Conservatism and Art
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.