How can art conserve what is good in a society? How can art informed by specifically “conservative” sensibilities contribute to human flourishing? While the answer to the first question may be relatively straightforward, the second question raises another. To paraphrase Tertullian: Can anything good for the arts come from conservatism? The answer to this latter question is: it depends. It depends on how we construe conservatism and what relationship we suppose exists between a conservative sensibility and the generation and experience of works of art.
If you listen to public conversations about these questions, you’ll see two identifiable approaches. Some believe that a conservative ethos should directly influence the media, style, content, and reception of art, resulting, it is hoped, in artwork that resembles the “western” canon of art (or, in some cases, America-friendly art). Others argue there is no straight line from conservatism to the choice of media, style, content, or reception, and that all sorts of works of art can contribute to the flourishing of a society.
Adam Bellow, in a piece for The National Review titled, “Let Your Right Brain Run Free,” gives voice to a common concern of the first group: “many liberals believe (and many on the right privately agree) that conservatives can’t ‘do’ culture. They can’t produce great music, they can’t be funny, and they can’t keep their political ideas out of the way of their stories and novels.” Instead of supporting the creative efforts of conservatives, all the money has gone to ineffectual political campaigns and scholarship funds for kids wanting a bachelor’s in Supernatural Debate Powers. What’s needed instead? According to Bellow, a publishing house that promotes novels where, among other things, America remains a beacon of hope to the world.
A second batch of writers, feeling the woe just as keenly, hesitate to lend full support to conservative projects like Bellow’s Liberty Island publishing house or Walden Media’s movie farmhouse, and opt for the Socratic approach instead, believing that the right sorts of questions will lead to better sorts of answers. The non-answer in this case is a way of admitting a complicated enterprise. What can be done to get more conservatives generating new artistic culture? “I don’t know the answer,” Ross Douthat admits in a recent piece for The New York Times. Picking up this conversation in The American Conservative, Rod Dreher ends with only more questions. Rather than offering his readers a pragmatic manifesto, Dreher stresses that “story lines, not party lines” must govern a distinctly conservative modus operandi in the arts. Readers are left to discover for themselves how this is supposed to happen in practice. I’d like to pick up where he left off.
In honour of my father who tells me often, “You only go around once, son,” I would like to propose a positive, if modest, answer to our two opening questions. Answer number one: when art aligns with reality, it conserves what is good in a society. Answer number two: “Conservatism” is only worth talking about insofar as it aligns itself with a Scriptural imagination that contributes to human flourishing. For art to contribute to the conservation of all that is good, true, and beautiful in a given culture, all sorts of art media, styles, content, and reception of artworks must align with reality. I offer that a Scriptural imagination opens up this possibility.
What, then, is the practical task of the (conservative) artist? It is to become immersed in this Scriptural imaginary and to attend to the requirements of the work of art itself. It is as simple and as complicated as that. Let me explain.
Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Catholic Novelists and their Readers,” offers a way of thinking about art that may be helpful here. She writes:
If I had to say what a “Catholic novel” is, I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. . . . This all means that what we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.
Substitute “Catholic” for “conservative” and we get at the same basic point: not that there is an identifiable conservative work of art or a way in which we would be able to say with irrefutable certainty, “There goes a conservative artist,” but that a conservative disposition opens up a way of seeing the world that is faithful to reality—to human nature, to history, to justice, to marital love, to the variety and diversity that mark both creation and human cultures, for example. Paraphrasing O’Connor, an artist of conservative disposition is distinguished from her pagan or progressive colleagues by recognizing sin as sin or by acknowledging that tradition, whether ecclesial or otherwise, need not be regarded with knee-jerk suspicion but rather as a valuable, even if incomplete, deposit of wisdom, worthy of careful, charitable attention. Contrary to stereotypes, this kind of “conservatism” is characterized by a humility that desires to submit itself to both reality and tradition.
Such an artist sees the human condition as profoundly broken, marred by a terrible infection of the heart (as Maria Doria Russell does in her novel The Sparrow) and refuses to represent a world where human beings could free themselves on their own individual powers. Such an artist—like Pete Docter of Pixar movies, including Monsters Inc. and Up—also sees what is good in human society, and is able to commend it without embarrassment or resort to hard-edged irony. This artist sees the hubris that marks certain scientific endeavours, and exposes its folly—as does Daniel Keyes in Flowers for Algernon. The artist sees all that is wrong in the world—as Cormac McCarthy does in The Road, or as Margaret Atwood does in her MaddAddam trilogy—and is able to name it without blinking away, while also showing how grace interrupts our nosedive into absolute despair.
An artist whose work aligns with reality, who see the world through God’s eyes, as Dreher puts it, contributes to the flourishing of a society. That’s the good news. That’s also the (mostly) simple part.
The complicated part is quite possibly infinite. One complication is how the term conservative is construed and what is believed to be at stake for the arts with any given construal. What precisely characterizes a distinctly “conservative” work of art? Is it art made by a self-identifying conservative? Is it art that deals with explicit conservative themes, whatever those may be? Or is it work that captures certain elements of a conservative sensibility and that, under that light, seeks to make sense of the world through the metaphor-rich, allusive language of the arts? Russell Kirk’s dictum—that there is no Model Conservative—is certainly apropos, and the search for a conservative artist thus leads us into equivocal territory, where certain elements of a conservative sensibility will be favoured by some, rejected by others, and altogether ignored by artists who regard this quest as an aesthetic dead-end.
But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of trying to identify “the conservative artist,” what if, instead, we tried to identify what conservatives believe is at stake with the arts. While there are a wide array of approaches (from The New Criterion to Image journal to Ross Douthat’s film criticism in the National Review), perhaps what is common to a conservative understanding of the arts is the privileging of a certain departure point, whether its the civil sphere, metaphysics, or biblical theology. Get this departure point wrong and we lose both the arts and the good society. Get this departure point right and we get possibilities, but not guarantees. The possibility is that art will align with reality and that humans will flourish accordingly. What cannot be guaranteed is that explicitly conservative projects will be able to claim responsibility for generating exemplary conservative artists (middling or mediocre perhaps, but not great). As the case may be, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, David Foster Wallace, Dante, Gerhard Richter, Pixar, P.T. Anderson, Jane Austen, James MacMillan, Marilynne Robinson, G. K. Chesterton, along with plenty of the gothic architecture, Russian ballet, and country and classical music may all occupy a place of honour for the conservatives I have described above.
It gets more complicated than this, I’m afraid. The moment conservatism becomes equated with an ideology that can be turned into a blueprint for works of art, impotent art results. In The Tablet, Adam Kirsch argues against Bellow’s Liberty Island mission, where “good still triumphs over evil, hope still overcomes despair, and America is still a noble experiment and a beacon to the rest of the world.” Kirsch remarks, rightly in my opinion:
The problem is not that these are conservative ideas, but that they are simpleminded ideological dogmas, and so by their very nature hostile to literature, which lives or dies by its sense of reality. If you are not allowed to say that life in America can be bad, that Americans can be guilty as well as innocent, that good sometimes (most of the time?) loses out to evil—in short, that life in America is like human life in any other time or place—then you cannot be a literary writer, because you have censored your impressions of reality in advance.”
What ideologues of all stripes cannot abide, as Dreher adds, “from postmodernists in English departments to Christians of the sort who chastised Flannery O’Connor for not telling ‘nice’ stories,” is the nature of ambiguity inherent to all good stories. Such ambiguity not only describes the reality of the human condition, it also characterizes the reception of a work of art. There is often a world of difference between an artist’s intentions and the unintended outcomes of a given work of art or the sorts of readings that an audience brings to the work. Douthat, for example, seeks to make a case for why Lena Dunham’s HBO show, Girls, might inadvertently earn a conservative interpretation. “She’s making a show for liberals,” he writes, “that, merely by being realistic, sharp-edged, complicated, almost gives cultural conservatism its due.” Alissa Wilkinson, writing for Christianity Today, questions this reading and all such exegetical moves. Dunham, she notes, offers “both a skewering of a culture and a love letter to it.” Though Dunham keeps an unblinking lens focused on a millennial reality, she apparently feels no moral conflict about this reality. So then, while conservatives may wish to praise Dunham’s satirical instincts, they may balk at her default moral horizon.
A final complication results when conservatives fail to remember that not all media or art are created equal. Whatever truth conservatives may wish to light upon in narrative-based art forms, in movies like Juno or television shows like Parenthood and The Americans, they will need to acquire a different sort of hermeneutical muscle to discern the “meaning” of contemporary painting, New Urbanist architecture, electronic music or absurdist theater. While conceptual dance may involve a series of physical gestures that leave the audience with an impression of things, such as a tentative hope or a certain defeatism about our world, an album of folk music uncovers a way of being through a sequence of anecdotal meditations, rooted in the experiences of intensely local cultures. And whatever one film may tell us about Kathryn Bigelow’s philosophical sensibilities, her life’s work will certainly tell us more, and for that we must suspend judgment until the end. Conservatives will, finally, want to remember that the dynamics that mark the worlds of so-called high art and popular art are more complicated than we might wish.
As a matter of profession and personality, I am only interested in “conservatism” insofar as it aligns with, and is informed by, a biblical and theological vision. I contend that conservatives have something good to offer the world when they tie their ideas about the arts to a Scriptural imagination. So, in the spirit of Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles or Dreher’s Nine Points of a Crunchy Con Manifesto, I propose Twelve Features of a Scriptural Imagination. This ethos is not to be thought of as a map but as an ecology within which certain things—denkformen, behaviours, desires, and the lot—are made plausible by virtue of their integral participation in that ecology. It is more Barth-meets-Buechner-meets-Hauerwas than Burke or Aquinas. To immerse oneself in this Scriptural imagination is, in time, to become a certain kind of person, oriented to a particular telos, where the artist is invited to participate in what Eugene Peterson calls the large country of salvation, the cosmos under the triune God’s rule. While this ethos confirms certain elements of common conservative creeds, it also quite possibly subverts them.
Here then twelve far-from-comprehensive features of a Scriptural imagination:
- The human creature is broken to its very core and it is incapable of rescuing itself from its foolish, stiff-necked, irrational, and demented lot in life. The creature is not afraid to be honest about this fact.
- The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has revealed himself supremely in the life and work of Jesus Christ and chooses to rescue this creature in the most “I’ll be damned!” surprising ways. This God is a mystery—to be enjoyed, but never to be mastered. Though this God is often silent, he is never absent.
- Because Christ stands at the centre of the cosmic order, the created realm can be properly regarded as the beloved world of God and a sphere for creative exploration, requiring no extra justification than sheer wonder in the peculiarities of this world.
- If the Spirit is responsible for creation’s order, it is important not to think of this order like that of a factory assembly line. It is instead an irrepressibly dynamic order, yielding new configurations of life and prompting praise to a God whose goodness is revealed through all the intensely particular things in creation.
- The biblical “household”—which includes both actual and adopted relatives, both biological and “spiritual”—matters more than the nuclear family.
- Individual human meaning is realized to the extent that it is deeply embedded within the concrete Body of Christ, rather than by means of self-realization.
- Allegiance is given to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, the global and historic body of Christ, and not to America or Argentina or Armenia. Whatever pleasure we may derive from being American or Argentinian or Armenian is rightly ordered by one’s prior allegiance to the civitas Dei.
- Marriage is a holy vow that remains incoherent outside of the life of the church. The bonds of marriage are sustainable only in allegiance to the people of God who together vow to sustain husband and wife—from friendship to engagement to wedding, and on through the later years of married life.
- The wisdom of the elders is privileged over the innovations of the youth, but the elders are never threatened by the novelties of the young. The new and old are wrestled out in conversation, which is another way of saying that a healthy tradition is an internal argument carried on by all members of the community, each in their own way, joined at a common table.
- Heroes are people of questionable character who often remain unnamed and unknown to us, whose doubt is not contrary but in fact integral to a living faith, and whose ambiguous lot in life is not at odds with the God whose promises are so often fulfilled beyond death. Joy, not happiness, marks the virtue of the hero because joy can account for suffering, while happiness cannot.
- Though the “wicked” flourish over and against the sovereign rule of God, they will never be given the last word. The wicked never get away with their acts of injustice. Evil is real and it is named.
- The need to laugh, chiefly at ourselves, is paramount. A good sense of humour is required because of the weird and fantastic nature of human life, but, even more importantly, because comedy, not tragedy, will have the final word in the economy of God.
Who then is the “conservative” artist? Wrong question. Better: who is the artist to help us imagine ways to conserve creation and culture? She is the artist who inhabits this Scriptural imaginary and lets its rhythms burrow deep into her own imaginations. She is also the artist who, on Jacques Maritain’s advice, refuses to make of her aesthetic an article of faith, lest her faith become spoiled, while also refusing to make of her faith a rule of artistic activity, lest she spoil her art. A Scriptural imagination reaches and rules her work but only “through the artistic habitus.” What does her art look like? Like all sorts of things: like all sorts of media, styles, contents, purposes, and experiences. What then is the good news according to this kind conservatism? It is the freedom to imagine the world as God imagines it and to let the arts bear witness to this reality in all sorts of wonderfully peculiar ways. How, again, do the arts contribute to human flourishing? They do so by enabling humans to live, not according to the “necessities” of the world but according to the “freedom and glory of the children of God.”