Art and the Traditions of Men

 

Marc_Fate_of_the_Animals_1913In a post I wrote last month about individual freedom from an artist’s perspective, a member criticized the work of a famous performance artist as being just a bunch of pseudo-intellectualism—not real art. She called herself a traditional classical realist, so it would follow that she wouldn’t be too keen on abstract expressionism, even the powerful works of art like those by Franz Marc (one of my favorites).

That post got me thinking about the conservative community’s commitment to traditions, particularly in the art world. I find that among many conservatives, non-traditional art is too often met with silence or scorn for three reasons. First, some modern art is admittedly offensive, immoral, and blatantly designed to attack conservative values—and it gets government funding. Second, modern art springs from humanistic philosophies that inspire leftist politics. Finally, according to classical critics (especially those familiar with G.K. Chesterton), art is determined by the cumulative counsel of the ancients, not by the individualistic expression of the artist.

While the first two reasons make it clear why caution is warranted when considering modern art (particularly its substance), I would like to focus on the third reason and how conservatives often confuse the “cumulative counsel of the ancients” or “traditions of men” with absolute truth that is binding for all cultures, all people, and all times.

While some things in society never change, many things do, and as humans we hope to grow and be informed by the past—but we don’t necessarily stay there. Tradition should be learned from and valued, but it is not an absolute standard. Sometimes “traditions” can be outright wrong—even dangerous—or they can become irrelevant. The “tradition” of slavery, for instance, was very wrong. We certainly wouldn’t want the accumulation of the wisdom of the past to dictate what is true for us today on that point. Thank God for modern thinking! 

Of course, the left uses this argument to undermine the Constitution; they treat it as a living document that changes as society “evolves.” In true relativistic form, they make the Constitution say whatever they want it to say — or they just ignore it outright. When I talk about the “traditions of men,” I’m not talking about the legal foundations of our society or transcendent truths. I’m focusing mainly on art and the freedom it allows for individual thinking and expression, freedom that opens up opportunities for people to connect with one another in new and unique ways.

Art is not just a vertical communication between man and the Creator (the kind of high art and music you find in worship, for instance). Art is also a horizontal communication between people, and it is on this level that unique expression—individuality—should be respected; traditions should not squelch that expression. Again, I’m not talking about morality here; I’m talking about form. Franz Marc was not immoral, but his form was obviously very different from Michelangelo’s. Different does not equal bad.

Traditions (classical realism, for instance) aren’t intrinsically objective. Tradition is an accumulation of subjective experience. A string of subjects does not create an objective reality (the irrationality of that is clear). It’s just broader and older and more tested. A place for wisdom—yes—but it’s not absolute or essentially authoritative. 

Tradition is also something that we subjectively pick and choose. Which traditional past do you determine as authoritative? Western traditions? Eastern? How about the traditions of African tribes? Southern traditions?

If conservatives ever hope to impact the culture, they need to understand it for what it is and not judge it solely by their traditions (as if tradition equals absolute truth). There is a lot to be learned from abstract artists and indie musicians and modern poets. Art has become more about individual expression than about conformity to a traditional standard, and this can be a very worthy thing as connections are made through artistic expression that were never made before. Some might scoff at that notion, but it’s a value cherished in today’s culture and one conservatives need to take seriously as they try to communicate real truths to society. People long for human connection, and art is a means to that end.

A good example of this would be the performance art exhibition I cited in my post. The artist sat before the viewer being fully present, allowing herself to connect with the person sitting across from her. This was not a mere psychological exercise. It was communication. It was a statement—the artist’s statement—about presence in art.

What is it that makes the Mona Lisa great? Is it just the skill of the artist putting the paint on the canvas, the symmetry, the innovative technique? Those are certainly part of it. But what sets the Mona Lisa apart is the strange connection that comes from looking into her eyes. Da Vinci accomplished, through his revolutionary technique, human presence—human connection and life. The performance artist—by going through the physical trial of sitting perfectly motionless for hours while still being present—did something similar. Two very different forms. Both communicating presence and beauty. Both art.

The performance artist has not created something entirely new. She has learned from tradition and human experience and has applied it in a new way. The same could be said for the jazz musician who expresses himself very differently from a composer in the baroque or classical periods. He has built on the foundation of those periods, learned from them, and created something new.

But if you hold to a traditional paradigm as being the only “right” one, you will fail to see this progression. You will fail to experience the joy of something new, and you will fail to understand how the culture thinks today not just about art but about life.

Conservatives will also miss an opportunity to capitalize on the culture’s love of artistic individuality and to explain how this relates to political and economic freedom—how big government suppresses the individual and and how limited government sets the individual free.

Are conservatives guilty of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when it comes to art? Do you think conservatives need to do more to connect with the modern culture; to be open to it; to communicate with it; and, in turn, influence it? Or is it best to draw lines in the sand and stand on the side of traditions, making little impact on a culture that feels judged and rejected by those on the other side? 

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  1. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    D.C. McAllister: But what sets the Mona Lisa apart is the strange connection that comes from looking into her eyes.

    Generally speaking, good art doesn’t need explanation. A good artist controls the range of reasonable interpretations of his work. If it is open to interpretation, it is so because he made it so; but it’s not completely open to interpretation, like a toddler’s scribbles. A work of art can be aimed at a particular audience. But the best art is at least appreciable, if not liked, by most people. 

    I think what conservatives usually object to in modern “art” is the absence of apparent structure and meaning. What makes a wild into a garden? Design. What makes colors and lines into a picture? Design. Art necessarily involves exclusion, organization, arrangement, etc. 

    Robert Frost said it best when he famously compared free verse to “playing tennis with the net down.” The rules define the game. Without the rules, it’s not necessarily aimless or worthless, but it’s a different game. Free verse that lacks structure and rhyme isn’t poetry. It’s merely poetic; it is like poetry in its beauty or reliance on symbolism. Likewise, much of “modern art” isn’t really art; it is similar to art.

    As you say, Denise, art forms are always emerging and evolving. The structure, purposes, and other elements can change. Artists can create new genres and twist old ones into compelling works. The rules don’t need to be formally identified and analyzed. But the order must be there. Art always involved order. That is the basic idea that so many modern libertines reject and that conservatives strive to reassert.

    • #1
  2. user_409996 Member
    user_409996
    @EdwardSmith

    I am very disinclined to talk about artists in terms of the quality of their work.

    Not because I do not like some art better than other art, or think that some art is better than other art.

    But because I think that the quality of someone’s art is a Metric so poorly delineated as to be useless.  You are welcome to think that Frederick Jackson Turner produced monumentally sentimental trash and Salvador Dali produced daring works that justifiably challenge the Moral Tropes of any time.  So long as you allow me the privilege of disagreeing with you.

    A more useful Metric is this:  was this artist successful?  Was he or she an artist, or an licensed electrician who  painted on the side.  This is easy to establish.  How did this person make a living.  An Insurance Executive and a Physician wrote what are described as some of the finest poetry of the 20th Century.

    Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso painted for a living.  There’s no denying that.

    All that said, I think that the study of Art is made more difficult because it is easier to tell who was good at Marketing than who was at Art.

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  3. virgil15marlow@yahoo.com Member
    virgil15marlow@yahoo.com
    @Manny

    I agree with just about everything you say here.  And I’m a traditionalist for the most part.  However if you look at tradition you will find many discontinuities.  Tradition ultimately synthesizes current art and fits it into the tradition.  The tradition is not static.  The modernist novel was extremely jarring when it came out at the beginning of the 20th century but today we find it fits right into our western tradition.  TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was aesthetically shocking and yet today we find it at the pinnicle of western poetry.  In a hundred years time you will find modern art to be quite synthesized into western tradition.

    One should realize however is that there is a lot of crappy art in every contemporary period.  Historically it gets weaned out.  But that takes time.  Right now you’re seeing a lot of crap that’s equated with good work.

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  4. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    D.C. McAllister: What is it that makes the Mona Lisa great? Is it just the skill of the artist putting the paint on the canvas, the symmetry, the innovative technique?

    I’m no art expert, but if I was to try and explore the answers to this question I’d start by looking at what was being done in portraiture prior to 1504-1506 (when the Mona Lisa was painted).

    Was the Mona Lisa a particularly well-executed example of a portraiture style that was already common at the time, or was it a radical breakthrough in how portraits could be done?

    Personally, when compared to the history of portraiture since 1504, I don’t think the Mona Lisa is really anything special. Give me a good Vermeer or Rembrandt (1600’s), or one of Alex Ross‘ best works, any day of the week.

    It’s the context of when it was painted that makes the Mona Lisa “great”.

    IMHO.

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  5. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    D.C. McAllister: The performance artist has not created something entirely new. She has learned from tradition and human experience and has applied it in a new way.

    One could argue that da Vinci did the same thing. He didn’t invent the art of portraiture out of whole cloth. He learned from human experience and the art tradition up to that point and he applied it in a new way.

    He also used the scientific and technological innovations of his time; such as discoveries in anatomy, mathematics, and optics; and applied them to the art of portraiture, just like modern artists do with computers, new materials, and new fabrication techniques.

    • #5
  6. user_517406 Member
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I enjoy art and like to visit galleries of all sorts and study paintings.  As I do, I can’t help myself, I’m analyzing why the piece works or doesn’t work.  I study the lines, the colors, the subject matter, materials,  the frame, the presentation and the overall impact.  I’m a very visual person and I like everything in my life to feel artistic, from food to how the coffee table books are arranged to how I dress.  Still, art is very subjective, isn’t it?  It’s nice how artists are trying to be creative and innovative and communicate, but sometimes that effort becomes pretentious and even hokey.  That’s how your performance artist friend’s thing stikes me.  Artists do, after all, have a way of thinking of themselves as the special ones in society, which does easily lead to pretension.  So I’m not sure it’s a matter of drawing lines in sand or rejecting modern art per se.  I think it’s more a matter of having a healthy skepticism that artists and their art are always what they pretend to be.

    • #6
  7. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    I generally agree with D.C.’s sentiments.

    As previously mentioned, even most “traditional” artists broke tradition in their time. That leaves contemporary artists in something of a pickle – if they mimic their predecessors they will be accused of being stale, uncreative copycats. But with most of the obvious, low-hanging fruit being already picked, what direction are they supposed to go other than the counter-intuitive/transgressive?

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  8. user_313423 Member
    user_313423
    @StephenBishop

    D.C

    That is an excellent post.

    Thanks.

    • #8
  9. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Mendel:

    As previously mentioned, even most “traditional” artists broke tradition in their time. That leaves contemporary artists in something of a pickle – if they mimic their predecessors they will be accused of being stale, uncreative copycats.

    Well, one could argue that we are narrowing our focus too much by concentrating on contemporary “fine art”.

    In the 16th and 17th century, when it came to visual representation there were really only three options for a professional artist; painting, sculpture, and architecture.

    Today, there’s photography, motion pictures, video, animation, computer graphics, graphic design, industrial design, game design, nano-art, etc, etc, etc.

    By limiting the scope of the discussion to painters and sculptors, one is leaving out all the practitioners of all the other arts which have developed since the days when the release of a new painting was as big a cultural event as the release of the next Star Wars movie.

    Asking if contemporary fine artists are as “good” as the old masters is sorta like asking if contemporary buggy whips are as good as those from the 19th century. Maybe they’re better, but the question is still kinda moot.

    • #9
  10. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Misthiocracy:

    Mendel:

    As previously mentioned, even most “traditional” artists broke tradition in their time. That leaves contemporary artists in something of a pickle – if they mimic their predecessors they will be accused of being stale, uncreative copycats.

    Well, one could argue that we are narrowing our focus too much by concentrating on contemporary “fine art”.

    In the 16th and 17th century, when it came to visual representation there were really only three options for a professional artist; painting, sculpture, and architecture.

     A good point. It is also worth remembering that the art which remains from previous centuries is typically only a fraction of what was being produced back then – and in many cases, was not commercially successful or popular among wide audiences in its time.

    We don’t know yet which contemporary works our descendants will pay attention to.

    • #10
  11. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Mendel: We don’t know yet which contemporary works our descendants will pay attention to.

    Indeed.

    Often, what is considered “great” later on is the work which inspired other artists to create, rather than what was popular at the time.

    A great example is the music played on your local classic rock radio station.

    If you go back and look at the top-40 charts from the years those classic songs were released, many of them never made the top 10 for the year.  The #1 song from 1969, the same year as Fortunate Son and Gimme Shelter, was Sugar, Sugar by The Archies

    The “greats” became great partly (largely?) because other musicians heard them, liked them, and emulated their styles. Their styles influenced advertising jingles and movie scores. They are great because they influenced the zeitgeist.

    It’s similar with visual art. Someone may look at a Jackson Pollock painting and think “a child could do that”, but the fact is that Pollock’s style influenced other artists and designers who applied his visual language to stuff like wallpaper and fabric. He influenced the zeitgeist.

    It’s not enough to be “new”. Greatness comes from being influential.

    • #11
  12. True Blue Member
    True Blue
    @TrueBlue

    Great post!  I particularly like your question of whether tradition is an absolute or conditional good.  Surely the answer is that tradition is a conditional good.  Not all traditions are good as you point out.  However,  it is a conditional good superior to most other conditional goods.  Traditions, even flawed ones, have withstood the test of.time.  In that way they have transcended the experience of even the most earnest individuals. That question those traditions.  This is worthy of our respect and, I think, places the burden of proof on the iconoclasts and non traditionalists.

    • #12
  13. user_928618 Member
    user_928618
    @JimLion

    The line is the sand is worth as much as the water thinks it’s worth, which is nothing at all. Conservatives need to learn to run in the sand, keep up with the waves, and embrace all the new art coming from other conservatives.

    • #13
  14. user_11047 Member
    user_11047
    @barbaralydick

    Edward Smith: All that said, I think that the study of Art is made more difficult because it is easier to tell who was good at Marketing than who was at Art.

     Amen to that. Marketing by the self-appointed art community elitists who look down on the plebeian masses with scorn, that is.

    • #14
  15. Pencilvania Member
    Pencilvania
    @Pencilvania

    To me, what is missing from so much ‘modern’ art is simply the search for beauty.  Artists back to the ancient Greeks were inspired by nature to strive for intrinsic beauty in their work, for the perfect proportions found in nature.  If you are an artist who is religious (like me) you might believe that beauty leads to truth, and truth leads to God. The religious artists whom I know feel drawn to express themselves using the creations God gives us – nature and the human form. I think that’s what sets the Mona Lisa apart – she is so beautifully done, it is as if she were created by God. Much High Renaissance art was intended to be in a church and be beautiful, so when you contemplated it, the image helped you think of God. 

    Should conservatives connect more with modern artistic culture? I see no reason for conservatives not to explore it.  But I think we should uphold beauty.  There’s a reason so many people stop what they are doing to look at a sunset or an ephemeral rainbow or a beautiful child.  We are drawn to beauty as to God.

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  16. user_11047 Member
    user_11047
    @barbaralydick

    A good friend in our symphony told about a rehearsal of a freshly penned work.   At the end of the first run-through, the (world famous) conductor said to the musicians – and paraphrasing, This isn’t going to sound any better with time…

    Contemporary atonal music, 12-tone, and the like, scrape at the ears.  Trained in the classics, these musicians saw no other new way to proceed so set out on a completely different course.  And more’s the pity.  At least to these ears.

    Aaron Miller: …what conservatives usually object to in modern “art” is the absence of apparent structure and meaning.

    With 12-tone there were rules and structure – and fairly rigid, at that.  But that structure lent nothing to pleasing sounds in music. Today, composers of orchestral and ensemble works seem to try to outdo each other in producing outlandish noise, yet many of those works are derivative of Schoenberg – i.e., 12-tone with its accompanying structure and rules.  And many of these works originate within the university setting.  Surprised?

    The same is true for art, to some degree, in any defined contemporary school.  But are all bets off withregard to post-modern art works?

    • #16
  17. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Why should I pay attention to art at all? In previous centuries art included things like transcendent beauty. These days it’s about expressing the artist’s emotions, their individuality. Their cleverness. I don’t need that. I don’t like modern stories with their antiheros and their shades-of-grey morality. If a painting doesn’t show me beauty, I have no use for it.

    D.C., with respect to your statements about tradition, I’d argue that there are certain immutable principles in art. Beauty is better than Ugliness, and Form is better than Randomness. If the incentive structure of a given period challenges that, it means that the art produced is bad, not that the rule is wrong.

    You could argue that I’m not a connoisseur of the form, that with more experience I’d learn to enjoy things that I otherwise wouldn’t. I’d argue that Lutefisk isn’t a delicacy, no matter what anyone tries to tell me.

    • #17
  18. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    On the broader point of engaging with the culture, I’d rather not.

    One, you’ve got to convince me that there’s a point to engaging the high art section of the culture. Exactly how many people do you know who like things like ballet or classical music, much less the modern, harder to enjoy art forms.

    Two, of those people, how many are hard leftist university types? How many would give my right wing viewpoints a second thought were I to offer a cogent defense of John Cage?

    In the culture wars there are puritans and separatists. You’re a puritan, trying to purify the culture from within. I’m a separatist; I don’t see any point to legitimizing institutions that have already declared war on me.

    • #18
  19. user_409996 Member
    user_409996
    @EdwardSmith

    Adding on to my earlier comment …

    I know enough about Art History to see where traditions have played out, where they have yielded fruit worth praising, and fruit not so much worth praising.

    I’ll use two artists who are very different here.  I am of a temperament to more want to see a Julian Schnabel that catches my fancy – even if it only makes me laugh – than a Giotto that I am indifferent to.

    Tradition can make for better art.  But artists are what seal the deal.  And they do not have to be of the highest skill

    Recently on Antigues Roadshow I saw a painting that turned out to be quite valuable.  The artist went to good schools, had a good reputation.  But give it to me, and within five minutes its off to the auction house.  It did not look like something I would want to have on my wall.  Now, this would be on my wall.  Because I like good needlework.

    Shtiebl257Lion

    • #19
  20. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Mendel:

    As previously mentioned, even most “traditional” artists broke tradition in their time.

    One of my favorite 20th century modernists Joan Miró is a ‘classic’ example of breaking with tradition. :)

    • #20
  21. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    barbara lydick:

    Aaron Miller: …what conservatives usually object to in modern “art” is the absence of apparent structure and meaning.

    With 12-tone there were rules and structure – and fairly rigid, at that.  But that structure lent nothing to pleasing sounds in music.

    I didn’t mean to imply that any form will do, nor that producing good art is as simple as following a formula. If that were so, computers would be better artists than people. 

    • #21
  22. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    barbara lydick:

    Edward Smith: All that said, I think that the study of Art is made more difficult because it is easier to tell who was good at Marketing than who was at Art.

    Amen to that. Marketing by the self-appointed art community elitists who look down on the plebeian masses with scorn, that is.

    How did Leonardo da Vinci make his living?

    He started off as a servant of the biggest corporate elitists of the day, the Medici family, and subsequently became a servant of the government, personified by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.

    Leonardo da Vinci made his living from the 16th century equivalent of the National Endowment for the Arts.

    La plus ça change

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  23. DrewInWisconsin Coolidge
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I agree with everything Aaron said in his first post.

    I think that was the message of “The LEGO Movie” in fact. : )

    • #23
  24. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Aaron Miller: If it is open to interpretation, it is so because he made it so; but it’s not completely open to interpretation, like a toddler’s scribbles.

    I don’t necessarily agree.

    What if the artist doesn’t imply any “meaning” in a piece?

    What if it’s merely about exploring colours and shapes and textures in a new way, and the viewer is trying to interpret a deeper “meaning” from the piece because they simply can’t imagine that it could be so simple?

    • #24
  25. user_409996 Member
    user_409996
    @EdwardSmith

    Misthiocracy:

    barbara lydick:

    Edward Smith: All that said, I think that the study of Art is made more difficult because it is easier to tell who was good at Marketing than who was at Art.

    Amen to that. Marketing by the self-appointed art community elitists who look down on the plebeian masses with scorn, that is.

    How did Leonardo da Vinci make his living?

    He started off as a servant of the biggest corporate elitists of the day, the Medici family, and subsequently became a servant of the government, personified by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.

    Leonardo da Vinci made his living from the 16th century equivalent of the National Endowment for the Arts.

    La plus ça change

     He was a successful Courtier.  The Medici, Sforza … they were the Market of his day.  he worked it.  Johan Sebastian Bach worked another Market. 

    In fact, I find the fact that he had the career he did as impressive, if not sometimes more impressive, than some of his work.

    • #25
  26. user_409996 Member
    user_409996
    @EdwardSmith

    I was dragged down Rush Lane in Toronto by two aficionados of Graffiti, and am glad of it.

    Structured and Unstructured … and that Spray Paint is High Grade stuff.

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Edward Smith: He was a successful Courtier.

    Courtier. Crony. Semantics.

    • #27
  28. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Edward Smith:

    I was dragged down Rush Lane in Toronto by two aficionados of Graffiti, and am glad of it.

    Structured and Unstructured … and that Spray Paint is High Grade stuff.

    Personally, I think if you have the permission of the building owner it’s no longer “graffiti”. It’s a mural.

    By definition, it should only be called “graffiti” if its done without the permission of the owner.

    IMHO, of course. I might be indulging in pedantry.

    • #28
  29. No Caesar Thatcher
    No Caesar
    @NoCaesar

    An awful lot of modern Art is crap.  I see three reasons for this:

    One, the more abstract and ugly you go, the harder it is to do something transcendent. 

    Two, modern art is more recent and therefore has not yet received the natural winnowing effect of years.  Prior generations have cleaned out the dross of the ages, and left us the prizes. 

    Three, the bar to attempting art has never been lower.  An awful lot of untalented people/charlatans have a go at various forms of art.  In past times, the bar to a sponsor for an artist was much higher.  Only the best got the chance.

    • #29
  30. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    No Caesar:

    An awful lot of modern Art is crap.

    The majority of any art, at any time in history, is crap.

    We only remember the good stuff.

    That’s precisely why I don’t get worked up about bad art, as long as I don’t have to pay for it.

    • #30

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