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.
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.