Friday, June 8, 2012

Conservatives and art -- just do it

It’s the weekend -- time for something on art and culture.

There was a nice post entitled "Conservatives Can Do Art — As Long As They’re Artists" over at The American Conservative. The upshot of Scott Galupo's piece (responding to a post by James Poulos at the blog Acculturated) is that "artists with a conservative bent should worry a lot less and simply do their jobs.” It should go without saying that only artists should attempt to do art, but conservatives might be forgiven for thinking, in an era of often atrocious politicized art, that the usual rules have been suspended. They haven't been, or at least they shouldn’t be.

As anyone knows who has encountered works of art that have a sledge-hammer ideological subtlety, only a true believer can enjoy such a thing, whether the axe being ground (to mix metaphors) is of the left or of the right. I recall traveling on business a few years ago, and finding that the 1965 Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film, "The Sandpiper" was on television. Even though the film was from long before my movie-watching days, somehow its existence had made its way into my awareness, rightly or wrongly, as some sort of "important film" of the 1960's, and I've long loved the Big Sur, where the film was made, so I settled in to watch.

I guess you had to be there -- in the 60's, I mean. Richard Burton as a straitlaced Episcopalian priest and boarding school headmaster was just too hard to believe, and Elizabeth Taylor as the heroic unwed mom raising a wild-child in Bohemian purity was painted in, shall we say, less than nuanced tones. Particularly hilarious was how times have changed. You see, Taylor's character was doing this very countercultural thing called "home-schooling” in order to keep Junior out of the clutches of the forces of darkness. The authorities did not approve, but when the kid ends up being forced into the strait-jacket of "real school," he demonstrates to the astonished teachers (in a scene straight out of the Gospel of St. Luke where Christ astonishes the Jewish elders in the temple with his knowledge and wisdom) that he already knows more than they do, rattling off the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Take that, you oppressive bourgeois tools of the system! Victory to the proletariat!

Today, of course, the leftism that was then the ideology of the counterculture is now the creed of the official school headmasters, and the countercultural parents doing the home-schooling are now more likely to be conservative Christians -- but don't expect Hollywood to make films lionizing them. The types whose hearts were thrilling at the braveness of Taylor's character in 1965 are likely now making the case that home-schooling is tantamount to child abuse.

While there are times when one soldiers on through a movie just to say that one has given it a chance, there are other times when one knows it is better just to flip over to ESPN, which I did after about 20 minutes of enduring the pretentious preachiness of it all. Besides, did I really need to keep watching to know that Burton and Taylor were going to end up in bed (probably with the morally advanced and enlightened wild-child nonchalantly treating the idea of a married priest shacking up with his mom as completely normal?)

The point here is that when artists grind an ideological axe, it rarely ends up as anything of aesthetic worth, and the passage of years makes such dated exercises in pretentiousness stick out like the proverbial sore-thumb. I averted my eyes from the film not because I was shocked, but because I was cringing with embarrassment for the performers.

Getting back to the original post, Galupo has this advice:

A conservative artist whose uppermost goal in producing art is to mount a Breitbartian counterattack on liberals is likely to produce a lot of garbage.

Indeed, and yet, one still hears calls to produce ideologically based art. In a recent piece in the London Telegraph, Geoffrey Lean reports on the lamentations of global-warming types that the arts community in Britain has been insufficiently mobilized in the fight to avert the impending apocalypse. Lean writes:

But there is remarkably little ferment going on. And much of what is produced is poor. “Greenland," the National Theatre’s attempt last summer to explore “the big questions around climate change”, was widely derided as dire, especially compared to the Royal Court’s more sceptical "The Heretic." Roland Emmerich’s equally awful "The Day After Tomorrow" grossly exaggerated the scientific evidence.

Again, art made out of explicitly ideological and polemical motives tends more often than not to be bad art, whether it is of the left or the right. Granted, mediocre art of the left gets some obligatory exposure, but that doesn’t mean that anyone will be moved by it who doesn’t already agree with the ideology being spouted.

Ed Driscoll, in another piece at Acculturated in the same series on conservatives and pop-culture creativity, points out that once it was a conservative mindset that reigned in Hollywood, and filmmakers of a leftish bent had to bury their ideas in the subtext of movies. They had to make their films exciting or funny or touching -- or whatever the genre required. In other words, they understood that rule one was making a great movie, and anything ideological that spilled out of their conscious or subconscious onto the screen in the process was incidental gravy.

Yes, Hollywood is dominated by a liberal mindset, but most of the slavishly ideological output tends to bomb at the box-office. What Hollywood worships more than liberalism is still the almighty dollar. Again, to echo what was said above, a mediocre film with lefty content is far more likely to be funded and produced than is a mediocre film with rightward-leaning content. But if the movie is a good one, it has a good shot at being made, and people will vote with their feet, even if conservative themes happen to be incidentally touched upon.

There have been any number of movies with conservative-friendly subtexts -- think of the Pixar film "The Incredibles," with its indictment of an equality-of-outcome society obsessed with saying that "everyone is special," at the cost of refusing to recognize -- let alone reward -- those who truly are. Or "The Hunger Games," which has caused millions of youngsters to read the books, where they learn about a future dystopian world where only the agents of an oppressive government are allowed to have weapons. Is either a "conservative movie?" Perish the thought. If they had tried to be, they would have been just as rotten as if the makers had tried to make them into explicitly leftist movies.

All that any of us can do is to study and hone our crafts (even the craft of a lowly blog-writer,) using whatever talent we happen to have been born with, applying a work ethic whereby we aren't mooning around, waiting for the muse to strike. What then happens, happens -- and if anyone notices, it's a bonus.

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