Singing The Praises: The WSJ Review

One of my biggest beefs with my fellow conservatives when it comes to the arts is what I’ll call “sanctimonious disengagement.”

It sounds like this:  “I never go to the movies anymore!  There’s nothing good to see!”

Or:  “I haven’t watched TV since they canceled Leave it to Beaver.  It’s all trash.”

Or:  “I don’t need to read one of these horrible new novels when I can always turn to Shakespeare.”

You know who you are.

Three cheers.

I have the same problem with this attitude toward the arts I have with other forms of cynicism.  For example, “Anyone who would fight for his country is a dupe of government and its business interests.”  Or, “What difference does it make who wins the election?  They’re all a lot of thieves anyway.”  Or, “All religions are equally absurd.  What’s the difference?”

It’s not that there’s not some truth to the cynical approach.  There are elements of corruption and absurdity in all human endeavors and those are worthy of disdain and ridicule.  But it sure is easy–so easy as to be a bit suspicious–to dismiss every side of every argument as worthless.  Means you don’t have to take a stand or make a stand, never have to risk anything to hold your position, never have to push back or create something better than what’s on offer.  All you have to do is point your nose skyward and complain.

When it comes to the arts, the fact is there’s plenty of good stuff being done and if you turn your back on it, it will die without support.  Your mind will die too, or at least dry up and wrinkle in a warm bath of its own received opinions.  Sure, there’s always wisdom to be mined from, say, reading Shakespeare.   I still do.  But Shakespeare said that artists provide “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time” and in order to do that, they have to be of the time.  There’s a kind of emotional information only contemporary art can provide.

That’s why I want to sing the praises of the Wall Street Journal.  Possibly the only newspaper in America that is gaining in respect, readership and importance, the Journal this week began publishing a Saturday Review section.  This means–remarkably–that they are now giving more space and attention to books and the arts and ideas than they were before.  I’m not sure there’s another newspaper in the country that can make that claim, certainly not one as fine as the Journal.

The first issue of the Review included the  novelist Ann Patchett writing a fine, brief column on “The Primacy of Plot;” the always excellent “Masterpiece” column, this time with American art scholar John Wilmerding discussing Blue Hole, Little Miami River; and a riveting review of Gabriel Josipovici’s “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” by Eric Ormsby.  I especially enjoyed disagreeing with both Josipovici and Ormsby on this important subject.

As leftism loses its venomous grip on the culture after 40 years of dishonesty and failure, there is an opening for those of good will, those of faith, those steeped in the great American ideal of liberty to seize back the day.  I believe it can happen and I believe if it does, our country and the west may yet be saved and retake the leadership position the bastions of free people should have in the world.

But it will not happen if we desert the field to hide away in safe disdain.  It will not happen if we are too good for the struggle.  It will not happen if we don’t attack what’s rotten and dying away.

And it will not happen if we cannot praise.

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  • ari

    The Wall Street Journal, about a month ago, published an article on USA’s cable channel lineup. It talked about how it had a gatekeeper to keep out filth, despair and depravity. She kept in wit, style, respect, good characters, good dialogue. It quoted one of the screenwriters saying he was obliged to write strong dialogue, rather than rely on bedroom scenes. An actor said “We are looking up at New York, not down.” It was an amazing service of an article.

    I was so happy to read the article. I still need to thank the author. I recorded a couple of the shows mentioned, so that I could see if they lived up to their billing. I was able to watch a TV show with grownups, not cartoon characters, not documentaries, with my kids. They even had kids! as decent characters! It presented a world with strong dads, and kids being foolish and growing up, and bright lines between wrong and right, and a Christian character who wasn’t wishy-washy or preaching ( my son’s friend is a preacher’s kid- and the dad doesn’t preach- why should a TV writer?) ( He’s just a great dad) and kids being loyal friends, and nobody was perfect. And, I got to see actors I’d grown up with in cameos, where they looked smart and funny and good. It was like a good reunion. It had a hottie who was in love with her husband- she’s the first girl in a metallic bikini who wasn’t selling beer, that I’ve ever seen on TV.
    I went and told everybody I could think of, I sent video links- everything. It was like finding a fountain of lively water in a desert. I hope they know their strengths, and hold onto it. I know, silly as it sounds, that there are at least two churches where the people are telling each other- pssst, there’s a show with a strong dad! that’s a good thing. they had been abandoning tv b/c all the dads were fools. Who wants to look into a broken, crooked mirror after a hard day’s work? Nobody.

    Pop culture is exciting and fun when it’s celebrating what is right and good and true- including silly ADD detectives, and young men with wild impulses and loyal wives and strong dads and good weather and reverence for churches and so on and so on and so on.

  • Bob B

    Andrew, I just discovered you. Why have you been hiding? Your stuff is great.
    I want to add a link to your videos to my blogroll. I would also like to embed one occassionally. Any permission required?

    Bob Barker

  • Pingback: The Blast

  • Tom Barkwell

    There have been some great TV dramas made in the last decade. The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, and Breaking Bad are my all time favorites.

    And there is a lot of fantastic new music out there too, though little of it gets played on any commercial radio stations (most of which is unlistenable). College and public radio stations (easily located via internet) are your best bet for identifying new music to suit your taste.

    Hollywood churns out mostly lousy to mediocre films, each thirty to forty-five minutes too long. But there are some good independent films being made. For example, Winter’s Bone (reviewed by Andrew Klavan I believe) was well-worth seeing.

    Americans will always make the best art (in my completely unbiased opinion). Just don’t look for it only in obvious places. In my experience, NYT bestsellers are usually not that good. Nor are the top ten at the box office (some exceptions, of course). But in the age of the internet, it’s easier than ever before to find alternative sources of information and keen critical analysis.

    Any talented kid with a computer, camera, or a guitar can reach out to the world now in ways generations past could only dream about. This is a great time to be a consumer or creator of art.

  • K

    Twice burned, thrice shy.

    Every once in a while, I turn on commercial television and find the cultural underpinnings are still uniformly nihilistic, dark and aggressively anti-Christian. And that’s the Disney channel.

    Then I turn off the cable and go back to watching my DVD collection.

  • Joe Doakes

    I read the Wall Street Journal everyday. That is why I know so much about current events. I have to tell you, I use to read the New York Times too, I gave it up because it’s consistent editorializing of news stories. As a citizen I want facts on one side and opinion on the other, the WSJ, accomplishes this mission. I hope that they hold to that standard in perpetuity. One day textbooks, newspapers, and email will be on that poorly named communist chinese constructed, device the IPAD – Don’t those people watch MadTV? Youtube it. Until that day, it is the WSJ in print for me.

  • Mazzuchelli

    What Joe said minus the NYT bit. Never read it, never will. The Wall Street Journal is the paper of record. Even the small amounts of arts coverage during the week includes very thoughtful use of limited print space. My Kindle is overflowing with books reviewed on WSJ. WSJ contributors discover such rarified moments as pottery accompanying opera in Omaha. How they make it happen is unclear but the content is consistent so it’s not an accident. I maintain a print and internet subscription so the wisdom can be shared easily and frequently.

  • Glen

    Thank you, Andrew, for the perfect argument for the conservative to keep loving the arts in spite of himself. There is so much out there we must dig through the jungle to find the treasure, but we must continue.

  • Jettboy

    I’ll love the arts more when there is art worth loving (especially the Movies and broadcast television, cable has some decent shows here and there). Until then I think your quotes are perfectly acceptable:

    “I never go to the movies anymore! There’s nothing good to see!”

    Or: “I haven’t watched TV since they canceled Leave it to Beaver. It’s all trash.”

    Or: “I don’t need to read one of these horrible new novels when I can always turn to Shakespeare.”

    There is an old saying that I agree with. You don’t dig in the trash in hopes of finding a fresh banana. It might be there, but you get dirty and stinky trying.

  • Susan Vigilante

    The simple fact is this: if you cant’ engage the culture, if you really can’t share the culture to the point where you have to turn it off, then you will never affect the culture. You cannot change what you despise.
    Thanks for this piece!

  • ari

    Well, also, I think it’s easier as a Christian to speak well of others- you aren’t the center of the universe, you don’t have the only book in creation. I rely on other authors to find books they like, and sing of them. I rely on the librarian, to find funny books. The one who looks for stuff looks for things for my son- they are in sync. I look to costco, because their book buyer has a strong sieve, and likes really good books. I don’t wander aimlessly at Barnes and Noble, b/c the last time I tried that, I got an “uplifting” book about a young man committing suicide. It was horrifying. Oh- that same trip- a “well-written” book about a woman chasing a happily married man to dire effects, and a book about a destructive religious family, where the destruction was from the religion, not the wretched humanity. I couldn’t have told any of that from the covers. It was horrifying, honestly.

    Also, I think pop culture wants the result of a sheltered, church-going family- a shiny, happy, cared- for, polished talent with a good work ethic- and then I think it wants to devour it. I think of Justin Timberlake- who grew up singing in church, or Brittany Spears- again- church-going, choir singing, or even Whitney Houston-a hymn-singer–lovely, disciplined, loved, healthy—devoured by………….

  • Frosty2

    Guilty as charged. I tend to, when I watch TV at all, look for something in black and white. The last book I bought has a 1945 copyright date. Don’t even let me start on contemporary movies although some of current PAW (post-apocalyptic world) films were interesting.
    OK Andrew, I’ll try to do better.

  • Airedalelover

    We too were delighted with the Sat. WSJ this week. Our plan is to save the fun sections for Sunday morning as we rather miss reading arts news etc. in the NYT of years gone by. I don’t suppose the WSJ will do a Sunday edition?

  • Mike Myers

    The Saturday edition of the WSJ goes from strength to strength.
    I was frankly gobsmacked by last Saturday’s issue. The section is larger, it covers more topics, there’s not a thing to criticize.

    I’ve enjoyed their book list section for a long time. It reminds you of titles worth reading–and why. Who knew that a “business paper” could tell you about food, cars, wine, books, great art, great music, fashion etc?

  • Bandito

    Jettboy September 27, 2010 at 6:59 pm
    “I’ll love the arts more when there is art worth loving (especially the Movies and broadcast television, cable has some decent shows here and there). Until then I think your quotes are perfectly acceptable:”

    For visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture) worth loving, try out the website of the Art Renewal Society, especially the current artists featured in the annual ARC Salon and the “Living Masters.”

  • http://- david elder

    Andrew, I love your stuff. But I do hardly go to movies, listen to modern music, or watch most TV shows. This is not because I am sanctimonious or disposed to be disengaged – I loved the 2009 Star Trek movie, Narnia and the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. It is because almost all of the rest of the above are (manure) in my book and I refuse to encourage them by boosting their sales or ratings. I’d rather watch Klavan On The Culture.

  • Jeffrey

    Leave it to Beaver is garbage. It was a horrible TV show. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t interesting or entertaining, it was just “wholesome”. That reminds me of something that would be appealing to a pedophile. I also do not want to go back to the 50s. If movies were as cheesy, hoaxey, and corny now as they were back then, I wouldn’t be able to stand that. People need to live in the present, not the past.