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In 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?