This article is in response to “Want Truth? Work for Beauty” and is part of the symposium on What’s Wrong with Conservatism and How Do We Make It Right?
Gerald Russello is completely correct in saying that our country needs a strong dose of cultural loveliness. I’m sure many nonconservatives would agree. Art and Beauty know no political bounds. Keep in mind that it was mostly millennials who took to Twitter to express their outrage over Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs.
The trick, I think, is harnessing some of that outrage toward a healthier, more humane cultural expression. Conservatives can participate in this project so long as we avoid being heavy-handed. People mock the Atlas Shrugged movie trailers as over-the-top and ideological, whereas I think they’re generally open to Peter Lawler’s argument about the secret moralism of HBO’s Girls because he engages rather than preaches. People don’t want propaganda; they want entertainment.
Paul Cantor, an English professor at UVa., argues that we should stop clinging to the Romantic notion of the sole artistic “genius” and appreciate popular culture as a collaborative process, such as when a team of writers produces a television show. In his essay “Popular Culture and Spontaneous Order,” Cantor attempts to apply Austrian economists’ belief in human feedback mechanisms to the way in which culture is spontaneously produced. A belief in the secluded artist is like trust in a “central planner,” whereas a trust in human collaboration can produce masterpieces, from Ezra Pound’s editing of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland to The Sopranos series.
I think there’s a lot for conservatives, especially more communitarian-minded conservatives, to like about Cantor’s argument. But participating in cultural feedback mechanism means we have to actually offer the culture some feedback. Retreating in disgust is not an option.