover not only what Burke called the moral imagination, but indeed all the precincts of memory, understanding, and will, which depend upon not only nobility but Beauty writ large. They must retranslate Kalon.

Click here to continue to Part II of this essay.

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