Conservatism and Art

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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Since I’ve confessed myself a conservative, a democrat, and a monarchist, how does that affect my artistic philosophy? (For after all, this has largely been a blog about the art of poetry.)

I previously defined conservatism as the regard for, habitual reasoning from (or you could say working from) and promotion of values which are so basic to human nature that no unusual sophistication is required to hold them or understand them.

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Although liberals often consider art to be their particular purview (since, so the assumption goes, art is sophisticated, and liberals are sophisticated) in fact art is one of the most valuable facets of human nature imaginable to the conservative mind. Whether it’s a mechanic singing a hymn, a grandparent brought to tears over a portrait of a family member, a young person thrilling to some deeply cultivated ideal conveyed in a Victorian novel, or a middle-aged college graduate finding a souls’ refreshment in contemplating a poem of elevated language, conservatives know that when they are enjoying art they are doing something that humankind has been doing for as long as humanity as been. That patina of the love of all generations gives the activity half its charm.

Archaeologically speaking, it’s a toss-up whether art or religion is earliest attested to – the oldest known building in existence is a beautifully-designed temple of religion.

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For a conservative, art never exists in utter disconnection from other human values. Art is a human activity and as such it originates within human beings, where all values spring up together. In a healthy human being, they spring up in harmony. Love of art, therefore, is something that, to a conservative, must exist in harmony with other values. Contemporary talk about embracing disconnection, confusion, uncertainty, and dissonance sounds to a conservative exactly like talk about embracing disease, injury, filth, and lies.

Conservatives know that there are two types of art, for different types of people. There is folk art and there is high art. There is the art whose purpose is to decorate the various facets of life – such as special occasions, family rooms, and churches – and there is art whose purpose is simply to be enjoyed.

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Because conservatism regards all foundational values as common to all healthy and whole people, and only accepts a sophistication that behaves as the perfection of those common values, the conservative instinctively feels, as the common man instinctively feels, that high art ought not to differ from folk or common art in aesthetic kind, but only in degree of elevation. He feels that the art whose purpose is simply to be enjoyed should bear a similar relationship to art whose purpose is to adorn life.

For the conservative, art that is purely experimental is inherently detestable. Art must develop from common values, and so creative fidelity, not individualistic innovation, is what brings about true development.

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In addition, the high artist of conservative bent (like the contemporary painters whose work is displayed here) shares certain foundational assumptions about art with common people. This puts the conservative artist in the position of being contemned by the liberal artist, who is comfortable in the knowledge of his own position within the tumbleweed fashions of the artistic establishment.

Here are the beliefs about art which the conservative artist shares with the common man.

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  • Art should be beautiful. Art must exist in harmony with other values, and harmony is a form of beauty. To the common man, this is obvious; to the conservative, a firm conviction; to the liberal, something to snicker at. Some may be shocked to learn that saying “art should be beautiful” is probably the most rebellious thing I could have said. The artistic establishment of our times regards beauty to be completely incidental to art. The prevailing attitude for decades now has been that the best way to demonstrate knowingness and sophistication as an artist is to make something completely unattractive to any ordinary person. This is mainly because attractiveness is supposed to be a matter of prejudice, while art is supposed to take the place of religion and should therefore get at something more universal – but more of that below. For the conservative artist, the hard path of making something anyone could enjoy, while developing it to such a degree that the observer of higher sensibilities finds in it some enjoyment which the ordinary observer won’t, is the true test of artistic capability.

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  • Art should be about something. Again, this is a great rebellion. Establishment lapdogs are rearing back in horror as they read this. All the most sophisticated art has been, for decades, non-representative. At art school, great pains are taken to educate students out of any impression they may enter with, to the effect that art is naturally representative. For the non-conservative artist, and in opposition to all evidence, it is only an accident (and perhaps a sign of the primitive evolutionary state of past ages) that all art, everywhere, has always been representative. To such, a preference for representative art is inherently unsophisticated, and therefore, detestable (because to the non-conservative, let us recall, the unsophisticated common man is always detestable and the aim of all public activity is to separate him from all of his values.) For the conservative, however, the representative foundation of art cannot ultimately be departed from. Abstract paintings are representations, he is sure, of the artist’s inner state (however dull and unintentional.) Abstract, disorganized poetry is pretty much the same thing. Just like atheists always end up putting something else (like The Universe or Mechanistic Determinism) in their mental god-slot, so all artists helplessly end up representing something, even when they are trying not to. Good art, then, is that which results from the artist’s realistic acknowledgment of this law, and his intentional mastery of the means necessary to do it as well and as effectively as possible.

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  • Good works of art should have permanent value. This is true of both folk art and high art, of both practical art and decorative art. Since liberalism is inherently fashionable, liberally-approved art ages and becomes hideous even in their own eyes, as artistic fashion changes. Conservative artists are intrinsically geared toward the beauty of all that endures, and therefore they rarely make this mistake.Maniac of Gadara

 

  • Art should be ranked below religion but above nearly everything else. For the conservative, art is not, itself, religious. That is because religion is there to fill that slot. Religion is, to the true conservative, the least dispensable aspect of human life. All people everywhere have always been religious. No other value is possible – not in any enduring form – without religion. Attempts to rid mankind of religion are grimly ridiculous, and the belief of fashionable people that those attempts have succeeded are jaw-droppingly out of touch (kind of like the belief, so lately exploded, of fashionable people that a person like Donald Trump could simply never enter the White House.) However, good art harmoniously agrees with good religious feeling and therefore it is suitable to adorn places of worship, represent religious scenes, and (where the more elevated art, made for the sake of pure enjoyment is concerned) harmonize subtly with religiously informed values.

 

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Where does this leave poetry? For me, every poem I write is simultaneously an act of rebellion against the false authority of the artistic establishment, and an act of loyalty to permanence, beauty, harmony, semantic obedience, and God.

Christ in the Desert

Everything flows from that.

Note: The original version of this post contained a different image of Christ, which is referred to in the comments. You can see it here.

33 Comments »

  1. I’ve never been much good at discussing art. And the next sentence is . . . “But I know what I like,” right? Not quite. Often I’m not sure what I like. Sometimes it takes a while for me to “like” a poem or painting or concerto, etc. And what difference does it make if I like it if it is good? But I must say, I do like the paintings you have included here. Well, all but one. So I don’t feel confident in commenting on your views on conservatism and art, except to say that I am impressed with your determination to get your point across. And I find it reflections like these an important challenge, since I have long felt that art and religion exist on a plane far above, and superior to, ordinary human experience. Now, however, I am not so sure. That’s why your interest in the “common” man as opposed to the sophisticated one caught my attention in the preceding posts I am suspicious of those who claim to know art (as an idea) better than the rest of us just as I

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    • I’m eager to read the part of your comment that was cut off, if you remember what it was. I’m also quite curious which painting you didn’t like. I won’t argue with you about it, promise. My intention was to select works of near universal appeal but I could hardly be infallible in such a task!

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        • Interesting. I’ll have to think about it. Honestly I don’t care for most depictions of Christ either but this one struck me as having artistic depth in addition to its content. It’s a tough subject I guess.

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          • A late-night conversation continued two years later. . . wonderful! The mind never sleeps. I am so glad to have been surprised into reading here again. Now I shall go back and compare paintings. I just now had a quick look, and a skim through your commentary/reflection. I feel somewhat revived, not having found yet other places where art and religion are discussed in ways I can understand.

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          • I’ve been looking at the replacement for some time now (mostly in my head, imagination, soul?), and still don’t know what to think, except that of the two I prefer the second. Have you read this commentary on the painting?
            https://mysticpost.com/2018/11/the-unusual-story-behind-russias-most-famous-painting-of-christ-ivan-kramskoys-christ-in-the-desert/

            It is interesting, but more distracting than helpful. I prefer just looking.

            I tried to imagine this in church, either as an icon (if it weren’t so large) or as a painting on the ceiling, or perhaps the back wall. It doesn’t seem right. I’d rather be in Moscow to visit the museum. I’d like to sit in front of it for a while.

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            • I agree, the story is interesting and yet it doesn’t bear much relation to what we currently experience when we look at the painting. One thing did strike me. The artist said that he both was compelled to paint, and yet knew he might be committing blasphemy. I think that knife’s edge shows us what he was really doing. I don’t think this belongs in a church, either. Not because it is a false image of Christ, but because it is not an icon. That is to say, it is not a thing meant to represent Christ officially, not an object and a symbol created for the purpose of conveying our worship to the original. Instead, this painting is given enormous depth; it has been made something that exists at least somewhat for itself. It is art. I think it is probably so much art that it really escapes being religious art.

              So here, perhaps, the story and character of Christ is mined for its aesthetic and emotional value, rather than for its religious functionality. That is why it is on the knife’s edge of blasphemy – because the subject stands astride over the chasm between natural and supernatural, between holy and mundane, between our religion and ourselves.

              I also agree that I’d rather just look at the painting than argue about it… although I was startled by how poorly it looks in its frame in the museum. The boxy shape; the bounded edges; I think for this painting with its suggestion of vast desert spaces, they ought to have invented some kind of “infinity frame,” like those “infinity pools,” you know.

              Thanks for the conversation. It suggested all these thoughts. But I still agree that just looking at the picture is best.

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    • Curious… do you think that the common man maybe loves to have things in his life that elevate him, while he engages in them, above his everyday experience? Is it possible he needs that even more than someone who considers himself superior already?

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  2. (Whoa. . . I hit the wrong tab.) I was going to add that I have trouble listening to persons who want to make pronouncements on religion–as an idea rather than as an experience–but it’s probably better that I shut myself off, even if accidentally (big “if”).

    So thank you for the wake-up, and especially for those very captivating paintings. I could easily look at them for a while. In fact, I did. And I will again.

    And I look forward to poems too.

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    • It’s hard to know what to say to this. On the one hand, so many people are making so many conflicting pronouncements about religion that I can easily understand the irritation.

      On the other hand, what if that effect is precisely what the devil aims at in multiplying religions? And what if the way in which he multiplies them is by allowing some light to shine into the mind, but a different part for different people, so that everyone knows that something is there, but no one is agreed on what it is? And furthermore, what if he takes care that the least light shall shine in on the minds of the most educated, by chiefly seeking the corruption of the prominent?

      In that case, what is the strategic move, if you do see a great deal by what light you have?


      Maybe it’s because I don’t see any real difference between experiences and ideas? One does experience ideas, after all. The mind does. Do you believe in the existence of the mind?

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        • But I meant to distinguish the experience of thinking/writing/talking about religion and that of standing quietly with others in church, around a sick bed, behind the glass wall of a NICU–wherever daily life becomes larger than life and the human spirit is transformed, in a way and for a moment or two. I realize that this view is not a traditional one. It risks a lot, self-deception and

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          • …”following the wrong star” being chief among the dangers, especially if a person substitutes religious feelings for church attendance and participation, or if you expect the latter to

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            • …include the former.

              (Sorry. It’s too late for me to expect my fingers to wait patiently for my halting thoughts. I did reread everything here, however: your post plus all the comments. It was an enriching experience, again. Gratefully,)

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  3. “Art should be beautiful.” Indeed. It’s a point I always make in discussions of the nature of art. And, to use one of Grandma’s okie-isms, it goes over like a fart in church. I’ve found that even artists who are traditional/conservative are often resistant to the idea. I usually make progress in advancing the idea by steering the conversation to, “What is Beauty?”. They’re starting from the presumption that it means just pretty/pleasant. I assume your definition is much deeper and more complex than that. My own is wide enough that it subsumes their concern that art should often also trouble or disturb.

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    • I appreciate your comment, Robert, and share your sentiments to a great extent. I go a bit further; I don’t believe that art should ever trouble or disturb. I believe it should challenge, but no more.

      The reason is that I think art is designed to provoke contemplation, and contemplation reaches the heart – the deep core and spring of being, the seed from which the whole person grew. Contemplation induces a kind of union with the thing contemplated. And nothing disturbs the heart but union with evil. As Christ said, “Let not your heart be troubled.”

      And I do seek far more from beauty than pleasantness and prettiness. But I don’t despise such things, the way the “truth to power” crowd tend to do. Little girls are pretty and occasionally even pleasant, and I have the highest regard for the beneficence of the Creator in making little girls.

      Meanwhile, I think most people who say they are against beauty in art have merely adopted an attitude. Like the rest of us, they are moved by the sight of a pretty little girl in a yellow dress running and shrieking their names; they are refreshed by the sight of a field full of blue flowers and green leaves under a golden-hour sky. Their appreciation for the disturbing is merely dutiful and shibollethish. That’s why I think the whole movement is misanthropic.

      Meanwhile the people who have foisted it all, I accuse of darker designs. I think they want to use art to spread around the evil in human experience by making people experience it vicariously. I think they also want to use art to imagine new evils, which they are not brave enough to actually commit openly. This may be nihilistic (there’s really nothing wrong with what I like; here: experience it vicariously so it starts to feel normal) or it may be spiteful (if I had to suffer, so should you) or it may be something darker which normal people can’t understand.

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    • I don’t have any deeply informed comments to make about him. Just that his humanism seems very Christian to me, and his art moves me without agitation. I think you actually see love (philanthropy) in his art.

      Perhaps you have some relevant information?

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  4. Alanaark, no relevant information except the slight intake of breath at seeing his paintings and then a relaxation that touches my soul and a smile that reaches my lips. A certainty that God has ordered things well.

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