Feature 06.18.2024 15 minutes

Tastemakers Wanted—Badly

2nd Annual Rebel With A Cause Gala

The Left’s war on culture is a historic opportunity for the Right.

I read with interest the great Spencer Klavan’s recent essay on the culture and art coming out of the Right—or a lack thereof.

I’ve written about these themes before, as some of you know. But Mr. Klavan was bold enough to say the absolute truth in his essay—the thing we all think but are afraid to speak about publicly. And that is: despite the grandiose budgets, mainstream fame, and big financial successes of some conservative creative efforts, there is still little in the way of “art,” that is, something that transcends. (In the case of a piece of popular art, I would define this as something that could be considered a “classic.”)

These are questions I discuss every day with my fellow arts-minded friends. Spencer’s thesis is that this dearth of art on our side is the result of a lack of “taste.” Before you get upset at him and point to your tasteful tie collection and tasteful bookshelf filled with the great books of the Western canon and your tasteful reproduction of the Frederic Remington “Bronco Buster” sculpture on your mantle, what he means is a specific kind of “taste.” This is the taste that ruled American culture from circa 1939 to fairly recently.

Our modern tastemakers are, as Klavan ruefully reminds us, 100 percent liberal progressives:

When they need to, our progressive tastemakers know how to turn a phrase, cut a dash, and compose a hook. If the political messaging in Barbie was gormless, the marketing and the optics were perfectly designed to trend. These are professionals, and you have to hand it to them: they know what they’re doing.

We talked a lot of smack about Barbie. Guilty!

But none of us could have come close to pulling it off.

A Man With Good Taste Is Hard to Find

My favorite classical music composer is Antonio Vivaldi. I am basically a philistine when it comes to classical music, but when I was maybe 11 or 12 I saw the movie A Little Romance on TV. It’s a sweet story about an American girl (a very young Diane Lane) who falls in love with a young French boy, and they run away to kiss under a bridge in Venice.

The reason it stuck with me is the evocative theme song, a Vivaldi number with a catchy title that rolls right off the tongue: “Lute Concerto in D Major RV 93.” The movie’s director, George Roy Hill, happened to study classical music at Yale. His selection of this short piece of Vivaldi transformed a seventies-era kids movie into a tear-jerker that seared itself into my psyche. It’s my favorite use of classical music in any film, old or new (sorry, Die Hard people).

This magic trick required a guy with really good taste who somehow knew of this little piece of chamber music and was certain it would elevate and transform his movie. Can anyone do this now? And does this even matter when you can just hire Ice Spice to twerk over your opening credits?

Like porn, what makes something “good” is hard to describe, but if you have taste you know it when you hear it or see it.

Now a word about the type of “art” I’m talking about: taste does not just apply to fine art and high literary works. We will not see the likes of Mozart or Michelangelo or Milton again, and that’s okay! The classics are classics for a reason, and we are not required to copy them forever and ever, ad nauseam. I don’t crave simulacra of the past, and I say this as someone whose happiest places are next to the cold stones of a Gothic cathedral or on the second floor of the Musée d’Orsay.

(And also watching Tootsie for the five-millionth time. I am a woman of my time, and I make no apologies, okay?)

It is “good taste” that also birthed the great middle-brow “pop” culture that defined America of the twentieth century: The New Yorker, the art on display in MoMA, jazz, pop music, Broadway, Sotheby’s, Tom Wolfe, Scribner, Random House, Paramount, Warner Bros., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Neil Simon, and the great television of that era.

But just “good taste” did not produce all of this! Instead, it was the handful of visionaries who had this impeccable taste. They deserve all the credit.

Taste—the ability to sift wheat from chaff, to pluck a bestselling manuscript from the slush pile or a future star from a stack of glossy headshots—cannot be learned or taught. It is precious and rare; sometimes accidental. And because we are not all born with the curator’s eye, the collector’s instinct, the record producer’s ear, or the editor’s deft touch, we must rely on those who are.

We have always relied on these types to show us the way: to make some good movies, put some good books on the shelves, produce a song that could make ten million teenagers scream and a play that can bring an audience of sophisticated, well-heeled adults to tears.

As Spencer writes, “You may say that plenty of leftist films are also ham-fisted travesties, and plenty of conservative ones are not. Perfectly true. But on balance, it’s right-wingers who exhibit a widespread and persistent inability to tell the difference.”

Harsh but fair!

You may not love everything in MoMA or performed on stage at the Winter Garden in the golden age of Broadway, but very specific individuals—tastemakers—curated them and, for better or worse, this is the art that was widely accepted as “good” by several generations. We know these tastemakers’ names! For comedians, there was Johnny Carson. There is no Jackson Pollock without Peggy Guggenheim, who was his rich patron, a middle-aged groupie who was not afraid to turn her pet artists into superstars. There is no Tom Wolfe (well, maybe in his case there is) without his visionary Herald editor Byron Dobell, who decided to publish Wolfe’s letter explaining why he couldn’t write a story as the story itself. That piece—“That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”—catapulted him to fame.

The cultural power of the arbiters of this era cannot be overstated. Tina Brown, Graydon Carter, and Harvey Weinstein were arguably the most important tastemakers of the eighties and nineties. Think of the “you made it” imprimatur of the Annie Leibovitz portrait. Anna Wintour’s dominance has faded, but she at one point was the sole gatekeeper for all of American fashion. If she was not impressed, you were back to being a seamstress. If you wanted to be a famous actor, you needed a nod from superagents Mike Ovitz or Sue Mengers.

And if you managed to charm or impress (or in Harvey’s case, fluff) one of the tastemakers, you had it made in the shade.

It was a rigid system, and for the most part, it worked. American cultural output was dominant. Not everything was good, but a lot of it was, and some of it was great. Enough of it was at least, and only the worst effete snob would deny this.

New Intermediaries Wanted

Why are there so few “right-wing” culture impresarios, fine arts institutions, grant organizations, television production companies, talent agencies, gallerists, publishing entities, and movie studios? There are a few springing up of course, but not many. Is it because we have only recently woken up to the fact that these entities were taken over by our enemies and haven’t yet had time to regroup?

Or is it because on the Right there is the deep-seated belief that we no longer need these things, thanks to the internet? After all, there are creators of all kinds thriving with just an iPhone and a YouTube channel! You can just self-publish! You can just shoot your friend’s movie on your Apple Watch! You can sell your art on Instagram! Who needs the dumb tastemakers or the rich patrons? “Make your movie with AI, you don’t need actors! ChatGPT can write scripts now!”

This is the argument some really smart people make when creatives complain about not having any right-wing arts patrons or institutions willing to back them. And yes, it’s true—the internet has flattened things out. Yes, it is easier for talented people to “get noticed.” But by whom? Are they getting noticed by people with the ability to make them hugely successful, or at least able to pay their rent without selling feet pix on OnlyFans? Are agents and directors scrolling right-wing X and Instagram to find their next screenwriter?

In short, no.

We are nearly half the country, yet when it’s time to “make art” or “be creative,” audiences on the Right are almost always served meager bowls of thin gruel: middling Christian movies, heavy-handed sentimental dramas, overtly political screeds, or broad comedy that tends to fall flat. Everywhere, in every medium, we are outgunned, outproduced, outbudgeted, outwritten, and out-arted at every turn.

This is not a new problem! You think creatives had it easy in the old days? Robert Evans, for you unwashed philistines who don’t know, was the iconic movie producer behind The Godfather and a hundred other influential movies of the sixties and seventies. He was a hustler, a risk-taker, and a creative visionary, but also somehow a savvy businessman. He understood literature, stories, and crucially what audiences wanted, even if they didn’t know it yet. He could match an actor to a role, and a screenwriter to a book. He would champion a project and break down the doors of the money men to get it made. It was always a battle. He was the visionary who acted as the crucial intermediary between the talent and the money.

We have lost these intermediaries: men and women with taste and panache and a glint in their eye. Now, talent is forced to beg for help directly from the money men. And therein lies the problem. As Spencer Klavan noted, the guys with the bags are really great at money, and God bless them for their talents! But these financial wizards (wisely!) look askance at a wild-eyed writer on too-little sleep and too many tweets who is pitching them some harebrained idea for a movie that will cost them ten million dollars (cheap!). The money guys don’t have time to read your script or your 120,000-word novel. They don’t want to spend time thinking about things that don’t involve Nvidia or Nasdaq.

The world of the artist is often rough around the edges, maybe a little threatening, even strange, to the outsider. But it is the primordial soup you need. The tastemaker is the great translator of mysterious creative intent to the buttoned-up potential buyer.

Without the tastemaker, the artist and buyer are left to stare suspiciously at each other from across a conference table.

Robert Evans had to wage the same battle we are waging now: the people with the taste don’t have the checkbooks, and the people with the checkbooks (in his case, Charlie Bludhorn, the stubborn Austrian auto parts industrialist who bought Paramount Studios) don’t have the taste—or they probably do actually, but they crucially do not have any taste for risk.

Evans was constantly getting raked over hot coals by Bludhorn, fired and rehired, threatened with bodily harm if a movie flopped. But he didn’t care—he was a true believer in the projects he loved and that was, more often than not, enough.

It helped that Evans himself was an elegant, tasteful, and impeccably dressed and tanned personage. A cokehead and a womanizer, yes, but hey, nobody’s perfect!

And this is where the intermediaries come in. These creative visionaries, usually former actors or writers or artists or editors themselves (Evans was an actor in his youth), are the ones who through sheer force of their TASTE can get the money man to unclench his fist and sign a check.

It’s that simple. We do not lack for talent. We do not lack for money men. Many of our people have done great, and we love them for it. We adore them for it! We simply lack enough tastemakers who can act as intermediaries.

A Call to Action

But Peachy, many people will ask me, what about all these nice friendly conservative media companies? Why don’t you just pitch them your ideas for content that can take back the culture?

Well, as a matter of fact, I have! Many funny and talented people have pitched them lots of ideas, but so far very little (if any) content from outside is getting made at these places. And that is their prerogative and right. They are allowed to do what they like, and pounding at the gates is not going to get anyone anywhere.

Plus, the media companies on our side do massive amounts of good. They serve a crucial purpose and produce lots of good writing and hours of good TV. They have the budget to offer a large platform to many effective and smart people. Maybe that is enough for us to demand of them.

“No really healthy artistic culture can flourish without a discerning public or a patronage class with taste,” Klavan writes. “If you want donors to fund enterprises that will create, publicize, and reward achievement in the arts, you need people who know what that is.”

Recollections may vary on whether Lady Ballers or Normal World or The Sound of Freedom are the products of people who know what that is. Some of the hits on the Right have made a ton of money, yes. That is a good sign! The audience is hungry. They are starving. It’s time to give them a proper meal.

And if you are waiting for existing media companies to take back “art” or “culture” or “entertainment” in any meaningful sense, you will grow very old waiting.

Which is why some of us are done whining and done waiting for a rich donor or a phone call from Jeremy Boreing. We are going it alone. “F—k it, I’m building it anyway,” Max Fischer announces in Rushmore. Yes. Exactly.

Anyways, in the near future, I would like to see right-wing creators aim for the real prize: stories that are so delightful that they are able to melt away political divides. I enjoyed Barbie in spite of its tedious moments of feminist screeching and misandry. Would a liberal ever be able to enjoy, say, my version of Based Ken in spite of some light jokes at their expense?

Klavan then poses a question I often ponder:

Why there is not already a Peachy Keenan sitcom in production, for instance, is beyond me, but I suspect it’s once again a matter of taste. We want Conservative Art,™ not art by conservatives. We want morality tales in recognizable and safe formats that lead us to exactly the conclusions we already held. And no swearing, please.

Chad-yes-dot-gif. Spencer, deep in his artist’s soul, understands that creative projects cannot conform to the same “conservative” standards we would apply to, say, a pastor or a kindergarten teacher or the headmaster of a classical Catholic school.

Art just doesn’t work like that. If we’re serious about a revival, we are going to have to accept the inherent risk and unpredictability that comes from letting artists see the world before they judge it. In turn, we are going to have to learn to suspend our own judgment long enough to see what the artists bring us for what it is. In other words, we will have to cultivate a little taste.

Or at least, identify and trust a handful of visionary intermediaries to do it for us.

A New Hope

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be giving liberals a tongue bath for their storied cultural legacy—but they earned it. Credit where credit is due!

But now, hilariously, the joke’s on them. Get your popcorn popped and buckle up, because as I write this, the towering creatives of the twentieth century are being forced to watch helplessly as their protégés tear down everything they built.

Things are shifting rapidly out there in Culture World. Ivy League nonbinary diversity hires are, right now, on all fours, gnawing at the rickety pylons holding up the arts and culture edifice their Boomer betters built. What must George Lucas be thinking tonight about what just happened in the brand-new Star Wars spinoff series, The Acolyte, which is apparently about a bunch of black lesbian Jedis? In the third episode, the show summarily and without mercy dismantled and dismembered the entire story canon of the original series—delivering the final coup de grace to George’s life’s work.

And don’t look now but over at Netflix the insufferable but ingenious director Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Barbie triumph, is sharpening her knives and preparing to disembowel The Chronicles of Narnia. C.S. Lewis fans, you have been warned! As a bonus, the ravenous culture cannibals at Amazon will haul out Tolkien’s mauled carcass one more time next year for another go at the Rings of (Girl) Power.

The wags on the culture podcast Friday Night Tights made me spit my coffee out last year when one of them referred to the new racially diverse elves on the show as “Look who’s coming to second breakfast.”

Ho ho, apparently the Right is not the only side with a lack of taste, Mr. Klavan!

Herein lies our great opportunity. Liberal progressive fanaticism has done more damage to the curatorial eye of the elite tastemakers than a thousand Daily Wire screeds could ever hope to do. And I say that as a huge fan of Daily Wire screeds!

Witness how the Left has already ruined the entire genre of commissioned public statuary with their wanton tastelessness, which I wrote about for Substack last year.

But to me their worst crime by far is the willful, inexplicable desecration of the historic fountainhead from which all our classic comedies flowed: the television writers’ room. This is usually a nondescript conference room on a studio backlot where every episode of sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Roseanne, Cheers, and Frasier was written. Ninety-five percent of these TV comedy writers used to be men. At least half went to Harvard and wrote for the Lampoon, and, of course, many were Jewish.

If you were a Jewish guy at the Ivy League and you didn’t want to go to law school or become a banker, you moved to Hollywood to write sitcoms. This is a pilgrimage that no longer exists, as the TV writers’ room has been “diversified” and the funniest guys at Harvard are now unhireable “straight white males.”

This is the reason nearly every new TV show is stuffed with woke virtue signaling, political preaching, and truly unrepresentative levels of diversity.

But just imagine if there was an independent media company that could operate without these rules. One that could develop stories not constrained by DEI checklists or ESG guidelines. That relied on true tastemakers to surface the best stories and creators. And that had the backing of real money—because this is a winning business model that will mint money for its backers.

This is what I’m betting on, anyway. I launched an independent creative development company this year to fill this gaping hole in our blasted arts and culture landscape. So far me and a few other writers are developing a dystopian YA sci-fi adventure series (logline: “John Hughes in space”), a modern-day high school Romeo and Juliet, and a couple four-quadrant family comedies, to name a few projects. We’re not producing stuff, at least not yet: we’re developing the kinds of high-impact, much-needed stories we want to see and for the visionaries and the risk-takers to make.

I am also betting big that in the next few years Hollywood will start spinning off “conservative” imprints, just like the major publishing houses have, to escape their woke handcuffs.

Are projects like these “fine art”? Maybe not. But are they “culture”? Yes! Anyway, we have to start somewhere. As Teddy Roosevelt Jr. famously said on D-Day, “We’ll start the war from right here.”

(And hey, if you are a money man, my DMs are open!)

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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