Ask a conservative why conservatives tend to be underrepresented in the arts and the answer is likely to be “liberal bias.” Ask the same question in the artistic world and the answer may well be that good artists are more commonly liberals than conservatives. If we are looking at contemporary realities rather than the great conservative artists of the past, both answers have more truth to them than just about anybody would be happy to admit. Rather than gripe about a liberal bias which we cannot change, it would seem more constructive to look at what conservatives can do to facilitate the work of conservative artists, what conservatives can do to be taken more seriously at an artistic level, and at what conservatives may be failing to do.
It must be understood in the first place that quality art requires innovation unless it is to be a second-rate imitation of previous art. Such innovation must be based on authentic aesthetic standards and, at least for practical purposes, must be a growth out of the artistic tradition—but innovation it must be. Few writers of the past century were as insistent upon formation in the great literary tradition as was T.S. Eliot. Few literary styles of the past century were as innovative as the poetic (as opposed to religious or philosophical or political) modernism of T.S. Eliot. Certain conservative writers contemporaneous with Eliot expressed disapproval of his departure not from aesthetic standards, but from the form in which they had historically been manifested. Despite their many merits, it is not surprising that at a strictly artistic level such writers fell short of Eliot, as well as of that other conservative literary innovator (and admirer of Eliot’s poetry), Evelyn Waugh.
Conservative journals publish essay after essay on writers in the “great tradition.” Essays on the writers of today who are continuing that tradition are comparatively rare. Lord Julian Fellows, Martin Mosebach, and Piers Paul Read are all serious Catholics committed to Western civilization. The first two of these even prefer to attend Mass in Latin. Allan Massie, A.N. Wilson, and David Lodge are not easily categorized as either conservatives or as liberals, though Mr. Massie would insist upon being designated a conservative. All three have produced literature of solid and traditional artistic quality. Equally solid writing has come from the pen of writers of whose politics I know nothing, such as Kazuo Ishiguro. There are even some of politically-liberal views but artistically-conservative practice who engage seriously with much of the Western tradition. Conservatives ought to be engaging with all such writers. Even those holding reprehensible views on the most important issues of the day have made real contributions to the development of certain areas of the arts. No small amount of the writing that we consider foundational to our civilization was viewed by the early Christians as a product of the predominant and hostile pagan society in which they lived, yet the good in such writing was still embraced by those very same Christians.
Unless we make an effort to engage in a sustained and regular way with all legitimate developments of the artistic tradition—wherever we happen to find them—we will contribute not to the preservation of the tradition but to its ossification into a relic of the past, admired by an increasingly marginalized subculture. We will also fall into the caricature of conservatives as stuck in the past—a past upon which it is our proper task to build. Our tradition cannot be static. It must either grow or die.
Such engagement ought not, however, to take place solely at the political level but must also take place at the artistic level. Regular contributors to conservative journals are overwhelmingly what I will call “philosophers” (writers primarily concerned with truth) rather than what I will call “artists” (writers primarily concerned with beauty). A philosopher may write an essay on the importance of beauty but in doing so will be primarily concerned to articulate truths about beauty. The philosopher who reads T.S. Eliot can appreciate the beauty of Eliot’s poetry but will be primarily concerned with the truths which Eliot expresses. In contrast to this, the artist will appreciate the truths which Eliot’s poetry expresses but will be primarily interested in Eliot’s beauty of expression. The artist will express truth in his writing but will be primarily concerned to express it in a beautiful way.
One factor in why conservatives are alleged to produce bad art is the fact that certain efforts at “conservative art” in fiction and film are, in fact, the work of “philosophers” rather than of “artists.” In these cases, the outward form of a novel or of a movie is used as a mere vehicle for the expression of conservative ideas. The ideas may be entirely correct but the artistic failure will not give aesthetic pleasure and will not convince anyone of the ideas expressed aside from those who already accept their truth. A good novel can only be written by someone who is primarily concerned with the beauty of his work rather than with the ideas which it contains.
It is also of importance that the truly bad art—or pseudo-art—which is all too prevalent today be criticized on an aesthetic basis rather than purely because it is different from the art of the past, or because of its association with erroneous social and political theories.
The degree to which conservatives can publish within mainstream artistic journals, if they focus their critical essays on the aesthetic qualities of the work under discussion, may surprise some conservatives. There are journals that really are willing to publish writers who hold just about any views. There are journals that wish to seem open-minded. But there are, of course, journals with a strong liberal bias. The more such a bias comes to dominate, the more necessary it will be for the conservative artist to have alternative forums in which to publish critical writing. It is possible for an essay published on aesthetics to hide, without contradicting, the writers’ religious and political beliefs, but to accomplish this throughout a lifetime of writing is at the very least difficult.
Given the purpose of conservative journals, it is perfectly correct that the majority, even the substantial majority, of essays published in them be “philosophical” rather than “artistic.” Such journals have a whole range of issues to analyze, of which literature and the arts are only one. It is entirely correct that such journals give attention to the relationship of literature and the arts to the primary topic (politics) with which such journals concern themselves. It is entirely correct that such journals call attention to the great art of the past and to the artistic works that are of the greatest significance. But the inclusion of regular engagement with the contemporary, mainstream artistic world (particularly with those positive developments which do take place within it) and regular engagement with the arts at a non-political, aesthetic level would be a useful addition if our aim is to conserve and to develop the whole of our cultural tradition.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.