In a recent essay in Public Discourse, I argued that conservatives need culture. In the wake of that essay I was asked to respond to some conservative criticisms of the arts. Since terms are elusive, allow me to begin by briefly defining “conservatism” and “culture.” I am partial to H. Stuart Hughes’ definition: “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.” Then there is T.S. Eliot’s remark that culture is such a massive category that even he could hardly grasp it “except in flashes.” I, however, am using the term culture in a narrower, but still legitimate sense—as a proxy for what emerged in the eighteenth century as the fine arts (les beaux arts), that coalition of music, theatre, dance, visual art, poetry, and literature, which would now include photography and film. The fine arts are consanguine with modern conservatism. Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful, for example, predates—and some have suggested is a basis for—his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Art matters for conservatives not least because it matters for everyone. In the words of Etienne Gilson, “Art is not the highest of the activities of man. Still, it is one of them, and no other can take its place. If art is the making of beauty for beauty’s own sake, there is no imaginable substitute for it.” That said, the arts do not always so function, and there are consequently good reasons for conservative suspicion towards them. Three such complaints come to mind. The arts are seen as too rarefied, religious, or radical. I will address each of these complaints in turn.
Some conservatives take issue with the rarefied notion of “fine art” itself, pointing to the neglected beauty of common craft and everyday pursuits from which the “fine arts” sought, dubiously, to be distinguished. In A Mirror for Artists, an essay that foresaw the National Endowment for the Arts three decades before it was created, Donald Davidson articulates this frustration, voicing the Southern Agrarian complaint that the arts in the industrial North function as a luxury beyond reach of the common person. “The attempt to glorify the arts by setting them aside in specially consecrated shrines can hardly supply more than a superficial gilding to a national culture, if the private direction of that culture is ugly and materialistic,” he wrote. This is true enough, but Davidson’s complaint overlooks the possibility of having beauty in both the arts and life. If beauty is important, it is indeed worthwhile for there to be a class of pursuits, professions, and institutions devoted to seeking it, and it alone. Institutionalized fine arts can detract from crafts and other activities—such as metalwork or carpentry—that arrive at beauty indirectly. But to assume they must is like suggesting that eating at a restaurant necessarily undermines the act of cooking at home.
Other conservatives distrust the arts on religious grounds. Following the Enlightenment categorization of fine art came the Romantic invention of capital “A” Art as a rival to the more established religious traditions. “Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy,” remarked Matthew Arnold, “will be replaced by poetry.” Arnold, however, was in this case a false prophet. Conservatives should have enough faith in their more tested religious traditions to realize that the “religion of Art” has not proven a very strong competitor. As Jacques Barzun understood, Art is unable “to reach the divine center from which redemption comes, and is punished for its presumption… [Art] lacks a theology or even a popular mythology of its own; it has no bible, no ritual, and no sanctions for behavior.” It is true, as one recent book has indicated, that art continues to act as a kind of “alternative religion for atheists.” But it is a religion thin enough that it sometimes actually leads to thicker, traditional faith. If beauty is understood—as it long has been—as a transcendental value, then a strong case can be made for the artistic pursuit of beauty even outside of beauty’s native religious milieu, as a corollary, not competitor, to robust traditional faith. Barring that, the Catholic Gilson is again insightful, even daringly generous: “To those who communicate with pure being chiefly through esthetic experience, the beautiful becomes a substitute for the divine…. Better a wrong religion than none at all.”
Finally there is artistic radicalism that, conservatives rightfully perceive, remains a dominant cultural paradigm. Radical politics, however, have on the whole not been good to the arts, from the intricate networks of artistic patronage that were intentionally destroyed in the French Revolution to Stalin’s insistence that Popular Front culturati forsake the frivolity of abstraction for Socialist Realism. Still, the Marxist school of art criticism, from Adorno to Zizek, is a resilient one—and yet, a troubled one. Progressive art theorists are repeatedly confounded by the ability of capitalism to absorb and commodify its artistic critique. If one’s objective is class struggle, the artistic agenda scrawled on a Paris wall in 1968 is difficult to refute: “The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop's head.” The avant-garde is tired, retreating—as Susan Sontag did toward the end of her career—to the base-camp of beauty. Beauty, furthermore, has had a powerful enough academic resurgence to have provoked yet another recent anthology. Beauty rivals the Marxist paradigm because it, after all, is a protest of its own; the presence of beauty naturally challenges the injustice and disorder of what conservatives understand to be a necessarily imperfect world.
A limited, but still profoundly significant understanding of the arts therefore lies buried beneath the rarified, religious, and radical distortions of fine art that conservatives rightfully criticize. This understanding sees fine art as a means of pursuing beauty—even the terrible or wounded kind—for its own sake, in a way that opens towards the transcendence best mediated by traditional faith. This is where the more conservative tradition of artistic patronage and reflection finds its home.
The best methods of such artistic patronage will be a varied—individuals, organizations, corporations, universities, town councils, and others all doing their parts. There is a place for large-scale government funding of the arts, albeit a limited one. Such funding, as Michael J. Lewis points out, is less effective at spotting new trends or anointing new artists, and more helpful in preserving established but endangered forms of art such as classical orchestras or ballet, “works validated by the cumulative consensus of time.”
Conservative reflection upon the arts is central, for the key to intelligent patronage is an informed public, but conservatives need especially to widen their discourse on the arts. Some suggest that classical styles are superior, and there is indeed much to be said for these established traditions, which should receive the benefit of the doubt. But to see other styles as necessarily subversive of social order is unnecessarily restrictive. Hilton Kramer has suggested that modernism in art need not be understood as a scapegoat for social decay. Instead, “modernism has played a decisive role in making bourgeois life a more liberal, a more enlightened, and a spiritually more spacious environment than it once was.” We could add that even postmodern art can be scanned for places where it captures—or is captured by—the beautiful, which is no respecter of styles.
The nagging question of where money for art can come from is also addressed by Kramer: “The defense of art must not… be looked upon as a luxury of civilization—to be indulged in and supported when all else is serene and unchallenged—but as the very essence of civilization.” While this statement may be hyperbolic, it is a helpful corrective to cultural pragmatism.
Where do the arts stand in relationship to conservatism today? There are indeed a number of astute writers on the arts in the conservative spectrum, laboring diligently, often to wonderful results. Many of these writers, however, are connected to The New Criterion, which as an exclusively cultural journal remains an isolated, and consequently embattled voice, not to mention an endangered one. The “severe” financial threat level prominently displayed at their website does not strike me as a bluff. Somewhere over the horizon is an elephant graveyard, where noble conservative cultural efforts, from The New York Sun to Culture 11, go to die. The reasons for these failures are complicated, but lest the bones pile higher, there need be readjustments in conservative priorities, practices, and budgets.
Perhaps the best barometer of the state of conservatives and culture comes from pointing to the number of other conservatives who are sounding the culture alarm. The journal founded by Russell Kirk, Modern Age, devoted their fiftieth anniversary issue (Fall 2007) to the matter of conservatives and culture. Therein several writers leveled complaints similar to my own, the difference being that their appraisal is far more severe. John Vella opens with a bang: “Art and architecture, environmental conservation and urban planning are concerns conservatives have foolishly ceded to the Left…. Truth and beauty go hand in hand.” Kevin Cope complains that conservatives trade genuine beauty for a “somewhat abstract national conservative taste.” Catesby Leigh laments the “utilitarian, individualist ethos that has come to dominate the conservative mind, while nurturing the sprawl phenomenon.” James Cooper argues that “Beauty contains the key to a door that conservatives have been trying to unlock for almost a century.” Conservatives have wasted time in protesting bad NEA choices, when “what they should have been doing is helping create an alternative.” More recently in a forum connected to Modern Age, James Matthew Wilson has pointed to the overly narrow constrictions conservatives have placed on the category of beauty. Lastly, at Doublethink Conor Friedersdorf has complained that, when it comes to culture, conservatives just complain.
Conservatives have a culture problem. They have less of a religion problem, a fact that can assist in conservative cultural renewal. In the words of George Steiner, the arts actualize “a root-impulse of the human spirit to explore possibilities of meaning and of truth that lie outside empirical seizure or proof.” By viewing the arts as the pursuit of beauty in all its variety, and by seeing such pursuits as a vestibule to traditional faith, the arts can flourish under conservative auspices. Absent this transcendent framework, conservative cultural activity and discussions quickly calcify into a repulsive harrumph. Conservatives looking to make a beginning in the arts would do well to remember John Ruskin’s lifelong insistence that “All great art is praise."
Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in Art History at Princeton University.