The Aesthetics of Conservatism: Why Conservatives Need to Reclaim the Arts

by David Pederson ’12

The conservative movement today, it is not too much to say, has largely abandoned the arts. The whole enterprise of art, artistry, and aesthetics is all too commonly viewed by conservatives as much more “soft” or “subjective” than ethics or politics, and beauty is likewise taken to be a mere modality of entertainment. But, as I would like to contend, if we conservatives are truly engaged in a struggle for the fate of our culture, then we should place a high value on supporting the arts, for art is crucial to culture.

To claim that conservatives should support the arts, however, is not to propound anything novel or revolutionary. Indeed, conservatism was wedded to the arts from the outset. Before writing his well-known Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, for instance, penned his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a work whose aesthetic theory provides much of the foundation for the political thought of the Reflections. Moreover, beyond Burke, one might point to Hegel, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Eliot, Yeats, and many others as examples of conservative thinkers for whom art was of pivotal importance. Articulating new a conservative aesthetics today, then, is something firmly at home in the conservative tradition. But what precisely would a “conservative” aesthetics consist in?

There are, to my mind, two salient features. In the first place, art that is conservative must be art that is simply good qua art. Art 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. We need, rather, art that respects the objective integrity of the artwork. What this means, secondly, is that conservative art should attempt not to be political or moralistic or “shocking,” but instead to be beautiful. As Matthew Milliner has argued, just as conservatism has been defined as “the negation of ideology,” so also conservative aesthetics is aesthetics in the absence of ideology. Conservative art is just art simpliciter, striving to realize no goal other than the disclosure of its own beauty.

At this point, one might wonder what exactly I mean by “beauty” as the object of conservative art. How is beauty to be defined?  Let me first reject two closely related simulacra of beauty in the modern world. The first of these is kitsch — art that is saccharine and sentimental, and which is directed primarily at ersatz emotionalism, the “Disneyfication” of art. Yet this sort of sentimentality, in Michael Tanner’s words, “is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.” A cheap imitation of feeling one moment, a collapse into pessimism the next: this is the danger of kitsch, and it is why its pervasiveness should be combated. So, the reason why kitsch is not a candidate for beauty, then, is because the former seeks to elicit a false feeling while the latter (as I shall flesh out below) results from a real judgment.

Second, just as we ought to reject kitsch, so also should we abandon the whole ideal of art as self-expression and beauty as constituted by this self-expression. There are various reasons one could furnish for discarding self-expression: it is self-stultifying because personal expression, not personal growth, is alone posited as valuable; it leads to the aesthetics of fascism and the cult of “authenticity”; it presupposes a highly dubious dualistic metaphysics; and so on. But the most fundamental reason is that self-expression simply does not exist. For contrary to the atomistic view of humanity encapsulated by this ideal of self-expression, the self is not some inner sphere waiting to be expressed; man is not a monad. Rather, human life is inherently dialogical and public. Our judgments of beauty are not derived from interior depths, but are conditioned by outward factors, both social and natural. Since self-expression fails as a theory, then, beauty cannot be relegated to a mere product of the self.

Kitsch and self-expression typify two of the main ways in which reflection on beauty can go awry. To put the matter roughly, kitsch downplays the role of judgments in beauty, while self-expression minimizes the externality of the objects of those judgments. By contrast, however, I would like to put forth an opposing thesis. Beauty is not simply a feeling, nor is it endowed only with a subjectively colored meaning. Instead, to draw from Kant, beauty is a non-conceptual judgment about an objective reality. Let me expand on this rather condensed definition.

In the definition above, it is crucial to note first that the judgment of beauty is non-conceptual. What this means is that one cannot judge a work of art to beautiful just by learning secondhand about the various features of that work. Beauty involves the direct apprehension of the beautiful object; its judgment is immediate. Furthermore, as Kant noted, this immediacy entails that judgments of beauty are not necessarily binding upon all persons, even though they are presented as such.

In addition, as the foregoing formulation underscores, it is a phenomenological feature of beauty that it is a judgment not about one’s subjective mental states, but about real aspects of actual objects. Hence judgments of beauty diverge from those about taste; we reasonably argue about the former, but not about the latter. What is more, this wholly object-directed nature of aesthetic judgments means that such judgments express a “disinterested interest,” to use Kant’s famous phrase. In saying “this painting is beautiful,” one is not expressing a desire to do anything with the painting; one is simply making a judgment of beauty — and nothing more. We could rightly assert, then, that beauty involves the appreciation of the beautiful object merely for the sake of the beautiful object. It is this sort of beauty that conservatives ought to support and foster.

Having delineated this theory of beauty, however, two common objections arise. One the one hand, one may be quite skeptical that beauty could be anything other than entirely subjective. How can we arbitrate disputes in aesthetics?  While there is not enough space here to give any detailed response, a couple remarks are apposite. First, note that this kind of “aesthetic relativism” is identical to moral and epistemological relativism; disagreement is not specific to aesthetics. So, when someone denies objectivity to beauty, we can ask what it is that is peculiar about the case of beauty, as opposed to that of goodness and truth. Moreover, it is not entirely clear that there are, in fact, disagreements over beauty; disputants may very likely be talking at cross-purposes or meaning divergent things. There is no strong a priori reason, then, for taking beauty to be totally subjective.

On the other hand, it is often thought that art and beauty are rather elitist notions, far removed from the concerns of the ordinary individual. Since this is so, the argument goes, why should conservatives be concerned with the arts?  Two replies are in order. Perhaps, in the first place, the common man should care about beauty; perhaps it is just the tragedy of life — and especially of modern life — that he does not. But, more crucially, beauty need not be found only in “high art”; it is found equally well in the lowliest craft, for indeed all art is rooted in craft. As a good aesthetician once said, it is not that every craft should aspire to be art; it is rather that all art should realize that, at bottom, it is only a craft — and in this fact consists its human dignity.

Nevertheless, with these two objections laid to rest, another immediately arises. Throughout this article, I have been contending that conservatives need to take art and beauty seriously. But now one might quite reasonably ask, “Yes, but what is the use of art and beauty?  What are they good for?  What benefits will accrue to conservatives if they support them?” In one sense, my answer to this is simple: art and beauty are intrinsically valuable and fulfilling components of human life. They are good like friendship or knowledge or marriage is good, namely, as ends-in-themselves. But, in addition to being intrinsically valuable, art and beauty have tremendous instrumental value as well. This is so for at least three reasons.

First of all, industrial capitalism, while improving material conditions, has ushered into modern society a whole host of problems. Our contemporary world has become marketable and commodified, the utilitarian logic of the profit motive holds sway in almost every domain of life, and mass production has slowly dissolved the value of beauty. But a renewed sense of the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of common crafts and occupations would, I believe, serve as a powerful antidote to these ills. For if we see that the end of our labors ought not to be just making profits, but doing good work, then perhaps we can better resist the leveling of values that capitalism has brought about.

Second, another reason why conservatives should support the arts is that, as Kant noted, the beautiful can serve as a propaedeutic to the good. This is because of the fact that, in both making aesthetic judgments and acting morally, one should treat the object of one’s action as an end-in-itself; one should respect the objective integrity of the artwork or person concerned. A revival of art and beauty, then, is particularly needed today — especially in our hyper-sexualized, pornographic culture. To change this culture, we need not only to make arguments, but also to uphold the real beauty of traditional sexual ethics, an ethic that respects persons as persons. We need, in short, a culture of beauty.

Third, in addition to being commodified, modern society is atomized and individualized. Partly because of the rise of the “culture industry” (as Adorno calls it), partly through the socio-political developments of the nation-state, and partly on account of the prevalence of the ideology of (even classical) liberalism, society has become increasingly fragmented, and any strong sense of shared values and identity have been fractured. Nevertheless, a reemphasis on art and beauty will help us attain a more robust conception of the common good. Art can serve as a locus around which our common self-understandings can coalesce, where shared values can crystallize and come to mediate between the secular and the sacred. Or so we must hope.

In conclusion, art has the potential to be socially transformative. It can be a call for personal and social renewal, as it has been for many luminaries in the conservative tradition. And this, of course, is only logical, for art is of the essence of culture. Therefore, if we as conservatives are solicitous about the future of our society, then it is especially in the realm of art that we should be fighting. It is high time we took back the art world.

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