American Mistra: Putting the Culture Back in the Culture Wars


The urgency of protecting the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, and the institution of marriage goes hand-in-hand with cultivation of the arts

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John Witherspoon (the man after whom Public Discourse’s sponsoring institute is named) was faced with a choice. His eighteenth-century Scotch-Presbyterian milieu was divided between two parties. The Popular party, which today might be called the conservative wing, displayed the rigorous thought that accompanied Calvinist orthodoxy. The Moderate party, the more liberal branch, was doctrinally compromising, but peppered sermons with generous helpings of poetry, drama and literature. Faced with these alternatives, the young Witherspoon picked a definite side and became the champion of the Popular party. Witherspoon perceived that the Moderate penchant for poetry was not a supplement to classical doctrine, but an attempt to replace it. He penned a widely read satire of the Moderates, wherein they recited an “Athenian Creed” which began, “I believe in beauty and comely proportions of Dame Nature…,” and ended with, “I believe in the divinity of Lord Shaftesbury, the saintship of Marcus Antonius,” and so on. Witherspoon was a serious man who chose hard thinking over sponsorship of the arts. On the matter of Christians attending the theatre he was clear: “Where [amusement] is not necessary, it must be sinful.”

It is not my intention to ridicule a great man for avoiding plays; Witherspoon’s was a different time and his decision was, I believe, justified.  John Adams, an acquaintance of Witherspoon, was faced with a similar quandary. When confronted with the luxury of Parisian Society, he famously stated: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

Both Witherspoon and Adams, faced with a choice between pressing duty and an appreciation for Molière and Mozart, wisely chose duty. It is a choice that Witherspoon and Adams needed to make, but a choice that we—being generally more disposed to the arts than were Popular-party Calvinists, and enjoying the relative degree of political stability that Adams lacked—need not make. Yet, the contemporary American heirs of Witherspoon and Adams rarely seem to get around to enjoying one of the rights that Adams hoped to secure for us: the right to both cultivate and savor the arts.

To familiarize oneself with contemporary conservative ideas and publications often means choosing culture wars over culture. Conservatives are practiced in lionizing the classics and lamenting the decline of Western culture, but should one wish to fully engage the culture of our time, a Leftward drift is difficult to resist. For example, the editor of a successful journal devoted to religion and the arts, Image, recently announced his need to “walk away from the conservative movement,” for he found the “imposed abstractions” of contemporary conservatism less than conducive to the sponsorship of poetry, art and fiction. While I take issue with his decision, I admit it is understandable, for the arts and contemporary conservatism don’t quite go hand in hand. There are, of course, exceptions. The New Criterion has, since 1982, been devoted to challenging the fact that “the Left defined the only possible standard of enlightenment in matters having to do with art and culture.” But, to my knowledge, The New Criterion never aimed to be the sole enterprise in this regard. As the arts rarely attain more than token coverage in conservative journals and forums, The New Criterion—passionately despised by the Left when not ignored—often seems to go it alone.

Conservatism’s less than energized attention to the arts is, to be sure, understandable. Sifting the wheat from the endless fields of present-day cultural chaff is a herculean chore, and appears a luxury considering the urgent issues that rightly occupy the conservative mind. Does one really expect a honed pro-life advocate to put down her pen mid-argument to embark on a pleasant afternoon gallery stroll? Likewise, should a disciplined poet, lost in contemplative gaze, interrupt a potentially fruitful reverie for a primer on the current state of bioethics? Perhaps not, but should conservatism wish to retain its current adherents and attract new ones, attention to the arts may not be a choice, but a mandate—for patronage of culture, rightfully pursued, recalls for conservatives just what it is they hope to defend.

It is tempting here to lionize the past, searching for a successful blend of the political and cultural temperaments in journals of yore, such as the famous, but now defunct, Partisan Review. Though never reaching more than 10,000 subscribers, the publication displayed an impressive longevity (1934-2003). Even more impressive were its list of contributors, a virtual who’s who of twentieth century literary figures—Czeslaw Milosz, Clement Greenberg, Saul Bellow, Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Erich Auerbach, Albert Camus, and W.H. Auden, among many others. What makes this more remarkable is that Partisan Review was not an “arts” journal, but was earnestly political. “The magazine,” once insisted the editors, “was both anti-fascist and anti-communist long before it became commonplace to identify the two forms of totalitarianism and to regard them with equal repugnance.” And yet, space was intentionally reserved within this agenda for poetry, fiction, and art criticism that, while not completely free from politics, was related to political agendas in much more complex and subtle ways.

Perhaps, it could be insisted, Partisan Review was a cultural success because it published through the golden age of modernism. With such impressive contributors to choose from, how could they not succeed? But to so assume is to forget that Kafka and Eliot did not spring full born from the head of—in this case—Apollo, the god of the arts. Instead, these young writers were first gambled upon and then cultivated. The way that Partisan Review succeeded in the cultural arena was the only way it can ever be done: by deliberate effort. I’ll let the Partisan Review editors explain: "Our policy has been to resist the growing division in modern culture between the sensibility of art and the more rational intelligence that has gone into social and philosophical thinking. We think that there is a level of the contemporary mind at which these currents meet—a level providing common ground for the educated readers and avant-garde writer, who have been kept apart by all sorts of prejudices and conventions."

Though we could do without Partisan Review’s fifties-chic irreligion (one essay on Jacques Maritain begins by announcing Catholicism as “the oldest and greatest totalitarian movement in history”), the journal still has much to teach. Should conservatism wish to become a cultural force it will require consciously resisting the natural tendency to bifurcate culture and politics. Culture captures hearts and minds often so much more successfully than does an argument—something the Left knows well. Like some sort of artistic arms race, the side of our undeniable political gulf that first develops a winning strategy for the future cultivation of culture may very well win. Conservatism has the principles, dispositions, roots and resources to emerge as a powerful sponsor of the arts, but in comparison to the Left, it often seems to lack the will.

An illustration from my field of study, Byzantine art history, shows how culture can be encouraged in tandem with conservative cultural stands, not apart from them. On a recent research trip to Greece, I had the fortune of driving through the Peloponnese. My itinerary included some of the most fabulous Byzantine and Venetian fortresses on offer. The cliff-top monasteries of Meteora, the dramatic stone citadel of Monemvasia, the Venetian stronghold of Nafplion, and the last Byzantine holdout before Ottoman conquest—Mistra. As I drove between the sites, my choice of listening material was, for a humanities graduate student, a curious one: the audio proceedings of the Making Men Moral conference, which was recently discussed here in Public Discourse. The scenario presented by the various speakers, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Hadley Arkes and Robert George among them, was not a positive one. Just as Byzantines and Venetians defended themselves against the Ottomans, so conservatives today defend against serious threats to precious norms such as the sanctity of human life.

But when I paused the audio, parked the car, and passed through the fortress walls that had witnessed—it is no exaggeration to say—epic struggles, I encountered culture. This was most in evidence at Mistra. Mistra was a tough nut to crack—holding out against the Ottomans seven years longer than Constantinople, finally falling in 1460. But the business of Mistra was more than just defense. Wandering through the remains, I explored gorgeous red-tiled churches decorated with exuberant, even playful frescos, what some have called the “final flowering” of Byzantine art. Resources were allocated, of course, for food and weaponry, but for pens and paintbrushes as well. Here legendary Renaissance scholars such as Gennadius Scholarius and Gemistus Pletho engaged in refined pursuits, all when faced with something we, thankfully, are not yet facing: imminent collapse. By no means do I think that conservatism is in its last throes, but it is deeply instructive that as Byzantium was faced with a terrible (and ultimately triumphant) threat—they patronized culture. Perhaps it was the seriousness of the peril that led the Byzantines to reach toward artistic accomplishment, just as the seriousness of the Cold War threat may be what pushed Partisan Review to bear such cultural fruit.

The two Johns, Witherspoon and Adams, were occupied enough with nation building that they had not the luxury to engage in cultural pursuits, but we can; and doing so is not a betrayal of conservatism, but its fulfillment. Conservatives can both stand guard on the critical issues of the hour, and aggressively cultivate art, architecture, poetry, literature and music. It is a point well understood by Elshtain, who quoted generously from Partisan Review contributors such as Czeslaw Milosz and Albert Camus in both her Gifford Lectures and her Making Men Moral address. Like Mistra, we can defend the walls (hopefully to more success than the Byzantines), while sponsoring the arts within the boundaries that we secure. Artistic souls who think this an overly militarized analogy do well to consider it further, for Mistra bears an uncanny resemblance to our current situation. Look out from the walls of that Byzantine fortress on a clear summer day as I did, and one will see the vast plane of Sparta, near to which is the infamous chasm of Ceadas. Therein the Spartans—who left civilization little culture to speak of—cast their deformed or weakly infants for whom they had no need.

Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in Art History at Princeton University.

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