Conservatism and Art

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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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.

John William Godward

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman

  • 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.

Leon Delachaux

  • 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.

Pierre Bonirote

  • 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.

Ernst Carl Eugen Koerner

  • 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.

Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan Bouveret)

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.

Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn

Everything flows from that.

14 thoughts on “Conservatism and Art

  1. I’ve never been much good at discussing art. And the next sentence is . . . “But I know what I like,” right? Not quite. Often I’m not sure what I like. Sometimes it takes a while for me to “like” a poem or painting or concerto, etc. And what difference does it make if I like it if it is good? But I must say, I do like the paintings you have included here. Well, all but one. So I don’t feel confident in commenting on your views on conservatism and art, except to say that I am impressed with your determination to get your point across. And I find it reflections like these an important challenge, since I have long felt that art and religion exist on a plane far above, and superior to, ordinary human experience. Now, however, I am not so sure. That’s why your interest in the “common” man as opposed to the sophisticated one caught my attention in the preceding posts I am suspicious of those who claim to know art (as an idea) better than the rest of us just as I

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    • I’m eager to read the part of your comment that was cut off, if you remember what it was. I’m also quite curious which painting you didn’t like. I won’t argue with you about it, promise. My intention was to select works of near universal appeal but I could hardly be infallible in such a task!

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    • Curious… do you think that the common man maybe loves to have things in his life that elevate him, while he engages in them, above his everyday experience? Is it possible he needs that even more than someone who considers himself superior already?

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  2. (Whoa. . . I hit the wrong tab.) I was going to add that I have trouble listening to persons who want to make pronouncements on religion–as an idea rather than as an experience–but it’s probably better that I shut myself off, even if accidentally (big “if”).

    So thank you for the wake-up, and especially for those very captivating paintings. I could easily look at them for a while. In fact, I did. And I will again.

    And I look forward to poems too.

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  3. “Art should be beautiful.” Indeed. It’s a point I always make in discussions of the nature of art. And, to use one of Grandma’s okie-isms, it goes over like a fart in church. I’ve found that even artists who are traditional/conservative are often resistant to the idea. I usually make progress in advancing the idea by steering the conversation to, “What is Beauty?”. They’re starting from the presumption that it means just pretty/pleasant. I assume your definition is much deeper and more complex than that. My own is wide enough that it subsumes their concern that art should often also trouble or disturb.

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