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Salvo 06.11.2024 10 minutes

A Matter of Taste

Man wearing Bowler hat in gallery

Conservatives must snub political kitsch for aesthetic greatness.

For as long as I’ve been alive and longer, the Right has had a culture problem. I can’t remember a time when conservative journals didn’t occasionally publish essays urging movement stalwarts to divert just a bit of their focus away from policy activism and toward stylish artistic ventures. But it seems like this is always a losing battle. Occasionally a top-tier show or movie like John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place will flash a couple tantalizing moments of family prayer across the screen. Then the members of a huge, beleaguered, and chronically underserved audience demographic—normal people—jump up eagerly like broken-spirited abuse victims in hopes that “the tide is turning.” It is not.

The gentle haze of default social progressivism continues wafting unbroken in the background of most big-ticket pop art. For every Chris Pratt sermon at the MTV awards, ten more nature documentaries about gay flamingoes are greenlit. There are various reasons why the silent majority continues to sit and take this in its charmingly but unproductively silent way.

For one thing, there’s a general skittishness among donors about funding inherently unruly ventures like art: conservative investors recoil, writes Michael Anton, from “spending money in ways and on things that everyone else hasn’t been funding for the last fifty years.” And there’s of course an entire network of industrial-strength machinery grinding in exactly the opposite direction—well-established backers and iconic studio brands pumping out one Star Wars girlboss after another cartoon about climate change. Derivative though these products may be, you’re not going to compete with them.

But that raises an uncomfortable question: why not? Why do skilled artists keep making, and the general public keep consuming, works of culture both high and low that communicate a bottomless contempt for the religious practices, national ideals, and sexual mores that built the country? The highest-grossing movie in America last year culminated in a dog’s breakfast of warmed-over, second-wave feminist sloganeering that would have sounded tired coming from the mouth of Gloria Steinem in 1968. The woman who wrote it will now be directing The Chronicles of Narnia for Netflix.

We scoff at this stuff, but someone’s buying tickets. And though politically motivated financial interests are certainly tipping the scales, it would be pure cope to imagine that even George Soros himself could funnel 24/7 agitprop into the eyes and ears of completely unwilling audiences if it genuinely had no artistic appeal of any kind. There must be reasons, besides cunning Gramsci-esque counter-maneuvering, why efforts to launch a conservative artistic movement so often droop their way unto death. There must be reasons why right-wing “alternatives” to mainstream culture still often feel like consolation prizes. I can’t help but suspect that what we have here is a problem of taste.

#BeBetter

This is a delicate subject. De gustibus non est disputandum is a principle as old as the hills, and though it’s well translated as “there’s no accounting for taste,” it also carries the hint that “there’s no arguing about taste.” The implication is less that there’s no such thing as right or wrong in matters of taste, and more that trying to prove yourself right and the other guy wrong is unlikely to get you far or make you many friends. “To each his yum, and let no man yuck it” would be a decent modern update, striking an appropriately defensive note.

And God knows conservatives of every persuasion have suffered more than enough abusive caricature for their supposedly boorish, unrefined sensibilities. You don’t have to subject yourself to NPR to experience this snobbery: the call is also coming from inside the house. Just mill about Dimes Square, if that reference isn’t already hopelessly outré, and note the exasperation with which the dandies of the “dissident Right” describe their fellow travelers from the Shire. Meanwhile, those beloved of the reigning uniculture get away with all manner of crimes against fashion. Just look, I implore you, at what they’ve done to the gay flag.

Still, the fact remains that 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. When Director Yorgos Lanthimos envisioned nineteenth-century Parisian brothels as sites of visionary Marxist liberation, he did it with his distinctively offbeat and weirdly riveting panache. These are professionals, and you have to hand it to them: they know what they’re doing.

Maybe it’s true that “the Left can’t meme,” if “the Left” refers to the earnest suburban revolutionary with an undercut and a nose ring who typically stalks your replies on X. But Shandra at Bowdoin doesn’t have to be coy, elegant, funny, or slick. She has an entire infrastructure to do that for her, filled with genuinely talented weirdos and urbane critics who know how to enjoy art on its own terms.

If you don’t believe me, listen to The Slate Culture Gabfest, a weekly commentary on pop novelties both famous and obscure. The hosts reliably make two or three deranged political remarks per episode. But these are always interspersed amid a stream of witty, glib, and occasionally incisive banter about what makes Taylor Swift’s new album or the latest Cannes sensation a successful aesthetic object. This show is just about the only thing in my life that I can sincerely characterize as a guilty pleasure. I listen every week because—and really it does pain me to say this—there is almost nothing like this on the Right.

Anton writes that “a line will have to be walked between Christian Rock-like cringe and all-out genuflection before current year pieties.” Quite. But getting there will involve facing up to the fact that many donors and, more troublesomely, a sizable number of conservative viewers absolutely love Christian Rock-like cringe. God’s Not Dead, a ham-fisted travesty of a film, grossed more than 62 million dollars on a two-million-dollar budget.

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. And just because leftoids make tripe from their position of strength is no reason for trads to make schlock from their position of weakness.

It would be needlessly cruel to multiply examples. But all conservatives in the arts know that a major sector of the audience they’re trying to reach will go in for the most appalling kitsch if it’s slathered in red, white, and blue. Without disdaining them for this, it’s important we be honest that they are wrong about the quality of such products as Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” or Natasha Owens’s “The Chosen One.” Wrong not in a moral or spiritual sense, perhaps, but in the sense that aesthetic quality is not arbitrary, and not everyone’s judgment is as good as everyone else’s.

We have to be able to admit this and talk about it—because it’s true, because denying it creates perverse incentives, and because no really healthy artistic culture can flourish without a discerning public or a patronage class with taste. 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.

You also need to stop pretending you don’t recognize the talents of your adversaries. Many earnest consumers on the Right feel so legitimately embattled by the nonstop streaming feed of hate speech and psyoppery directed at them that they think they have no choice but to reconfigure their artistic sensibilities accordingly. This prompts them to lash out in anger at, say, Taylor Swift by pretending her popularity is somehow inexplicable or unmerited. I sympathize with this impulse, but it’s a mistake.

Yes, it’s exasperating that the most beloved pop star in America is also an abortion-loving ditz. But that doesn’t make conservative attempts to rival her or dispute her appeal any less cringe than those Longhousers swaying awkwardly to their pro-democracy rewrite of “Auslander raus.” Some songs are catchy whether you agree with their creators or not. Some songs are garbage even though you like the people who wrote them. They say it don’t be like that, but it do.

Tobacco and Sugar

We like to substitute political allegiance for taste because, I suspect, we don’t really know how to invoke the latter, and we’re afraid of looking foolish if we try. So we focus instead on things we’re more comfortable measuring, such as how many times Game of Thrones showed boobs (it was a lot, I am told, and that is bad). As for artistic taste, we take the chattering classes at their word that it’s just a synonym for “personal preference.”

But “to each his own” is not really a very conservative principle. It’s the post-modernists who use the variety of human interests as license to infer that no one can possibly judge between Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas” and Cardi B’s “Bongos.” More traditionally-minded folks know, or ought to know, that beauty is a thing that exists, like light, and that we have faculties for perceiving both. As the eyes see brightness, so taste registers excellence in matters literary, musical, and figurative.

Conservatives are in friendly territory here, though it may not feel that way. The best starter pack for thinking about taste is an essay by none other than Edmund Burke, who makes a useful distinction between learning to see distinctly what something is (a faculty of perception) and evaluating whether it’s any good at being that thing (a faculty of judgment). It’s important that they go in that order. Before you even think about judgment you have to perceive what an artist is doing or trying to do—then you can decide whether he succeeds at doing it and, for that matter, whether it’s a good thing to do in the first place.

“A man frequently comes to prefer the Taste of tobacco to that of sugar,” writes Burke, “but this makes no confusion in Tastes, whilst he is sensible that the tobacco and vinegar are not sweet.” You can say of a corkscrew that it doesn’t open wine bottles very well, or that nobody ought to drink wine, but if you say it fails to open soda cans people will think you’ve misunderstood the assignment.

Likewise, before you can effectively attack Poor Things or Game of Thrones or Ripley from a political standpoint, you have to understand what they’re trying to do from an artistic standpoint. Conservatives like to skip the perception part and go straight to the political judgment part, which tends to make both our culture and our criticism dull.

There is one area, though, where the Right exhibits pretty good taste, and that’s online. It’s well known at this point that the world of young dissidents is a carnival of memery, renegade publishing, and tech-enabled artistic experimentation. Like most artists, the impish Bohemians of what was once called the New Right are more instinctively creative than they are philosophically rigorous. Some of them have ventured into intellectual territory that is genuinely sinister or simply fruitless. This has caused some justified concern among elder statesmen, who have seen bad ideas come and go and know a dead end when they see one.

But the meeting between established conservative worthies and chic young guns has also been hampered by an unwillingness on the worthies’ part to let artists be artists. 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.

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.

It has felt for a while as if everyone I meet has a screenplay, or an idea for a new media organization, or a novel they want to get published. Many of these ventures are perfectly worth pursuing; many of them are run by friends of mine and have achieved considerable success. But I’m not sure that more of them is what’s most desperately needed on the Right.

Instead, the Right awaits its Cardinal Borghese: someone who not only wants to fill his villa with sculptures, but knows how to pick a real corker. You don’t get a Bernini without a Borghese, and you don’t get a Borghese without a society that trains its best and brightest to tell good art from bad. Our universities sure won’t do it, so we’ll have to do it ourselves—in families, in local associations, and in those schools we staff with our best scholars. Some of us need to be making art, that’s true. But far more of us need to be learning how to appreciate art, both for its own sake and because it will make us more effective operators in the media world. You can’t spell counter-culture without culture.

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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