Religious Conservatives vs. The Arts

A writer who presumes to champion “good” literature or “good” art but begins his essay with a supporting quotation from James Joyce is not someone I can regard seriously as a champion of anything. If any writer has helped to contribute to the destruction of literature, and, incidentally, of the other arts, it was James Joyce. See these descriptions of his Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Joyce’s intellectual mentor was Immanuel Kant, a philosopher who strived to save religion from the Enlightenment. To wit:

“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”  James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916

Whatever that means. I think it means that experience is “everything.” But “experience” tells us nothing about what causes an experience.

Novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan doesn’t enlighten us about what causes experiences in his February 7th FrontPage article, “The Trouble with the Arts,” which is an excerpt from his pamphlet, “Crisis in the Arts: Why the Left owns the Culture and How Conservatives Can Begin to Take It Back.” Klavan has assumed the role of the conservatives’ doyen in shining armor to battle the artistic and political dragons of the Left. He has a war plan.

Klavan marshals two other supporting quotations, one from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”), and one from the late conservative publicizer Andrew Breitbart (“Politics is downstream of culture”).

Breitbart actually had the right thing in mind. He would seem to agree with novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand who wrote that politics would be the last thing to change in any nation’s cultural renaissance. For a politics to change, a change in a nation’s philosophy must occur first. America had a good start, with the ideas that caused a revolution. But those ideas were implicit and not explicit enough. The American Revolution was a consequence of men’s revolt against secular and religious tyranny. But a nation can’t sustain itself indefinitely on undefined ideas. The Founders were political philosophers, but for a nation’s political philosophy to endure, it must be complemented and preceded by a specific view of man and existence. And that can be illustrated in art.

If its implicit philosophy is that man and reality are malleable and can be made to conform to a tyrant’s or bureaucrat’s wishes – a philosophy which governs the policies of the current occupant of the White House, one which actually began to be implemented long ago in the 19th century, we’re only just now seeing its consequences and logical end – then whoever in the future occupies the White House must be raised in a culture whose philosophy is that man is a being of volitional consciousness and that reality is not an ephemeral, subjective figment of his imagination, but a rock-solid absolute that can’t be evaded without incurring dire, life-threatening consequences.

The adage goes that you can’t cheat an honest man. He can only sue for damages or a refund or laugh at the man who thinks he has cheated him. Reality, however, can’t be cheated, either, and its retaliatory options are far more costly. Look at our society, our nation, today. “Reality,” says Cyrus Skeen of the stock market crash of 1929 in The Black Stone, “has called in its markers.”

I will argue that quoting Joyce, a Catholic who regarded man as a Freudian monster governed by his bowel movements and as a beast unable to escape his inherent wickedness, insignificance, and corruption, was the correct choice for Klavan to quote. Klavan himself is a Christian convert and his article is rife with allusions and assertions that man must struggle against his alleged evil nature. He subscribes to the notion of Original Sin. Much of his fiction oeuvre is Christian in nature. It is of the “Left Behind” genre.

I would be amused by Klavan’s presumptions if they didn’t reflect on the real crisis, which, according to Klavan, is that if there is going to be a regeneration of America values and culture, it will be based on patriotism, family, and religion. But patriotism isn’t enough to revive a love of country that clashes with what it is today. Patriotism is an emotion. Family and religion are not fundamental philosophies on which to ignite a renaissance. They are banal and so shop-worn that one can see right through them. “Family” is not a philosophic unit. Religion is merely a primitive form of philosophy that attempts to explain man and existence. Reviving it isn’t going to solve any crisis in art. It didn’t in the past, and won’t in the future. Solving the energy “crisis” is not reinventing the horse or learning how to make candles.

Regarding a definition of art, Klavan first quotes Leo Tolstoy:

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”  Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?

He then builds on that role of “experience” and on Joyce’s own rambling grunts about art:

Art is a method of recording the ineffable inner experience of being human.  There are no words that can directly describe what it is like to be self-consciously alive….

So the purpose of art is not to edify or instruct, though it can instruct and often does edify.  The purpose of art is not even to delight, though, if it’s art, it will delight because that’s its nature, that’s the way it works.  The purpose of art is to record and transmit the internal human experience.

Whose ineffable “internal human experience”? Klavan’s? Yours? Your next-door neighbor’s? Or is there a boilerplate, one-size-fits-all “human experience”? Klavan makes no distinction between the experiences of a Charles Manson and a Cyrano de Bergerac.

By way of contrast, here’s a philosophical definition of art, together with a statement of its purpose, courtesy of Ayn Rand:

Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.*

If your life depended on knowing the definition of art, whose definition would you count on? Rand’s precise reduction of the term to its essentials, or Klavan’s woozy flailing about in his gloppish “experiences” in the company of Tolstoy and Joyce in search of the “meaning of life”?

It’s the difference between using a Colt Magnum .45 on a target and throwing pebbles at it.

What is a metaphysical value judgment? Is existence is to be valued, or feared? Is life is to be lived as an individual, or as a nameless, helpless cog in a collective? Does one live for oneself, or for the state, the collective, for the group? How men look at existence ultimately will determine what political system they choose to live under, or endure, or tolerate.

The secular version of Original Sin is that man is but a pitiful piece of protoplasm that ought to be controlled and regulated for the good of the greater protoplasm, and even extinguished, if necessary, if he gets too big for his state-mandated britches.  Existence is a burden, say the secularist elites, and the state’s purpose is to ameliorate the conditions of life by banishing its attributes and suppressing men who attempt to make living for anything but the state and the collective evil and punishable. The religious version of Original Sin is that individuals are born evil or contemptible or guilty of a wrong committed before they were even conceived.

Klavan has a foot in both versions.

If the purpose of culture is to record and convey the internal human experience in its entirety, it is going to record and convey a good many things of which we disapprove.  There is simply no getting around the wickedness, corruption, greed, lust and sheer troublemaking goofiness lodged in the hearts of the best of us — and therefore, there is no getting around their entertainment value or their legitimacy as subjects for art….

But while good and evil are real, the human heart is not in harmony with them and never has been.  To paraphrase Saint Paul, we do not always do the good we want to do, and the evil we don’t want to do, we keep on doing.  Because we are fallen creatures then, there is, in human life, a price for every choice we make and a consequence for every action.

Klavan ironically chides some Christians for opposing what our culture has produced.

Some evangelical Christians made the mistake of attacking the delightful Harry Potter novels because Potter is a wizard and wizardry and magic are against Christian teaching.  But Potter’s wizardry existed in a completely fantastical world that did not play by the same rules as the real world.  In the context of that world, his fictional wizardry not only exemplified excellent moral values, it also laid the foundations for faith.  The novels are deeply Christian when judged, not by their individual incidents, but by their overall effect.  By condemning them, the evangelicals lost a hugely popular teaching tool.

One must wonder why evangelical Christians draw the line at Harry Potter’s wizardry and the wizardry integral to Christian faith, i.e., the loaves and fishes, water into wine, rising from the dead, and other miracles.

Klavan cites numerous instances of his likes and dislikes in contemporary culture and the arts. But one of his dislikes stands out as a clue to his “humane” notion of what constitutes “bad” art:

Conservatives are giddy with pleasure and relief when a popular novel or film doesn’t thoroughly trash capitalism or sexual morality or faith in God.  Meanwhile, the left wing writers of TV shows like Law and Order tear true stories from the headlines every single week and rewrite them to impose pro-left, anti-right values on their narratives.  To cite but one example of many:  in 2005, brain damaged Terri Schiavo was judicially starved to death at the request of her husband while evangelical Christian pro-life groups fought to save her.  That same year, Law and Order produced a fictional version of the case in which an evangelical Christian engineered the murder of a Schiavo-like character’s husband.

I can decide which is worse between a left-wing rewrite of the Terry Schiavo case that demonizes Christian evangelicals, and Klavan’s complaint which defends evangelical Christians who fought to save the life of an individual whose body is alive but whose capacity for thought, values, and independence were gone. The Law and Order episode was just another naturalistic, hackneyed screed created by mediocrities, and comes a literal dime-a-dozen on modern television. Would Klavan have wanted Terry Shiavo to remain alive? Would there have been such a person as Terry Shiavo inside the body? Or any person at all? Klavan doesn’t say. But his outrage over how the leftist writers portrayed the evangelical Christians should serve as a clue.

Then there is Klavan’s penchant for what could only be called “hard-boiled religious naturalism” and how the left-wing critical establishment treats it.

And, of course, when Mel Gibson’s beautiful The Passion of the Christ ignited a wave of faith-based excitement among evangelicals… well, what happened to Jesus in that movie was nothing compared to what left wing critics did to Mel!

Anyone who has seen Mel Gibson’s opus will concede that it is one of the most gruesome depictions of the Crucifixion every filmed, and unnecessarily gruesome even for a religious film. Yet, Klavan calls it “beautiful.”

Because Klavan eschews the role of philosophy, his campaign to combat the left-wing artistic establishment in Hollywood, the publishing industry, and the “social media,” his efforts will come to naught. It will not be “reclaimed” by conservatives in the current philosophical climate, not next year, not in twenty years.

The vision that inspired the American experiment in liberty was a vision created and preserved and handed down through works of western art and culture.  It was a complex vision of man as a flawed creature in a moral universe striving toward the freedom for which he was made…. Uncensored, that voice, intentionally or not, consciously or not, will always cry out for the very things conservatives most believe in:  personal independence and lasting love, a good life today and a better life tomorrow, faith in a God who is no stranger to our suffering and who will yet become the father of our joy.

Conservatives, however, are consummate altruists, and it is altruism that is responsible for the cultural miasma Klavan excoriates. Conservatism shares the same deadly premises of altruism with the statists, the socialists, and every tyranny that has ever existed.

On the other hand, Klavan would do well to heed Ayn Rand’s fundamental prescription for cultural renewal and “taking back” the country’s purpose and spirit:

As in the case of an individual, so in the case of a culture; disasters can be accomplished subconsciously, but a cure cannot. A cure in both cases requires conscious knowledge, i.e., a consciously grasped, explicit philosophy.

It is impossible to predict the time of a philosophical Renaissance. One can only define the road to follow, not its length. What is certain, however, is that every aspect of Western culture needs a new code of ethics – a rational ethics – as a precondition of rebirth. And, perhaps, no aspect needs it more desperately than the realm of art.

When reason and philosophy are reborn, literature will be the first phoenix to rise out of today’s ashes. And, armed with a code of rational values, aware of its own nature, confident of the supreme importance of its mission, Romanticism will have come of age.**

Some of the most magnificent art of the past had religious themes or themes derived from religion (e.g., Michelangelo’s heroic “David,” the somber “Pieta,” and the Sistine Chapel). The subject of that art was man himself, with religion serving as an excuse to portray him. Romanticism will have come of age when men no longer need an excuse to portray him as the heroic being he has been, is today, and can always be, sans supernatural excuses.

*”Art and Cognition,” (1971) p. 45. The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature. New York: Signet, 1971. Second Revised Edition, 1975.
**”What is Romanticism?” p. 122. Op. cit.  1969


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