Are Conservatives Bad at Pop Culture?

 

During the latest episode of the “Young Guns” podcast, we discussed an article by Erik Kain at American Times in which he argues that conservatives just can’t do pop culture very well. “Conservative art mimics conservative politics rather than the other way around. And so it can never really be art,” Kain writes.

Ricochet’s Emily Esfahani Smith who runs and edits Acculturated, one of my favorite web destinations, put together a fascinating symposium this week featuring responses to Kain’s argument from a variety of writers and thinkers including Ed Driscoll, Glenn Reynolds, Megan Basham, and myself.

For the most part, I agree with Kain. Politics makes for bad art.

Oh, there are exceptions. Some of the twentieth century’s best literature was written in response to the oppression of the State. Novels like Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and Kundera’s The Joke are political dissent pieces embedded within masterfully crafted fiction. (And take a look at Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels. While the Board’s List includes a handful of political novels, the Reader’s List is thick with them.)

In modern America, however, agenda-driven movies, television, novels, and music are just by and large lousy. Kain’s argument that conservatives can’t do pop culture very well only gets it half right. The truth is that liberals can’t either.

Take, for example, the television show Glee whose third season finale aired this past week. Wildly popular in its first two seasons, Glee boasted a wholesome and entertaining–if sometimes corny–storyline. It was an all around fun show coupled with great talent. But something happened to the show in the third season. The lighthearted feel-good plot was gradually replaced with heaping servings of liberal agenda-driven preachiness. As Amy Lepine Peterson writes at Christianity Today,

Glee morphed from quirky, guilty-pleasure entertainment to a preachy, poorly patched-together morality play. Like a weekly after-school special, Glee took on one social “issue” after another: public funding for the arts, bullying, texting and driving, domestic violence, and, several times over, sexual identity. A failure of creativity and imagination in the writing turned Glee into a series of PSAs for teens, programs every bit as reductively moralistic in their own way as “Christian” movies like Fireproof and Facing the Giants — while taking far less heat from the critics for it.

Glee might not be receiving the criticism it deserves in the media, but the ratings speak loud and clear. Liberal-Pop-Culture.jpgThe latest season averaged just over 7 million viewers per episode, representing a nearly 40 percent drop in viewership from the previous season.

And Glee’s Season three is just one of many examples in this genre of liberal pop culture. Another representative gem is the movie The Day After Tomorrow in which Dennis Quaid channels his inner Al Gore to save the planet from the sudden onset of global warming (or was it global cooling?).

On the other hand, good pop culture —that is, the stuff that sells— is very rarely driven by an overt agenda. Even though the actors, authors, and musicians who create the good stuff might be avowed Leftists and say so openly at regular intervals, this doesn’t mean their work counts as liberal pop-culture. On the flipside are closet conservative actors, authors, and musicians. Did you know, for example, that indie rock legend Stephen Malkmus of the band Pavement leans right? Does his support for some of George W. Bush’s policies magically transform Slanted and Enchanted into a paragon of conservative pop culture?

Pop culture succeeds despite the politics of the artists who participate in creating it, not because of it.

There are 37 comments.

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  1. Inactive

    I think I can make a bit more precise the “Politics makes bad art. Oh, there are exceptions” formulation.

    Politics masquerading as art is bound to be bad art. Art about politics is subject to Sturgeon’s Law, i.e. 1/19 of such works aren’t crud.

    • #1
    • June 1, 2012 at 1:41 am
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  2. Member
    Diane Ellis, Ed.
    midnightgolfer:

    That being said, For Greater Glory / Cristiada looks like it’s going to be a blast, and it is practically non-fiction. Now to see if I can find a theater in Spain that will screen it. · 8 minutes ago

    I’m really excited about this film thanks to Member FelicaB who’s written a few posts about it.

    But I’m curious? Why does this film in particular come to mind when discussing conservative pop culture? · 10 hours ago

    Because, back during the World Youth Day here in Madrid, Catholic acquaintances accepted my Mormonism, as co-defenders of traditional family life, and they said it was going to be a great movie. Since then, I’ve been interested in seeing this movie about the people fighting to keep their religious freedom, against Mexican state-sponsored atheism.

    • #2
    • June 1, 2012 at 4:17 am
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  3. Thatcher
    Pop culture succeeds despite the politics of the artists who participate in creating it, not because of it. · · 7 minutes ago

    In Monday’s Meet-Up, I predictably brought up The Avengers so I could gush at how well it was doing and how well Wheddon directed this film (if you haven’t done an Audio Meet-Up, it’s fun, trust me).

    Many of my conservative friends loved this film and its clear demarkations of good and evil. Wheddon himself isn’t conservative, and in fact, some news had it that there was at least one scene with a liberal slant that made it to the cutting room floor because it didn’t enhance the story — just increased the time.

    Though I know many who avoid certain actors and directors because of political idiocy, I find what is more compelling is a great story and how it is told. Moreover, I love a good message within a great story. However I’ve seen great stories turn out just “okay” because those involved try to force it to fit their message. I’ve seen great films become terrible because they are forced to fit bad messages.

    • #3
    • June 1, 2012 at 4:33 am
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  4. Member

    Very interesting! I agree completely about how liberal politics can ruin shows. But I think there’s something deeper going on, too. None of the old books and movies I love are explicitly political, but there is an inescapably conservative atmosphere to the worlds they depict, by which I mean certain accepted values and traditions. Much of the interest, plot, and character development then comes from the way individuals deal with those norms and the signals they send out by conforming to, or rejecting, them. The problem with liberalism is that it has destroyed those norms, so that no meaningful action or characterization remains.

    Imagine Scarlett O’Hara wearing a risque dress – kinda loses its significance when everyone around her is dressed in less, no? Or take Jane Eyre; could her struggle have any meaning in a world where premarital sex isn’t only accepted, it’s absolutely encouraged? Fanny Price asserted her decency and principles over a silly little play! These women’s actions would all be seen as incomprehensible, or clinically insane, in our current liberal atmosphere.

    For further thoughts, here’s a great, short read on the topic.

    • #4
    • June 1, 2012 at 4:34 am
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  5. Member

    By the way, last minute TCM tip for those interested in the movie that destroyed conservatism in pop culture, Bonnie and Clyde is on this evening. If I have the anecdote right, Pauline Kael initially thrilled over the film’s raw energy and rejection of moral convention, but then later in life came to deeply regret what she had done as there were no good old-fashioned movies being made anymore, they were all violent amoral trash. As I believe Paul Schrader put it when discussing her change of heart, it was a whole lot of fun upsetting the applecart, but then where was one to go for apples?

    • #5
    • June 1, 2012 at 4:47 am
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  6. Member

    Novelty has a lot to do with it, IMHO.

    It’s what makes news interesting, and it’s at the root of a lot of curiosity and desire to experience art, of any kind.

    “Conservative” or traditional American culture has a tendency to “stay where it is,” because it values principles that aren’t supposed to change, and attempts to avoid hypocrisy by being consistent. 

    The part that gleefully pulls both politics and culture ever left-ward, likes to call this “square,” “boring,” “in a rut,” and it has to be said that it certainly lacks novelty – on purpose. 

    That being said, For Greater Glory / Cristiada looks like it’s going to be a blast, and it is practically non-fiction. Now to see if I can find a theater in Spain that will screen it.

    • #6
    • June 1, 2012 at 5:05 am
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  7. Inactive

    Another thread diverter, a man after my own heart.

    Simon Roberts: As an aside – I would say that The Young Guns in terms of thought provoking content, consistency and sheer entertainment value is now far and away the best podcast offered by Ricochet. I suspect we will be seeing and hearing a lot more from Troy Senik – a rare talent. · 7 hours ago

    Troy Senik is an amazing talent; quick, funny, smart and easy to listen to. And in spite of all that, he’s still the third most interesting person to listen to on LawTalk. So I might argue with you over Best Podcast.

    • #7
    • June 1, 2012 at 5:17 am
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  8. Member
    Diane Ellis, Ed.: Pop culture succeeds despite the politics of the artists who participate in creating it, not because of it. 

    I agree. Consider two examples that represent real artistic achievement, yet are successful entertainment:

    1. The movie Shadowlands, with Anthony Hopkins playing C. S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy. It took some literary license, but it was a beautiful love story of two people in middle age, a love that was based on a commitment to Christianity.

    2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead was a popular and won a Pulitzer Prize. But it is a positive view of religion, addressing an unapologetic Christian theme, and written by a real-life Christian. The writing is beautiful and the spiritual insights profound. It is a convincing portrayal of a faithful Christian. Robinson succeeds at what many believe is the hardest task for a writer: to create a complex character who is truly good (for some reason, it’s easier to produce flawed characters or villains). John Ames, the fictional narrator, is an elderly Christian minister, a believer, a man of keen spiritual insight, and genuinely good. 

    Shadowlands and Gilead are religion friendly, but neither shoves it down anyone’s throat.

    • #8
    • June 1, 2012 at 5:21 am
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  9. Contributor
    Diane Ellis Post author
    midnightgolfer:

    That being said, For Greater Glory / Cristiada looks like it’s going to be a blast, and it is practically non-fiction. Now to see if I can find a theater in Spain that will screen it. · 8 minutes ago

    I’m really excited about this film thanks to Member FelicaB who’s written a few posts about it.

    But I’m curious? Why does this film in particular come to mind when discussing conservative pop culture?

    • #9
    • June 1, 2012 at 5:23 am
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  10. Inactive

    Modern Art is awful. It is also explicitly Marxist. This explains a lot.

    • #10
    • June 1, 2012 at 5:24 am
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  11. Member

    I suppose that for me the question is more, Why would conservatives want to succeed at creating pop culture? Pop culture is so transient. Even the name, “pop,” rather than “popular,” is dumbed down. 

    A conservative craftsman wants to create works that endure, that are timeless, that speak to people across space and time. His work might challenge, but it has references that people instinctively understand. The work is not intended to shock, which is a rather childish way of making art, like children trying to hold their breath until they pass out, or saying hurtful things to see how people will react. Instead, the work is intended to endure. It seeks to understand the nature of truth and beauty. As Keats wrote, 

    “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all / Ye know on earth, and need to know.'”

    • #11
    • June 1, 2012 at 5:25 am
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  12. Inactive

    A bird does not need to sing her truth to you. She merely spreads her wings and takes flight. Refute her if you can.

    • #12
    • June 1, 2012 at 5:45 am
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  13. Inactive

    So…how does Kain account for the beauty and success of something like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” stories. One of my favorite, and certainly not conservative, authors Michael Moorcock has a particular loathing for LotR because of LotR’s conservatism. His essay, Epic Pooh, goes into great lengths to describe his dislike of this kind of tale.

    Add to that Kain’s definition of conservative art seems to limit that field to conservative art that is political in nature. As you point out, any art directed to a purely political purpose tends to fall flat. Take Brecht’s work after he decided to make art expressly to promote Socialism, or look at Dashiell Hammett’s career when he decided to write purely political works — he ended up not writing any more stories.

    • #13
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:04 am
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  14. Inactive
    Adrian: As I believe Paul Schrader put it when discussing her change of heart, it was a whole lot of fun upsetting the applecart, but then where was one to go for apples? · 1 hour ago

    Brilliant. The amorality of liberalism so succinctly put. 

    • #14
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:07 am
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  15. Member
    C.J. Box: 

    People want to be entertained, not hit over the head. But if they’re closing the last page of a book or walking out of the theater and thinking of the deeper issues beyond the story that entertained them, the creators have succeeded and the audience (or readership) is satisfied.

    Well said. I go to church to be preached at. I go to the movies to be entertained.

    • #15
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:21 am
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  16. Inactive

    I belive liberals are more ideologically suited to pop culture, as it is transient and “whim-worshiping” by its nature. Conservatism is defined by principled action, that is – long term planning and consistent execution.

    I wonder that it should bother us that we are “bad” at pop culture Those transient enough to be swayed by Lady Gaga are not conservative timbre.

    A conservative would have a hard time walking out on a stage in a dress made of meat. That is a spur of the moment, mindless activity that serves no purpose except its purposelessness.

    I avoid pop culture beceause it is an inefficient use of time. One year from now, whatever is “hot” will be irrelevant. The principles of physics, medicine, business, etc. will remain the same though.

    • #16
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:22 am
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  17. Member

    Yep. Here’s a good article about the story. Another great line from the regretful Kael: “When we championed trash culture, we had no idea it would become the only culture.” Ed Driscoll writes a lot, with great insight, about this over at his place, too.

    Roberto
    Adrian: As I believe Paul Schrader put it when discussing her change of heart, it was a whole lot of fun upsetting the applecart, but then where was one to go for apples? · 1 hour ago

    Brilliant. The amorality of liberalism so succinctly put. · 4 minutes ago

    • #17
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:22 am
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  18. Member
    Mama Toad: I suppose that for me the question is more, Why would conservativeswant to succeed at creating pop culture? Pop culture is so transient. Even the name, “pop,” rather than “popular,” is dumbed down. 

    I think youth has a lot to do with it. Young people are the ones spending all their disposable cash on movies and music. So – creative professionals wanting to make a living aim at the huge youth market out of necessity.

    As one who has kept the bill collector at bay for 3+ decades writing all manner of music, some of it trendy, I focus a lot more these days on music I hope will last. But I still aim at the popular market from time to time. It’s what publishers want. And – my mortgage isn’t quite paid off.

    • #18
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:38 am
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  19. Inactive

    James Gould Cozzens was an excellent novelist of a conservative bent, although not overtly political. He deserves a minor place in the canon, at least for “Guard of Honor”, and probably “Morning, Noon and Night”, “Men and Bretheren” and a few others. 

    He was “destroyed” by marxist hatchet man Dwight Macdonald sometime in the 60s, around the time the floodgates opened, and now very few people read him or study him.

    It was one of the most successful pre-emptive strikes of the culture wars.

    • #19
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:40 am
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  20. Member

    I also like it when authors who start out liberal and are loved, then turn conservative, or find religion, and get ignored, like the later works of Eliot and Dos Passos. High school and college profs are all too happy to assign their earlier works, and for all the students know they might as well have died after writing them because they will never be assigned the later writings.

    David Odell:

    He was “destroyed” by marxist hatchet man Dwight Macdonald sometime in the 60s, around the time the floodgates opened, and now very few people read him or study him.

    It was one of the most successful pre-emptive strikes of the culture wars. · 3 minutes ago

    • #20
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:48 am
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  21. Contributor

    Paul Schrader not only upset some apple carts, he took an axe to them, squashed the apples, and voided his bladder on the mash. I think he’s done some brilliant and disturbing stuff, but you always want to shower afterwards and make sure you exfoliate with Lava soap. 

    I suppose you could see “Star 80” and his Bob Crane biopic as conservative, in the sense that Madness and Ruin comes to those who behave this way, and “Taxi Driver” is all over the road, so to speak, but yikes. 

    • #21
    • June 1, 2012 at 6:55 am
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  22. Member
    Liberty Dude: I avoid pop culture beceause it is an inefficient use of time. One year from now, whatever is “hot” will be irrelevant. The principles of physics, medicine, business, etc. will remain the same though. 

    True, but the same could be said for Shakespeare, the plays haven’t changed (much) in four hundred years. Or look at the Greek play writers. They have very conservative themes, and yet they stand and are still sometimes performed. The old culture is still there and exists to be rediscovered.

    There are also other works with conservative themes being written and performed today. The Wingfield series (http://wingfieldfarm.ca/) is not conservative for the sake of being conservative. The author and actor might even recoil in horror at the term being applied to their work. On the other hand, it’s about farmlife and family and community. Now, I don’t know if it’s “pop culture,” but it certainly popular and part of the culture in Canada.

    • #22
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:00 am
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  23. Inactive
    midnightgolfer: Novelty has a lot to do with it, IMHO.

    It’s what makes news interesting, and it’s at the root of a lot of curiosity and desire to experience art, of any kind.

    “Conservative” or traditional American culture has a tendency to “stay where it is,” because it values principles that aren’t supposed to change, and attempts to avoid hypocrisy by being consistent. 

    The part that gleefully pulls both politics and culture ever left-ward, likes to call this “square,” “boring,” “in a rut,” and it has to be said that it certainly lacks novelty – on purpose. 

    This misses the most important element in drama, which is conflict. Novelty is incidental to good drama. The high drama found in The Lord of The Rings is the conflict between good and evil. And the classic character arc is the protagonist struggling to do the right thing, to become an honorable person. These are intuitively satisfying on a subconscious level and are profoundly conservative.

    • #23
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:07 am
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  24. Member

    If you think about it, The Coen Brothers also have a lot of conservative themes in their work. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was based on the Odyssey, after all. How much more conservative can one get? They also have remade other works, such as The Ladykillers, a film about thieves who decide they have to kill an old lady who is a witness. It has themes of divine justice. Then there is the recent True Grit. I doubt the Coens would consider themselves conservatives. Certainly not all of their characters are good. But if one looks at the themes, one sees a lot of classical themes that are quite conservative.

    Again though, they are good stories first. The themes are subsidiary and based on the original, earlier texts.

    • #24
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:22 am
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  25. Inactive

    First, all good stories are conservative. This may be why so many actors (especially) need to take refuge in utopian dreams because they are forced to enter into realms exclusively conservative and tragic. Some of the best actors are the most reflexive lefties (Sean Penn comes to mind). They have to be “real” people and understand thier character’s motives, have 100% empathy and then they go home, and to get away from this horrible tragic vision, they invent fantasies, villans and schemes in a desperate need to change the world for the better. They have essentially empty lives with a ton of power and recognition. They feel they should be doing more. Fame is a nuisance, but it is also a commodity they can employ for good.

    There have always been little morality lessons in sitcoms, and these follow the tragic (conservative) vision. Don’t lie – this can happen, don’t gossip – that can happen. 

    Writers and producers with a hit show on their hands also are inclined to use their show “for good”, and by now everything has been done and they want to make the themes topical and current. 

    • #25
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:32 am
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  26. Member

    Yes, I worry that the whole ‘we have to show the full extent of human depravity in order to hammer home just how wrong it is’ genre ends up getting too much disgustingly sinful bang for its minimally redemptive buck. And there is no soap strong enough for some of those images, yikes indeed.

    James Lileks: Paul Schrader not only upset some apple carts, he took an axe to them, squashed the apples, and voided his bladder on the mash. I think he’s done some brilliant and disturbing stuff, but you always want to shower afterwards and make sure you exfoliate with Lava soap. 

    I suppose you could see “Star 80” and his Bob Crane biopic as conservative, in the sense that Madness and Ruin comes to those who behave this way, and “Taxi Driver” is all over the road, so to speak, but yikes. · 32 minutes ago

    • #26
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:35 am
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  27. Inactive

    I’m lucky, most of my favorite writers of fiction are some degree of conservative: Richard Powell, Tolkien, Saul Bellow, C.S.Lewis, and P.G.Wodehouse. Peter Mathiessen is the only overtly leftist author that I would really miss rereading. And his writing is far more conservative than his politics.

    So obviously I don’t buy the contention that conservatives aren’t creative.

    • #27
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:40 am
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  28. Inactive

    Naturally the themes like gender issues, bullying, etc. will be explored, and it is indeed a “failure of creativity” on the part of the producers and writers. Do they realize that kids are getting hectored at every turn on the issue of bullying?

    Further, doesn’t anyone realize that the kid watching Glee in the first place is unlikely to be a bully or a “hater”? I find it supremely annoying when I find myself in a position of having to sit through a lecture, knowing the target audience is either not physically present or willfully ignoring the directives. 

    I tried to watch Glee, and my left-dar went off immediately. 

    • #28
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:45 am
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  29. Podcaster

    There are small victories. Take Gary Sinise’s office on CSI:NY…

    CSI-NY.jpg

    • #29
    • June 1, 2012 at 7:51 am
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  30. Inactive

    Oooh, what a great topic.

    I think memorable art only succeeds when it finds truth, as corny as it sounds.

    Any writer, director, painter, etc. who starts from the premise of his/her ideology first — will fail. And they deserve to.

    Overtly “conservative” works fail as badly as overtly “progressive” works in the long term, because ideology is front and center, and the story is presented as background noise to support the premise. 

    People want to be entertained, not hit over the head. But if they’re closing the last page of a book or walking out of the theater and thinking of the deeper issues beyond the story that entertained them, the creators have succeeded and the audience (or readership) is satisfied.

    It’s about the consumer, not the artist. That fact alone is deeply conservative.

    • #30
    • June 1, 2012 at 8:26 am
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