Saturday, August 5, 2017

How do conservatives engage culture in a viable way?

J Cal Davenport has a piece at Red State that delves into a subject that's pretty much always on my mind. It's by no means the first essay on the topic, but he brings into sharp relief the question before us: How do conservatives enter the world of art and have an impact on the culture?

He sets the table for his larger question by looking at two recent developments: an study correlating a rise in the suicide rate in the aftermath of the suicide-themed Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, and a film to be produced by Sean Hannity and directed by Kevin Sorbo, whose last offering was the ham-handed God's Not Dead. 

His reason for mentioning the series is to assert that art / entertainment can have cultural implications in something close to real time, and his reason for mentioning the second is to show the sad state of attempts my Christians and right-leaners to get involved in culture.

He then gets to his core message:

Most conservative and Christian art comes down to a dichotomous choice between the inaccessible (to most people) and kitsch. The New Criterion features criticism and literature that is high-brow and artistically classic, whereas the relatively new Liberty Island is mostly popular fiction written by conservatives. William F. Buckley adored the work of J. S. Bach; ask for the name of a conservative band today and someone might mention Creed-ripoff Madison Rising. A film like Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life is spiritual, even Christian is some senses, but it is very pretentious. On the other hand, even when Christian films like War Room surpass TV movies in production value, their creators completely forget to include a recognizable third act.
Where is the thought-provoking conservative and Christian art for the intelligent layman? William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens wrote for the masses, but their work was followed by royalty and today has reached legendary status. I don’t mean to suggest that merely shifting focus from propaganda to artistry will cause geniuses to emerge. Rather, it is possible to produce art of quality that neither sequesters itself in the cloisters of conservative intelligentsia, nor ham-handedly smacks people in the face with its obscene lack of quality and indexterously-handled viewpoints.
What this requires is a pursuit of art for art’s sake. Paradoxically for the advancement of conservatism or Christianity in culture, it means getting into literature, film or music for the sake of a love of those mediums, not to “counter liberal Hollywood.” Hollywood succeeds when it makes great art. It fails when it makes the same mistake of putting the message before quality.
Probably a major cause of the small presence the right has in literature, movies and music is the (comparatively) small presence the right has in higher education. It is an understandable under-representation, based as it is on the justified distrust conservatives (and Christians) have in academia. Like pop culture, higher ed won’t change without engagement — but that is a discussion for another time.
For now it is enough to ask how conservatives and Christians can better break into pop culture to critical acclaim and widespread influence. The ubiquitous stylistic trend of dark, anti-hero-dominated books, shows and movies is one area that could use the refreshment of some outside influence.
As the late David Foster Wallace once said in reference to Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho
Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid it is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this dark world AND to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.
I think that Christians in particular are well-positioned to reintroduce light and humanity into depictions of a fallen world. The stylistic paradigm presents an opportunity for a high-quality story of a Christian worldview to speak in a genuine, soul-reaching way to people who recognize the authenticity of the darkness and moral ambiguity of our times reflected in successful TV shows, but find the bleakness unfulfilling.
Examples abound of great  Christian creators of literature prior to the onset of the Great Cultural Rotting Process of the last 60 or 70 years: Flannery O'Conner, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis. Their work, though, was something that could enrich a reader approaching it from pretty much any orientation.

In any event, all this weighs upon my thought processes, given that I make most of my money from writing and music. It's certainly counterproductive to whine about the dauntingly high barriers to entry into those fields for known conservatives, but on the other hand, it does no good to be in denial about those barriers.

I guess it comes down to starting incrementally, taking advantage of entry points where one sees them, not proselytizing but also gathering the courage not to be silent when times arise for stating one's principles.

And, above all, making real art.


  1. What do you want? Money, fame, ease, critical acclaim, truth? Which will you write or play for? Can you express your soul knowledge so that others may care? Is there a follow-up short novel in you? Can your guitar tell all, again, if anybody much is listening? Does art enoble you or you it? Have you ever asked yourself if you have suffered enough, lol?

  2. What I want: All the things you enumerate. Follow-up novel, guitar telling all: Gee, I hope so.

  3. Our art, like our prayers, might not change our audience, but it absolutely changes us in unique ways. Keep on grinding it out. Inspiration is still 99% perspiration and wishes will never be horses.