Conservatism and the Arts

By Elizabeth Swanson ’12

In the November issue of the Tory, former Editor-in Chief David Pederson wrote a provocative column called “Aesthetics of Conservatism: Why Conservatives Need to Reclaim the Arts.” Pederson called for conservatives to take a renewed interest in the arts if “we conservatives are truly engaged in a struggle for the fate of our culture.” This got me a’thinkin’– when did conservatives stop taking an interest in the arts? My grandparents have tons of paintings on their walls, and they were into Reagan before Reagan was cool. Does the state of the arts right now have a liberal bias? How can conservatives best support the arts? Will supporting the arts give conservatives an extra boost in the culture wars?

Pederson asserts that conservative art should be good and beautiful. Just as the academic tries to add to the total sum of human knowledge, the artist tries to leave the world more good and beautiful than when she started. The artist’s goal shouldn’t be confused with the entertainer’s goal, which is simply to entertain. I believe that a person can be an artist and an entertainer at the same time, but the two don’t necessarily go together. But I digress. Goodness and beauty are the goals of art, but why conservative art? Does this mean that liberal art is bad and ugly? Not necessarily. Perhaps, should there truly be such a thing as conservative or liberal art, both can aim to be good or beautiful. However, there’s some other missing puzzle piece that distinguishes the two. But now we have a more fundamental question on our hands: can art even be conservative?

Pederson says “[a]rt that is infused extraneously with conservative ideas or platitudinous moralisms may function well as political propaganda, but it is bad insofar as it is art.” Presumably this extraneous infusion would be of conservative social values or, more aggressively, a conservative political agenda. I completely agree that this kind of art is most likely going to be bad art.  But can art be conservative if it doesn’t espouse conservative principles? Good art might not espouse conservative or liberal principles, but neither does art come out of a vacuum. Whether conservative or liberal, artists are likely going to identify with some point on the political spectrum. Even without this espousing business, art will probably have a tendency. However, that tendency or inclination is just not that important. Artists usually create art to be experienced through a common humanity, not a conservative or liberal lens. And anyway, if you’ve experienced a piece of art and you’re trying to nail it down on the political spectrum, odds are you’ve missed the point entirely.

Even if art is not specifically conservative in nature, conservatives should still support the arts for the sake of good and beauty. When Pederson used the word ‘good’ he was referring to quality of the artistic endeavor. Over at the Lewis Center, you’ll hear people in seminars discuss whether a piece of art is ‘successful’ which sort of encompasses the idea of good. Deciding whether a piece of art is good or successful is a highly subjective process. If you get five art critics in a room together, you’ll get eight opinions. It is much easier to get everyone to nod their heads in agreement to the general, benign concept that art is good for a community. Not a specific piece of art, mind you. Taking part in artistic efforts connects the artists to the spectators and connects spectators to ideas and to each other. There is something very traditional and deep about watching a live performance or looking at a piece of art in a public space. Frederich Nietzsche thought that art was the most acceptable form of lying because art is self-aware of its depiction. Art imitates life for the purpose of illuminating life. In this way, art is moral and traditional. Art strengthens a community by celebrating that community’s traditions and values. Even art with a liberal tendency–art that espouses liberal values or urges a break with tradition–is still experienced in a very traditional, communal way. Art can remember a community’s past in a vibrant, resonant way that history cannot. Anyone who saw the one man show An Iliad at the McCarter last semester felt a sting in his or her eye when the storyteller painted the picture of Achilles’ rage and his battle against Hector after Patroclus’s death. During Theatre Intime’s production of Recent Tragic Events, the audience collectively shuddered as they watched the characters watching the September 11th newscasts that have become part of the American tradition and lore. With these collective experiences, we honor our collective tradition and add to it. That’s something conservatives can get on board with.

How can conservatives support the arts effectively? Maybe conservatives should actively support the National Endowment for the Arts. I kid. Actually, rallying attacks against the NEA is a bit of a Republican past time, like game hunting on the weekends. I’m unimpressed, to say the least, when Republicans stir up a controversy because they are offended by the art that the NEA is choosing to fund. I don’t want Congress playing cultural critic and deciding what constitutes art or good art. But is it government’s business to subsidize art in the first place?  I’m not sure how I feel about tax dollars being spent on a non-essential like art. I’d rather see the arts funded by private patrons or, even better, see art thrive in a competitive market. Some people would say that we should withdraw government funding and leave art to sink or swim as it will. Certain forms of art would survive, and those are the forms we think of not as art but as entertainment. Hollywood films can gross billions while most museums and art galleries are subsidized. You won’t find many theatres in the country without at least half their funding coming from donations or the NEA. As technology has changes, mainstream popularity shifts to different mediums. Going to see a vaudeville show was a highfalutin good time in 1900, but with the advent of personal radios and speakies, vaudeville couldn’t compete. (Radio killed the vaudeville star.) The Golden Age of Broadway died down as Americans started buying TVs. When there was a TV in every home, there was less call for live entertainment. Besides that, tastes and aesthetics change. I’ll pay a pretty chunk of change to see Aerosmith live, but when Whitman offers me free tickets to see a string quartet at the Richardson I’ll delete the email without thinking. My ear has been trained to find “Hey diddle diddle with a kitty in the middle/And they swingin like it just don’t care” accompanied by an electric guitar much, much more appealing than Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor. We keep funding art after its historical moment has arguably passed, or its audience has become less mainstream because we find it good and beautiful and worth preserving. Economic conservatives who love the arts can get stuck between a rock and a hard place. A conservative might love the ballet or the opera or the symphony but her unwavering belief in markets keeps her away from the NEA.

Conservatives can support the arts without compromising their economic values by becoming patrons of the arts. Someday, when you’re rich enough to charter your own jet, you’ll have the opportunity to help art come to life. Make a generous, private, (and if you want to be really classy about it, anonymous) donation to something you really dig, like the Met or the MOMA, or my personal favorite, the Dallas Winspeare Operahouse. In his book The Gospel of Wealth, conservative businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie wrote that “the best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise–free libraries, parks, and means of recreation, by which men are helped in body and mind; works of art certain to give pleasure and improve the public taste; and public institutions of various kinds, which will improve the general condition of the people; in this manner returning their surplus wealth to the mass of their fellows in the forms best calculated to do them lasting good.” Someday, you might watch a brilliantly composed song cycle playing in a tiny hole-in-the-wall venue. Your capital could help to turn that song cycle into a Broadway musical. Just ask yourself, What Would Andrew Carnegie Do?

But that’s the pie-in-the-sky someday. For now, see a show. At Princeton, we have access to a huge amount of art for such a small population. We’ve got about five thousand undergraduates. Throw in another couple thousand grad students and you’ve got yourself a small village. That population wouldn’t warrant much by way of entertainment; maybe a movie theater and the Sunday church sermon. But we ambitious Princetonians have established a half dozen dance companies, plenty of theatre troupes and who knows how many a cappella groups. If you cared to, you could see a Princeton University Players musical on Thursday, attend our significant other’s wind ensemble concert on Friday, and catch a Body Hype show on Saturday on your way to a midnight USG movie at the Garden Theater. And because you’ve got a problem set due Monday, you don’t have time to see the other four or five arts-related events going on around campus every single gosh-darn weekend of the semester. By the way, when’s the last time you visited our world class University Art Museum? We are absolutely saturated in the arts. They could use some patronage, and I know your soul could use some Lady Gaga arranged for an all-female a Capella group.

There are probably conservative strains to be found in any piece of art you could experience at Princeton. But supporting the arts is not the most cost effective ways to advance the conservative cause. If that’s your goal, take the weekend and write a letter to your congressman to cut government spending or attend a gay rights rally (small government minority protection for the win!). If you want to support good, beautiful art–and the inevitable mediocre art you’ll come across if you watch college performances–go out this weekend and see something, watch something, experience something. I promise, it’s good for your soul.

Elizabeth Swanson is a junior from Rockwall, TX. She is majoring in history with a certificate in theatre. She can be reached at eswanson@princeton.edu.

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