Want Truth? Work for Beauty - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Want Truth? Work for Beauty

This is the first contribution to ISI’s symposium Conservatism: What’s Wrong with It and How Can We Make It Right?

To love our country, we must first make it lovely, Burke said, and that is where conservatives have failed the culture. They have spent the last several decades reacting too often against harmful cultural influences or walling themselves in for protection.  Politics, for many conservatives, has become a weapon to further a conservative “program” rather than a reflection of a conservative temperament and an expression of a conservative culture.  Conservatism is not a set of political nostrums, but rather an attitude toward reality that requires more storytelling than policy papers, more movies and art than electioneering. Conservatives, at this point in our cultural collapse, can win only holding battles on that front. The technocratic bureaucracy under which we live speaks only the language of liberalism, and conservatives will not persuade a majority of people so long as we too speak that language.

Conservatives must make their country lovely once more, must “re-enchant” it, as Mark Judge has written.  Some years ago Brian Anderson wrote a great book, South Park Conservatives, after the television show that tweaked liberal stereotypes. Those people, he said, are ripe to be won over to the conservative cause. It was in a sense a missed opportunity; conservatives did not take advantage of a pool of viewers who enjoyed noting and reveling in liberalism’s failures.  But it was a doubly missed opportunity – South Park is a vulgar show, and is more anti-liberal than conservative in any positive sense; conservatives could have offered a lot better.  Similarly, Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons identified a swath of people whose hearts and choices made them sympathetic to conservative themes, but pointing this fact out did little to rally them.  This country is vast and there are millions of Americans who are producing and engaged with serious culture.  Good videos, movies, and music are still being made, but they do not carry the cultural influence, being drowned out by all the dreck.  Even intentionally liberal work has a moral message that can be invoked by conservatives, as Peter Lawler brilliantly did with the moral message of Girls.


Teach Men to School Their Hearts

The conservatism of Burke, and his greatest American interlocutor, Russell Kirk, can provide a way of recovering what we have lost.  Kirk is too often seen as a reactionary with his head in the past, but he presciently saw where the culture was going.  The conservative tradition Kirk embodied, at its best, was deeply engaged with culture at all levels; Kirk knew that without the language of “the street,” much of Eliot’s poetry would not have the power it does; conversely, popular culture needs to be connected to deeper and more substantial themes in order to last.  In his great 1983 essay on “The Age of Sentiments,” Kirk previewed what was coming.  The age of “thinkers and talkers” was diminishing, perhaps even ending.  Books and magazines will not – no matter the paeans to “little magazines” – set the cultural tone, likely ever again, as much as conservatives might like them to.   Ideas of course will still matter, but how they are delivered is what Kirk wants to draw our attention to:

The immense majority of human beings will feel with the projected images they behold upon the television screen; and in those viewers that screen will rouse sentiments rather than reflections.  Waves of emotion will sweep back and forth, so long as the Age of Sentiments endures.  And whether those emotions are low or high must depend upon the folk who determine the tone and temper of television programming.

Kirk is making the point that rationality, or the tradition of reasoned discourse, only takes us so far, especially in a sprawling republic.  For every natural law defense of the family that wins over a few, an episode of Modern Family subtly influences millions.  Kirk tried his hand at ghost stories, updating a venerable genre for a new time.  Other conservatives could do the same with different media, and indeed, as the artists showcased by the journal Image, some are in fact doing just that.  The tradition of the West is embarrassingly rich with narratives, and as we saw with the recent TV series on the Bible, there is a hunger for such stories.  For example, the Veggie-Tales movies have as their inspiration Biblical themes, presented in an engaging way for children.  For an adult example, the film Brother Where Art Thou? takes its themes from the Odyssey.

Expand Kirk’s equally-applicable assertions to the Internet, and we have a true program for conservatives.  We must influence – or be – those people who “determine the tone and temper of television programming.”  And much else besides.  Where is the conservative critique or sustained attention to video games, for example?  These games are enormously popular and influential.  In one game alone, thousands of people engaged in a mock space battle, which takes days or weeks to develop.  Yet many journals of conservative opinion avoid such subjects entirely, and instead continue to devote space to reviewing contemporary fiction.  The long-form novel is the last-century’s version of idea-transport.  Now, novels can be great, and I read a lot of them myself, but that is simply not how most people interact with culture or the primary media products people talk about.

This is why Jonah Goldberg’s recent lament that conservatives should not get too worked up about the liberalism of Hollywood is wrong, which is odd coming from Goldberg since he is an otherwise astute observer of popular culture.  He was writing in opposition to the call by some to create a “conservative” movie industry to compete with Hollywood, and his point – which is correct – is that reducing art to propaganda won’t win any new converts, and will probably result in a lot of bad art.  But his argument, that one cannot predict the influence a particular media product will have, while true, argues more for conservatives being willing to engage with that culture and those products in a more sustained way.


The Better the Artist, the More Subtle the Preacher

Because a lot of what Hollywood (and here we can include much of the Internet as well) produces emerges from liberal premises; those premises influence the culture.  But countering that influence must be more than political.  As Claes Ryn states in his indispensible essay, “How Conservatives Failed the Culture:”

Because philosophers and artists can be expected to favor the wrong causes, it is desirable to mobilize opposition to them from within their own ranks; yet, apart from this political problem, these conservatives see no large and compelling reason to worry about professors, writers, composers, and artists. After all, society is moved not by them but by individuals who pursue more “practical” pursuits, especially persons who affect public policy and, most prominently, leading politicians. To the bearer, this view of where the real power lies represents hard-nosed realism. In actuality, it exemplifies a narrow and shortsighted understanding of what shapes the future.

Kirk did not believe in simple artistic nostrums; he was after all, a devotee of T.S. Eliot, who is notoriously difficult to read and also one who shattered the traditionalism of his time. Kirk made it clear:

I do not mean that the great writer incessantly utters homilies. With Ben Jonson, he may scourge the follies of the time, but he does not often murmur, ‘Be good, fair maid, and let who will be clever.’ Rather, the man of letters teaches the norms of our existence, often rowing with muffled oars. Like William Faulkner, the writer may write much more about what is evil than about what is good; and yet, exhibiting the deprav­ity of human nature, he establishes in his reader’s mind the awareness that there endure standards from which we may fall away; and that fallen nature is an ugly sight. Or the writer may deal chiefly, as did J. P. Marquand, with the triviality and emptiness of a smug society which has forgotten norms. The better the artist, one almost may say, the more subtle the preacher. Imaginative persuasion, not blunt exhortation, com­monly is the strategy of the literary champion of norms.

Imaginative persuasion is not easy, and indeed can be even more difficult than influencing legislation or issue policy pronouncements.  But it is absolutely necessary work, and imaginative persuasion has been in short supply among conservatives of late.

It will not do once again to walk through the taxonomy of various conservative factional creeds and point out the flaws in each, or hope for the future transcendence of some new “fusionism.”  That project, although a commendable one, has been better done elsewhere.  Rather, we should look to the resources within conservatism to reach out to the wider culture.  “Sentiment” is a concept prominent in both Burke and Kirk; it does not mean emotion, simply, and the emotionalism of the Age of Sentiment is something Kirk opposed.  Rather, sentiment involves an imaginative placement of ourselves in the place of the Other; this makes us understand that change or innovation – the “creative destruction” so loved by liberalism and free market capitalism alike – is a wrenching experience for those subject to it.  Burke was able to delay this imaginative device to great effect when he championed the causes of the Irish and the population of India against the depredations of Warren Hastings.  The employment of sentiment also requires subjectivity, to fully understand the objects of your rhetoric, or images, or message.  Too often conservatives speak only to themselves, and our language falls harshly on those not already attuned to it.

The good news is that there are conservatives trying, in different ways, to do this, from Bill Kauffman’s regionalism (reflected now in a full-length feature film) to the writers at Postmodern Conservative and Acculturated, to the people here at ISI.  To move ahead to the next level requires casting our tradition in a new light, and downplaying the conservative political and economic obsessions that have thus far borne little fruit.


Gerald J. Russello is author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.


Know Your Audience by Chase Padusniak
Should Beauty Be Used? by Elisabeth Cervantes Moore
Art, Not Entertainment by Ian Tuttle
More Cultural Feedback Mechanisms, Less Miley Cyrus by Danielle Charette

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