Beauty as a Conservative Birthright?

 
 

A recent series by James Matthew Wilson highlights the connection between conservatism and beauty.

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Prompted by the death of the Thomist scholar Ralph McInerny, Jody Bottum recently suggested that things are looking dim:

They are slipping away from us one by one, the people who can remember those times that once seemed so promising. Names like Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson had a weight about them; you could conjure with them and see the future—a world turned high scholastic and Neo-Thomistic: Catholic philosophy and Catholic art joining to make a golden age.

Indeed there is a time to mourn, and no doubt we have been losing, and will continue to lose, those who were present during last century’s Neo-Thomistic prime. But there may be reason to think they are coming back to us one by one as well.  I am not suggesting that I see new Maritains and Gilsons on the horizon, but only that I see a somewhat compensatory replenishment. Recent studies by Francesca Murphy, Rowan Williams and Steven Schloesser constitute a veritable revival of both figures.  It is not difficult to find emerging scholars also inspired by Gilson’s and Maritain’s ideas. Katie Kresser, a young art historian at Seattle Pacific University, recently argued for a Maritianian approach to art.  And last August, a young scholar and poet at Villanova University, James Matthew Wilson – himself taught by Ralph McInerny – launched an exciting series on beauty and its relation to conservative thought entitled Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic. Wilson points out that contemporary conservatives make little time for beauty. Hence, I hope to provide a summation of Wilson's series that will prompt readers to go to the original essays themselves. I have some criticisms of Wilson’s account, but this is not the place for them. The task now is to take notice of a young scholar who – inspired largely by Jacques Maritain - has performed a successful exhumation of beauty as a central, even dominant, conservative concern.

Wilson’s account is anything but another jeremiad regarding conservatives’ lack of regard for beauty and the arts. And yet, to be true to the problem he seeks to address, he begins Part I with a carefully articulated complaint:

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.

Conservative thought is captive today to what Wilson names a “politicized aesthetic,” but it was not always so captive. Wilson calls for us to “retranslate Kalon,” that is, to widen our capacity for what the beautiful entails. The task should come naturally to conservatives, for to examine Anglo-American political discourse is to conclude that “conservative thought was born of beauty.”

In Part II, Wilson buttresses this claim by providing a longer trajectory of the conservative approach to beauty. “Conservatism,” claims Wilson, “insofar as it may be deemed a movement, has been primarily an artistic and critical rather than institutional-political one.” Wilson contrasts the conservative Edmund Burke with his famous critic, Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft charged that Burke’s ideas were more beautiful than reasonable. For the ideologically motivated Wollstonecraft, beauty was fundamentally untrustworthy. Burke intuitively connected the politically good and the beautiful, whereas Wollstonecraft disassociated them. To simplify his argument considerably, Wilson sees in this debate a primordial conservative endorsement of beauty, and conversely, a primordial liberal distrust of it.

But however prone towards beauty they may be, conservatives haven’t quite delivered in the arena of beauty and the arts. Or so one might think. To prove otherwise, Wilson summons a grand, creative, primarily literary tradition of conservatism, moving first from Burke to the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. When Shelley, who was no conservative, sought to admire both these “conservative” poets, he could only do so by removing them from their native political nests. But to do this was to ignore that conservative social visions and beauty go hand in hand. Wilson then continues his list of those who perpetuated this conservative legacy of beauty, providing us a goldmine of recovery projects:

So it would be a century later, as agrarians, traditionalists, and orthodox Christians from John Crowe Ransom, Caroline Gordon, William Faulkner, and Allen Tate, to W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Edith Sitwell, Christopher Dawson, and Graham Greene—from Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford to Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley—discovered the dry powder of conservatism tucked away in the base of the heaving, plodding windmill of modern liberal society. Such discovery comes as an explosion. But, because conservative thought survived primarily as literary rather than political gunpowder, its blast echoed only occasionally beyond the ivory tower, literary salon, or front porch.

Happily, Wilson’s is no exhaustive treatment. We could add many more to his list, such as the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, or the films of Eric Rohmer and Whit Stilman.  Seen in this wider perspective, argues Wilson, the Reagan revolution appears less as an apotheosis of conservatism than a temporary sidetrack from the primary conservative concern of beauty.

In Part III and Part IV, Wilson shows that he is not bound by some approved list of conservative thinkers. After eloquently lamenting the division between fine arts and beauty and arguing for their inexorable connection, Wilson turns to the Marxist thinker Theodor Adorno, whose perspective on beauty seems far closer to contemporary conservative concerns than one might initially think. Wilson’s Adorno seeks to cut through ideology and engage reality, “to recover the real, trembling existential nature of man’s encounter with the ‘Book of Nature.’” Despite his rejection of religion, Adorno’s aesthetic theory emerges as a defense of truth and objectivity. Rather than endorsing cheap protest art of the “Marxist” variety, Adorno felt such politicized art was in fact complicit in ideology. Adorno emerges, in Wilson’s account, as the conservative’s fifth column nestled comfortably within liberal walls.

But Wilson is not content to linger on Adorno. For the full array of conservative possibilities for art and beauty, he ushers us into the world of the young Jacques Maritain. Part V provides a contextual explanation and overview of Maritain’s aesthetic project. As anyone familiar with Maritain’s life will know, he was no dry scholastic pacing the empty corridors of a Neo-Thomistic fortress, but a man passionately engaged with the artists of his time, attempting to show “in the most gentle and unassuming manner possible that modern aesthetic theory, when it works itself out, is roughly that of Aquinas.” Wilson’s Maritain could uplift the Middle Ages when "man created more beautiful things… and adored himself less.” But Maritain could also, in the same breath, applaud Romanticism for uncovering art's spiritual purpose. Such a range of appropriation led Maritain headlong into the creative cauldrons of modernism.

In Part VI, Wilson delves further into Maritain’s Thomistic account of beauty, which showed beauty to be not “pretty” or “attractive”, but actual. “Should we stop anywhere short of beauty,” reads Wilson’s illuminating gloss of Maritain, “we have stopped short of what is real: we have foiled the natural orientation of our intellects, settling for half truths only because beauty is so difficult.” Wilson, like Maritain, sees fine art as a pickaxe by which to mine the hard properties of being, thereby—because being is good and trustworthy—discovering gems.

In his epilogue, Part VII, Wilson individuates from his chief inspiration to show that he is not simply regurgitating Maritain. Drawing on (without fully endorsing) Umberto Eco’s study of Aquinas’ aesthetics, Wilson criticizing Maritain’s “pre-conceptual” understanding of art (the very thing that Katie Kresser embraces). By prioritizing an element of Aquinas neglected by Maritain – proportion - Wilson restores a higher level of rationality to the experience of beauty. “The better we know something,” explains Wilson, “the more beautiful it becomes.” Training in the practice or appreciation of the fine arts, therefore, is not a sub-intellectual pursuit, to be engaged in as a break from the real work of math or science. “Our culture. . . lies to itself in denying the reality of beauty and barbarizes and shallows its intellect in treating aesthetic education as unimportant to the formation of a complete human being.” If the world is beautiful, training in beauty trains us to receive the world as it actually is.

Finally, Wilson is able – just barely - to bring his multifaceted account full circle, returning to Burke’s view that politics and beauty are inseparable. “No society can understand itself without understanding and seeking its proper form,” says Wilson, “and so no society can exist without being graspable primarily in terms of beauty.”

Such was the insight of Edmund Burke and of the conservative tradition to which he was inadvertent godfather. To preserve and reform political forms according to a vision of beauty has been the call of every true conservative. If that summons has too frequently sounded narrow, even monotone, and so failed to register on as wide a range of sensibilities as it might have, that has been a problem of aesthetic or metaphysical vision first and only secondarily one of particular policies or practical politics.

Perhaps then, before conservatives engage in one more round of partisan or internecine disputation, they do best to seriously ponder the nature of a beautiful society. It is often remarked that we need less punditry. We could, however, use another Ambrosio Lorenzetti painting an Allegory of Good and Bad Government in our contemporary Palazzo Pubblico. Wilson’s series show this to be a possibility with precedent. The historical trajectory that yokes beauty and the fine arts to conservatism will be challenged and needs to be strengthened. But for those seriously interested in beauty, Wilson makes a winsome case that the variegated domain of conservatism is certainly a safe (and quite possibly the only) place to be.

Matthew J. Milliner is a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com.

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