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Why Artists Tend Not to be Conservative

Commenter thebyronicman has already stolen some of my thunder on this question, though I'll press on, undeterred. I'm not quite so negative about popular artistic forms/media/genres as about the culture considered as a totality. The culture as a totality is irredeemable, beyond even a glimmer of a hope of transformation. Partially, this is a reflection of the inexorable degradations of mass culture, particularly in an age of religious declension; partially, it is a reflection of the inevitably coarsening and anti-aesthetic impulses of commodification for mass markets; and finally, this is a function of the (contingent) nature of the industry itself, which not only facilitates commodification (the nemesis of all artistic sensitivity), but is, quite plainly, as thebyronicman indicates, a form of legalized racketeering. Even the so-called 'Christian' labels often engage in this racketeering, imposing extortionate contracts upon artists, who are often thereby compelled to produce schlock in order to continue in the industry.

Nevertheless, I don't regard popular aesthetic forms themselves as beyond redemption, at least not necessarily. The arts in the Western world were soundest and most vital during the ages in which there obtained a broad continuum between folk or demotic culture and high culture, the monuments of which we still revere. To a large degree, we perceive an irreconcilable tension between them - which tension does exist at some level - but err in identifying the causes of that rupture as lying solely or largely with the decadent partisans of Dionysian rebellion- "those fool kids", in fine. Somewhat provocatively, I think, I would suggest that even those black-metal artists I mentioned in the earlier thread are less destructive of the tradition than, say, Schoenberg. The music of the former, to the extent that we're acknowledging it as music, still presupposes the Western traditions of harmony, melody, intelligible rhythm, and so forth, whereas Schoenberg more or less razes all of this to the ground, salting the earth behind him. In other words, the tradition wanted for conservators at a certain stage of our history, and instead of these, it received destroyers, who sought to eliminate the remaining vestiges of intelligibility in music. Analogous things could be said of the plastic arts.

Answering the question Why? allows us to grapple with the further question of why the artists who shape popular consciousness tend not to be conservative.

Donald Davidson wrote, in his 1930 essay, A Mirror For Artists, one of the twelve essays comprising I'll Take My Stand, that

Romantic writers from William Blake to T.S. Eliot (I'm not certain that I'd accept this categorization, but, oh well...), are not so much an advance guard leading the way to new conquests as a rear guard - a survival of happier days when the artist's profession was not so much a separate and special one as it is now. Romantic writers - and modern writers, who are also romantic - behave like persons whose position is threatened and needs fresh justification. The rebellion against tradition, so marked in some kinds of Romanticism, is thus an abandonment of one untenable fortress in order to take a new position that the artist hopes will be unassailable. In turn it too is besieged, and a new maneuver must be attempted. Yet every time it is not merely Neoclassical art or Victorian art that is invaded. It is art itself, as art, that is being attacked by an enemy so blind and careless that he does not know what citadel he is approaching.

Mr. Babbitt, Mr. More, and other critics of the Humanist school have dragged the weaknesses of Romantic art into the light, but seemingly fail to realize that if there is to be any art at all under the conditions of modern life, it must probably be Romantic art, and must have the weaknesses of Romantic art, with such excellences as may be allowed to the unvictorious. (Snip)

The Humanists commend us to Sophocles and God, in vacuo. Their thinking stops where it should begin, with the social conditions that shape the artist's reaction. (Snip)

Unpredictable though the great artist may be, no study of the past can fail to reveal that social conditions to a large extent direct the temper and form of art. And many though the varieties of Romanticism may be, their origin is probably always in an artificial or maladjusted relation between the artist and society.

The artist, if he remains true to his vocation and calling, articulates a metaphysical intuition of Being, of things in their essences, their wholeness, their interrelations, and the union which binds them to and through one another. The aesthetic mode of perception is integral, unitive, organic, portraying man in relationship with the universe under some species of analogy; at its highest, art therefore depicts, at least implicitly, man as a microcosm of cosmic order. Political theology and practice, at their highest levels, are also animated by such metaphysical intuitions, as indeed are all aspects of life, both when left to their pre-reflective, 'mythological' levels and when articulated at their highest levels of elaboration. Without such intuitions of being, metaphysical dreams, in Weaver's phrase, we perish. Art, therefore, in healthier periods of history, was an integral element of the social order, from remotest prehistory down through early modernity, and patronage was the traditional social expression of this relationship.

With the emergence of industrialism, and a commercial-consumerist socio-political order, however, the artist, in his deepest ontological orientation, is thrown into contradiction with society; for such a social order, predicated as it is upon calculation, quantity as opposed to quality, instrumentalization, commodification, and that type of bureaucratic-managerial regimentation which wars against the regimentation of traditional hierarchies, is the antithesis of the aesthetic mode of perception, and the social conditions in which it flourishes. While the average person may be able to forge some compromise between the two - though on a societal level, this is dubious - persons of a sensitive, intuitive, perceiving disposition - artists particularly - find this intolerable in its seeming impossibility. Man possesses only a finite degree of potencies, and to the extent that these must be harnessed to the attainment of material, calculable ends, to that extent they are unavailable for spiritual and aesthetic ends. Art and religion, even asceticism, are integrally linked, though we have largely lost the awareness of this reality. The rationalizing, calculating, passional - with reason the slave of mere desire - character of the modern commercial society, imposing as it does the requirement that the artist compete in the marketplace and satisfy the mass, providing what is wanted rather than what is, attempts to make of artist what he can never, ever be, if he remains true to his gift.

Romanticism sought to preserve art by retreating to the inner fastnesses of the soul; a piece of Romantic music is a sort of voyage into the profundities (or bathetic wastes) of the composer's soul, for example. If art could no longer reflect a common societal intuition of being, at least it might reflect one man's intuition. Alas, even these grand gestures could be betrayed into the hands of the commodifiers and vulgarizers; the mass could learn to appreciate such things; and, educated as they were the ways of the commercial society, they would seek out what they liked rather than what was necessarily noblest. And they did. The revolution was co-opted and commodified. And so artists pushed ever further out into the waste lands, even attempting to produce an art appropriate for the sort of quantification-based society that cannot abide the artistic calling itself - the lowest prostitution of which an artist is capable.

While many of the resultant artistic gestures, down to our own time, have been grotesquely perverse, the origins of the phenomenon do not lie with the perversities of the artists; artists have not railed against commercial society out of spite, nor the avant-garde against the bourgeoisie out of vengeful ingratitude. To be certain, there are cases of such things. But they do not penetrate to, and disclose, the essence of the matter, which is that an intuition of being cannot be commodified, but rather demands assent and faith, while a commercial society - which is all we possess any longer - can only grant the former. To commodify such an intuition is to profane it. One cannot purchase the Spirit.

This reality has been obscured by the ideological irruptions of the modern age, which, manifestly, engulfed most artists along with most everyone else. However - and this is the answer to the question concerning conservatives and the arts, at least the influential ones - the culturally dominant explanations of the ills of modernity, of the unhomelikeness of the modern world, are of the left. This, because the deepest sort of conservatives have been on the losing sides of all the major socio-cultural conflicts of the past centuries, and the sort of conservatism with which we have been left offers, essentially, a defense (or extension) of the status quo, on the grounds that it is at least better than what the left is selling. Which is largely true, but no comfort to the artist, who is a man born out of time in our type of society, and so rebels against it using the impoverished and incoherent leftist weapons which lie to hand. He does not perceive that these expedients will only worsen his existential plight; but we should not fault him in this regard: he is an artist, after all, and not a philosopher, and his intuition is of the unnaturalness of things as they are, of life as we live it. As for most conservatives, they are either - as I have indicated - at peace with our commercial society, profoundly confused (imagining, as do the neoconservatives with their dreams of national greatness, that one can graft certain heroic virtues, even mottled ones, upon an utterly antiheroic sort of society, self-sacrificial ardors upon a base of consumerist crapulence), or quietly resigned, perhaps despairing, perhaps merely keeping their heads down and pursuing vocations locally, unrecognized. But the conservative and reactionary diagnoses of the out-of-joint status of the true artist are not widely known, and are taken seriously by fewer people than know them. It is the leftist doctrines which are known - because they are the natural offspring of a commercial society, at once, complexly, both its fulfillment and its nemesis - and artists therefore gravitate to them.

Conservatives can produce great art, whether or a grand scale or in miniature. Doing so, however, requires that they become - if implicitly - more reactionary, eschewing commercialization and pursuing, not a self-conscious political programme - for this is a contradiction, a betrayal of art - but a metaphysical vision, one that will have, as incidents, social consequences, for all social order is enacted metaphysics. Modernity is what it is, and has scant place for the artist, because its vision is impoverished; a dream of a calculating society, a utilitarian society, begets a crabbed and grasping world.

Comments (15)

"Modernity is what it is, and has scant place for the artist, because its vision is impoverished; a dream of a calculating society, a utilitarian society, begets a crabbed and grasping world."

Every orthodoxy has it's dissidents and if ever a revolt was ripe for the happening, it is one against modernity. Great art often emerges from within oppressive, barren systems to challenge the assumptions of those systems. You would think Wendell Berry alone would inspire some sympathetic talents to "rage against the machine."

Perhaps, it is not only the conservative impulse to defend the status quo that renders them infertile, but also an unhealthy preoccupation with politics that has drained many of the moral imagination needed to create.

The very basic human hunger to seek the good has been diverted and suppressed, not extinguished.
Modernity is on it's last legs and it is hard to believe a humane alternative being built without poets, minstrels and painters leading the way.

On the music front, there was a review in NR on a book called Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music that gave examples of contemporary composers trying to break out of the rut. The quote I liked:

When I was studying music some 50 years later, in the 1970s, my teachers were still promulgating the notion that it was only a matter of time and perseverance before audiences — not to mention the musicians themselves — would become habituated to the destruction of tonality and harmony inherent in 12-tone music. Like the new Soviet man, we'd give up our old possessions, in this instance, outmoded ideas of beauty, emotion, or even meaning, and discover, to use Schoenberg's own description, the "emancipation of dissonance."

It never happened, of course. Just as Soviet laborers used to pretend to work, while management pretended to pay them, modern music more often than not became a case of composers pretending to write music and audiences pretending to listen. Like Marxism, however, this didn't prevent serial music from becoming ever more entrenched in the universities and among the intellectual elites, including most music critics, who as arbiters of aesthetic value — and more practically, dispensers of prize money, awards, and academic positions — have extended the stultifying dominance of Schoenbergian noisemaking into the present century.


"My problems with the cultural ghetto of explicit Christian art is that it is just another specialty niche capable of producing only sappy and shallow works."

This might be a better thread in which to put my response to the above comment by Kevin in the thread that started below.

I really think this is an overstatement. Capable of producing _only_? And is this supposed to be more true of explicitly Christian music than of non-Christian music? How can that be?

This isn't true in any other area of art. Paradise Lost, The Messiah, Bach's "Magnificat," The Brothers Karamazov, and the Four Quartets are not worse works of art _because_ they are explicitly Christian. There is nothing about being explicitly Christian that seems inherently to disqualify a work from being the best it can be within its own genre. Why should things be any different for contemporary music? Why should it be the case that "Mercy Came A-runnin'" is "sappy and shallow" any more than its genre of contemporary soft-rock (or whatever one calls it) tends to be anyway, just because its theme is Christian? I realize I'm a great deal more ignorant of contemporary non-Christian rock than any of you guys, but honestly, my impression is that _most_ contemporary non-Christian music is junk, and that therefore one might as well let contemporary-style Christian music compete in there along with the rest of it with a chance of being plausibly better than many-a non-Christian work. I'm certainly well aware that there is a lot of explicitly Christian music that is schlocky and shallow, but so is tons of non-Christian music, so why turn away from the Christian music a priori?

And then there are the unclassifiables. How does one classify Cynthia Clawson's innovative album "Prayer and Plainsong" with its a capella recording of hymns over top of Gregorian chant? It isn't contemporary, because almost all of the actual music is traditional or even ancient, but it certainly could appeal to some of the same people who might like contemporary music. Or how about Card's _Starkindler_ album with authentic Irish musical instruments and various early American tunes and Celtic tunes--"I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say," for example. Granted, the one new piece on it (the title piece) isn't very good, but the album as a whole has a lot that is excellent, IMO, and most of all in the portions that do not fall into the contemporary music classification but are nonetheless a genuine contribution to contemporary culture.

In short, it seems to me that Christians definitely do try to engage the culture, but that as has been pointed out already by those better qualified than I to say it, they should be careful about trying to break into the music scene, especially the rock scene. We are blessed in having access to a lot of great stuff, ancient and modern. We should enjoy it, be grateful, and not pressure our talented brethren to risk their souls in order to "try harder to engage the culture."

Terrific essay Max.

Pop music is become, and perhaps has been since Elvis, about escapism. It's an extension of the movies. It's why movies and pop music make such a natural marriage, and why the main force of the pop music business is centered in Hollywood. The artist-as-personality is as much or more the focus as the music itself. No separation is intended. But of course the artist is really just an actor, playing a role. It's the role of romantic, or libertine, political rebel, gangster, bohemian slacker, troubled middle-class white teenager, androgenous misanthrope, everyman--whatever. The idea is precisely to build a personality cult. An artist is running for office, if you will. The office he's running for is the embodiment of some ideal. It's pretension, and the more intelligent the artist is, the more he's consciously aware of this. Bowie and Eno called what they were doing in the 70's "The New Pretension". They were bold to say it outright back then, but now it's just commonplace. What Bono/U2 was doing in the early nineties with Actung Baby and PopMart was just rehash of 70's Bowie and he openly said as much. The idea was supposed to be that they would lampoon the materialism, pretension, and monomaniacal preoccupation with fame that was the prevailing disease in pop culture, and they would show it up by becoming the embodiment of it themselves. But it didn't take a genius to suspect that this was a fine line to walk. "We are what we pretend to be," said Kurt Vonnegut. Read Bill Flanagan's U2 At The End Of The World for one of the best treatments of the idea.

There's still somewhat of a sidestream folk-based thing happening in music. It's been labeled, categorized and segregated so as to maximize genre identifiability for marketing purposes. This is tragic for creative people but that's the world we live in. Little labels running on shoestring budgets putting out self-financed records by DIY artists--this is the place you can still go to find popular music that's worthwhile. And a lot of mediocre junk as well. The internet and modern digital technology has opened up opportunities for access that could never have been possible 15 years ago. So on one hand things are getting decentralized and less power to the major labels. On the other hand, much more terrible music is being made as well so there's even more to sift through. You just have to go hunting to find good popular music. It's no longer a big interest of mine, so Kevin I'll have to leave you to your own resources.


"Paradise Lost, The Messiah, Bach's "Magnificat," The Brothers Karamazov, and the Four Quartets are not worse works of art _because_ they are explicitly Christian"

No kidding. They are neither contemporary, low-brow or marketed like a brand such as "Christian rock", or whatever one calls Amy Grant. Maybe, you haven't been following my comments and lost the context, but I am clearly not bashing the rich, legacy of my faith. O.k.?

I am wondering why the world of popular culture,which places a premium on smashing icons and rebelling against the status quo, voices haven't emerged to challenge or mock the Idols of Modernity. The only answer that has been put forth that makes sense, but is still unsatisfactory, is the one Maximos offered.

"We should enjoy it, be grateful, and not pressure our talented brethren to risk their souls in order to "try harder to engage the culture."

1)I've been coaching, mentoring and teaching teen-agers for 15 years and up until now, no one has accused me of encouraging kids to pursue a life of sin for my own edification.

2)People convert and produce work that both challenge and inspire. Dylan and Cash come to mind, I'm hoping others will follow. That's all.

Kevin, my point in saying that was that there doesn't seem to me to be a good reason to insist that contemporary musicians _not_ produce explicitly Christian music (because that will of necessity ruin it as art). If great, highbrow art can be great art while being explicitly Christian, why can't lowbrow art (which is what you seem to be _wanting_ people to produce) be as good as lowbrow art can be while being explicitly Christian? Is there some law that says this can't be so? What I'm rebelling against here is the seeming advice that says, "Hey, kid, go into the music scene and use your music to glorify God and engage the culture, but be sure you don't make songs about Him explicitly, because that will ruin your art and make it sappy junk, whereas otherwise if you keep your Christianity out of your songs and as just an unspoken background or something, you have the potential to be creating really _good_ rock-n-roll." It just sounds, shall I say, overly rigid. And sort of anti-Christian snobbish. As though rock music can rise to its own level of greatness intrinsically, but not if it's got any explicit Christianity about it, which would automatically render it propagandistic and shallow. Seeing as contemporary music is supposed to be all about what is most important to the artist, it is highly artificial to tell a Christian artist not to bring his faith into the matter, to keep it kind of under the table, or else he's messing up as an artist.

And for that matter, country music has plenty of stuff about God in it. How do you categorize a singer like BJ Thomas? Not that I'm saying he's making great art, but it is what it is by genre. Is "Happy Man" sappy _because_ he says "I've known my creator," or is it sappy because a sort of mild and harmless sentimentalism is what people are looking for in that kind of a ballad? Would it be less sappy and artistically if he left out the mention of his Creator? I don't think so. Would the world be so much better off without "Home Where I Belong" because (avaunt!) it's about heaven and hence is a mess-up of the country genre?

That would be ridiculous, and I doubt you would say it. But for that very reason I think you ought to just say, "Write your contemporary songs about whatever seems most important, make them as good as they can be, and let the chips fall where they may as far as whether God ends up in there. He probably will if you're a Christian. That's fine."

"It just sounds, shall I say, overly rigid. And sort of anti-Christian snobbish. As though rock music can rise to its own level of greatness intrinsically, but not if it's got any explicit Christianity about it, which would automatically render it propagandistic and shallow."

When I hear the name Christian as a modifier, I expect better, not worse. Christian rock is largely a sanitized derivative that isn’t very good, though I’m always willing to learn of exceptions.

Give me broken vessels like Cash, Dylan and Davies, though the latter more as a reactionary fighting to stave off a post-human future. Using an imperfect medium, they are able to give their audience a small glimpse of transcendence. Artists capable of such a feat reach beyond the choir to the hurting souls starved for something beyond the appetite of the moment.

"..it is highly artificial to tell a Christian artist not to bring his faith into the matter, to keep it kind of under the table, or else he's messing up as an artist."

The worse part of modernity is it compels us to lead bifurcated lives with our faith relegated to private hobby. Who's the clown advocating spiritually debilitating conformity? I'll beat him with my Baltimore Catechism.

"Write your contemporary songs about whatever seems most important, make them as good as they can be, and let the chips fall where they may as far as whether God ends up in there. He probably will if you're a Christian. That's fine."

I think we’re in agreement, though I never shy from challenging kids to resist compromises and I let Sly Stone provide the soundtrack:
There's a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you're going anywhere
For the things you know are right
It s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight
All the things you want are real
You have you to complete and there is no deal"

Kevin, thanks, I appreciate the clarification. I think I had indeed been misunderstanding you.

"Sanitized" is actually a good thing IMO, especially if it just means "clean" and songs are clean to begin with. Then they don't need to be sanitized. :-) I suspect our tastes probably differ widely, as it happens, but that is an object-level more than a metalevel disagreement.

A musician I appreciated a good deal some twenty years ago (yes, that long) was the old Ken Medema. He appears from everything I know of him to be a lefty, unfortunately. But the old Medema had something, musically. From the little I've seen of the new music, the old ("Mr. Simon," "Lead the Way," "Fork in the Road," and even the jazz piano of "Sonshiny Day") was much better, but unfortunately it is almost impossible to find anymore except (probably) on E-bay and in the houses of old fans like me. The quote you give reminds me of "Fork in the Road"--

"Stop right here, there's a fork in the road.
I don't think you want to get lost.
One way leads to a potter's field.
The other way leads to a cross."

Lydia, what I meant by sanitized is the attempt to make Christ safe for public consumption by reducing Him to a soft, huggable buddy or a feel-good concept. As a Catechist I possess the same lazy tendency and react violently when I see my sin reflected in others.

Your quote from Ken Medema serves as a good reminder, that despite it's best efforts to escort Jesus back to the Tomb, our culture remains very much "Christ-Haunted", even in the precincts of rock & roll. Where sin abounds, so too Grace.

Somewhere out there an Augustine or Magdalene is getting ready to serve as a new Troubadour to a generation dying to meet the Truth. I pray he or she completes their pilgrimage, for our sake and that of our children.

Romantic writers from William Blake to T.S. Eliot (I'm not certain that I'd accept this categorization, but, oh well...),

Davidson wrote that? No, you meant to use brackets. However, your thought deviates and so distracts. Trust me, I didn't make this up. A great rule of art in writing is not to exaggerate at the expense of thought. "Their art is exclamatory and personal; it avoids synthesis and meaning," says Davids about those people.

Great post, Jeff. Your exploration of the true artist's challenge, in the face of modernism, is profound and moving.

intuition of being cannot be commodified . . . One cannot purchase the Spirit.

True. I like to point out that true education is nonprofit. Although I doubt there is any significant material art without a patron.

I would caution against becoming the reactionary artist insofar as reaction is a wonderful commercial product. And what's worse, too often reaction legitimates the opposition.

You just have to go hunting to find good popular music.

If you want to be reactionary, don't buy it, make it.

Your essay is very compelling and I appreciate the time and thought you put into composing such a sweeping overview and eloquent savaging of our cultural cul-de-sac. However, as much as I agree with much of your diagnosis, ultimately I can't share your conclusion.

To summarize; we can no longer produce artists imbued with a love for Eternal truths, or stirred by an awe of, and an appreciation for beauty and it's Source. And if we can, few possess the talent to draw us into their vision. Why? Because modernity has so effectively stripped us of our interior lives and drained our spiritual energies that our collective imagination is completely vacant of anything other than dreams of avarice and ambition. I hope I'm not taking a liberties here, but that seems to be the indictment.

I agree with you; modernity is a ship-wreck whose soul-deadening rationalism caused incalculable damage to man's inner equilibrium. But I don't think the Spirit is as absent from the hearts and affairs of men as your conclusion suggests.

Your have offered the most interesting insights on this question. And I afraid I can't offer a good rebuttal, other than, God's presence has been felt in so many human endeavors over the last several centuries, included the one just passed, that it seems hard to believe more couldn't escape the psyche's prison house that is modernity, and in their exile make something beautiful for God.

Did anyone see American Idol tonight? If so, you saw the low-brow culture produce a pretty compelling rebuttal to; "The culture as a totality is irredeemable, beyond even a glimmer of a hope of transformation."

At the end of the show, one of the contestants, Brooke White, made the following emotional observation, which I'll paraphrase; "you come here pour everything you got into this, then you see how American Idol helps those kids in Africa (referring to a moving video of the show's charity work) and then Dolly Parton gets up and sings about Jesus and you know there are greater things than this." Amen, sister.

I'm not arguing about Dolly Parton's musical talents or her spiritual depth. The latter is not for me to judge anyways. Nor, the sincerity of those in the entertainment industry who practice acts of mercy. However, anyone watching tonight felt His Real Presence right there in the middle of McLuhan's artificial global village.

It was a powerful moment that served to remind me; no one is irredeemable and no man-made construct is beyond His reach. Modernity is a fleeting social reality that traditionalists have rightly called to account for it's hard-heartedness. Let's guard against a kind of philosophical despair though, that leaves us blind to the movements of the Spirit. Tonight, in a most unlikely setting, a sign of hope issued forth for all those with eyes to see.

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