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How Conservatives Can Fight Cultural Modernism

Robert Locke

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Cogent reflections on the philosophical and moral vacuousness of minimalism and other modernist pretensions.

Thankfully, it is now a given among conservatives that if we are to take our country back, we must take its culture back. But whenever I hear this agenda detailed, it is in purely negative form. The conservative cultural ideal is imagined as nothing more than getting rid of naughty words, childish sacrileges, and government grants. But this is not enough to base a cultural revolution on. It is not even enough to base an interesting magazine on.

When the leftist cultural revolution that brought us to our present predicament was wrought, it was done on the basis of an ideology, modernism, that had real philosophical depth -- mistaken though it was. It is necessary for us to get back to philosophical first principles and decide what we believe are the fundamental principles of culture before we can fight to build the culture we want. Some of the ideas expressed below may seem so simple as to be truisms, but in fact, they have frequently been denied by the opposition; this is precisely the problem.

A conservative culture is not a culture whose products guarantee conservative political outcomes. That is more than one can expect of culture. What a conservative culture is, is a culture that takes the traditional answers to the problem of culture. Culture is intrinsically a problem for anyone holding political values because it will not let itself be tied down to supporting any one political viewpoint. Even if one did countenance censorship, and I presume the reader will not, one would still be faced with the fact that some of the greatest cultural achievements are contrary to any given value system. This is essentially Plato's problem with art: it can make anything look good, even evils, and it led him to be very severe with art in his Republic. But in the end, he felt he had to allow art because it had important work to do if it knew its place. George Orwell said said that bad art makes the best propaganda. The point is that what is good art, and what is good morally speaking, are two different things and they do not necessarily line up. Some great art is horribly immoral, like Leni Riefenstahl's brilliant Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will. Some is ideologically nutty, like Tolstoy's War and Peace. Some works with ideologically desirable aspects, like Uncle Tom's Cabin orthe novels of Ayn Rand, are dismal as art.

There are three temptations for conservatives taking a position on the arts. The first is to think that culture doesn't matter. The second is to reject cultural modernity outright. The third is to reject art. This last temptation is most familiar to Americans in the form of the "no graven images" tradition of certain varieties of Protestantism. Few people swallow it straight anymore, but its influence lingers. There is a biblical basis for it, of course, but from a rational point of view the idea is basically the first half of Plato as explained above. The Left would like us to believe that any values that can be celebrated in art (with a few embarrassing exceptions) are OK, so the fact that Robert Mapplethorpe was actually a good photographer somehow implies one must accept what he depicted.[1] But this lets art run roughshod over morals that same way that "no graven images" does the reverse. Aestheticism and nihilism go hand-in-hand; this is the essence of Nietzsche's thought. I presume no reader will fall for the first temptation, so that leaves the second.

There are four reasons why conservatives cannot reject cultural modernity [2] outright:

  • There exist parts of it that are not a threat to our values.
  • There exist parts of pre-modern culture that are unsound. [3]
  • A free society cannot freeze its culture in amber. [4]
  • The problem with modernity is not modernity but modernism, an ideologized version of it that infects it like a virus. [5]

The fourth reason is the master key to the whole problem. The conservative cultural agenda should be this:

To destroy modernism while making our peace with modernity.

Modernity in art was hijacked to promote modernism the ideology, which was used to destroy the credibility of the traditional culture of the West, which anchored its traditional values. To this day, modernism's post-modernist epigones like the architect are quite open about their desire to use shock and chaos as a device to soften us up for revolution. But there's more to it. Destroying modernism is a purely negative agenda, and wouldn't stick, anyway. We need to positively assert philosophical assumptions that are the opposite of modernism. I would suggest that they are something like the following:

The first principle of conservative culture is beauty. It is because beauty exists that culture as such has value, i.e. constitutes more than information. Prettiness, which is obvious beauty, is not a requirement, but it is not the enemy either. The modernist who said "the ugly can be beautiful, but the pretty, never," was wrong. The pretty attracts people to the beautiful and teaches them how to experience it. Making pretty things gives artists practice for making truly beautiful ones. Love of the beautiful is a natural instinct in man, though it can be stunted, perverted, or spoiled by various things: fashion, ideology, materialism, poverty, fanaticism, conformity, decadence, lack of education, hedonism, ignorance. Beauty connects to manners, which are the aesthetics of human conduct.

Modernism's primary idea -- whether it acknowledges it or not -- is creativity. This is a necessary consequence of the aesthetic relativism resulting from the rejection of any transcendent of which beauty could be the reflection. It is what Nietzsche believed. It is based in the final analysis on the idea that man is the measure of all things. It is therefore a profoundly godless idea. Once one accepts that the essence of art is creativity -- a proposition that is casually assumed, and even stated outright, all the time today -- several things follow:

  • If good art is creative art, then art that aspires to be recognized as good must show how creative it is. It must show that it is not an imitation of something else. Therefore, an extreme premium is placed on originality for its own sake, no matter how bizarre or pointless, which necessarily dissolves into a cult of change for its own sake, which change eventually becomes meaningless because it lacks any fixed ruler against which to measure it. The only metric becomes the capacity of society or the individual consciousness to experience shock, which capacity diminishes over time due to repetition and permissiveness.
  • If creativity is the goal, then the artist is immediately provoked to ask, where does one find it? This leads to an obsession with the inner psychology of the artist. Because no-one really understands the psychology of creativity, this means in practice an obsession with the subjective self of the artist. Art inevitably becomes something about the artist's psyche, not about the beautiful. Ultimately, it becomes solipsistic, and therefore incapable of communicating with the audience because it rejects any origin in collective experience, objective reality, or a transcendent.
  • If creativity is the essence of art, then any source of art other than pure creativity is suspect. Imitation of reality, for example, becomes undesirable. It also leads to the insane proposition that tradition is the enemy of the artist, cutting him off from the best sources of technique, inspiration, and evaluation. It leads to the proposition that culture itself is suspect, destroying the ideal of culture and the ideal of being cultured. Technique itself is suspect, as a restriction on creativity, leading to disregard for basic competence.

The second principle of conservative culture is craft. The need for technical skill serves as a barrier that keeps out incompetents who will not undertake the discipline that the cultivation of serious art requires. It serves as a discipline on the notoriously woolly mind of the artist. Tom Wolfe has written that modern art is imagination without skill; this pitfall is to be avoided. The need to transmit skills from one generation to another strengthens the cultural bond between generations and elevates the position of the past masters from whom the artist learns. Good craft is pleasing in its own right and is worth cultivating even if not animated by the spark of artistry. It teaches the mentality of quality and the joy of producing fine things. It sustains the continuity of tradition. It is the basis for producing the good second rate, i.e. the normal run of art that is not brilliant but forms the ambiance of any culture.

The third principle of conservative culture is style. Artists serve the community by producing by stylizing and aestheticizing our world. By giving the world style, they make it a more pleasant place to live in. Unities of style help constitute cultures and make them distinctive. Without cultures, people cannot be cultured. The effort required to master a particular style initiates a person into a community of style, giving them a culture or subculture to feel a sense of belonging to. Cultures satisfy man's desire for a consciousness of his collective identity: for his nation, his region, his religion, his philosophy of life. By giving the world a sense of style, artists sharpen people's critical faculties and teach them discrimination of the beautiful from the ugly. To know the beautiful is one of the higher faculties of the human soul. Style is also worth money, which binds the artist to industry and keeps him attached to the real world while making industry more cultured.

The fourth principle of conservative culture is comprehensibility. This is closely related to representation. Not all conservative art is representational, but none is meaningless. Modern art has shown a tendency to become over time either a monologue of the artist's consciousness with itself or a dialogue conducted in a secret code to which few are initiates. Even the highest and most elitist art that conforms with conservative principles is not obscure. It communicates. It bridges the gap between the subjectivity of one mind and another. It enables communities of feeling. Its fundamentals, if not its depths, can be explained. By being comprehensible on the surface, it draws the mind of the audience towards its depths.

The fifth principle of conservative culture is culture. Art does not exist in a vacuum. The rest of the culture helps to make any given work of art mean what it does. Because cultures can only be formed by human communities, which tend to take the form of ethnic groups, and the highest realization of an ethnic group is a nation, cultures have their highest expression as the cultures of nations. The greatest nations' identities are organized around the possession or transmission of high cultures. All cultures, high or not, give satisfying emotional content to the identification of the individual with his nation. They help to define who belongs to the nation. They give the members of the nation something to hold in common that satisfies the human longing for fraternité.

The sixth principle of conservative culture is tradition. Cultures cannot be erected overnight. Because they take generations to form, we must inherit them from the past. Because this past is irreplaceable, we must preserve it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with "living in a museum;" I would if I could afford it. Love of his cultural past teaches man love for his religious and political heritage.

The seventh principle of conservative culture is hierarchy. Art is not divided into the valuable and the worthless. It ascends a scale of value from the rudest drinking song to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, from a cottage to a cathedral, from a book to War and Peace. Look up Tad Friend's crucial essay "The Case for Middlebrow" in The New Republic of March 2, 1992 (it is not online.)

The eighth principle of conservative culture is transcendence. Taking beauty seriously has a Platonic, and thus theistic, implication. The existence of beauty suggests to man the transcendent. It does not prove it to him, but it bribes the mind with pleasure to accept the idea. One of the functions of a high religious culture is to form the basis of a high secular culture. Religion teaches man that the sublime exists. Culture helps him to imagine it. Traditionalism in culture helps to anchor traditionalism in religion against heterodoxy and mischief.

All these ideas are body-blows against modernism, which would deny every one. I wrote in another that the modernist avant-garde is on its last legs and must inevitably collapse one day soon because its value is predicated on being the new thing and it has become old. There is an interesting effort to avert this going on in magazines like Wallpaper, which is furiously trying to condense the avant-garde of the last 80 years into a classical high tradition in its own right, hoping that if what was once the avant-garde can become a classical high tradition, it can go on forever.

But if modernism is an inherited tradition that must be preserved, then so are all the other artistic styles. The idea of modernism as something that surpassed all previous art and found art's true essence, is dead. With it will go most of the offensiveness of modernism. Modernism will shed a lot of its superfluous content and contract to a core canon of works found to withstand the test of this transformation. In truth, it will be "modernism" only by name, having shed the ideological component that was modernism's essence. We will rediscover, for example, that minimalism is a legitimate technique in architecture if not used as a club to destroy the possibility of ornament. I.M. Pei will survive; Paul Rudolph will not. Phillip Glass will survive; John Cage will not. Paul Klee will survive; Julian Schnabel will not.

To kill modernism by asserting the principles I have named is not a solution of the fundamental problem of culture in an absolute sense. That is one of the $64,000 questions of human existence and I am not the one to discover the proof of the existence of God. But it is a solution to this problem as it confronts us in our time. It will not give us a culture that will solve our political problems, but it will do for us all that a culture can do. Because our society is sick of modernism, it is eminently practicable. If we seriously embrace these core philosophical assumptions and act on them, we can win the culture war, the real culture war.

Note: The best thinker I've found on the issue of modernity vs. modernism is the architect Robert A.M.Stern, about whom I have written. Unfortunately, his lucid and profound philosophical writings are scattered across half a dozen books, though his publicist tells me he is working on a compilation volume.


[1] Certain acts between men.

[2] This, of course, raises the question of just where one draws the line between the modern and the pre-modern. Although there are other taxonomies that may be more appropriate for other purposes, for the analytic purposes of this essay, modern means within the time-frame of the ideology of modernism. The turning point is somewhere around 1905 or so.

[3] Though as a general rule, pre-modern culture is better because it is (almost) never nihilistic, which modern culture frequently is.

[4] This doesn't mean we can't preserve parts of our culture in amber; indeed, we should. It just means one can't freeze the whole.

[5] I owe the significance of this distinction to the architect Robert A.M. Stern, about whom I have written.

Read this article on the Front Page Magazine website. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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