Rick McGinnis:

Interim writer, Rick McGinnis, Amusements

Last fall, film critic Christian Toto wrote a column asking why conservative creators – authors, filmmakers, musicians and comedians – have a hard time getting their work promoted to the audiences they’re trying to reach because conservative news media is so unenthusiastic about covering and promoting their work.

“The Left maintains a strong, unified cultural front. The Right has nothing of the sort,” Toto writes. While liberal news and entertainment venues – and by this he means the lion’s share of mainstream media – do a great job promoting art that reflects their worldview, their conservative equivalents (a niche media subculture for the most part) respond with “Infighting. Isolationism. Ignorance. It’s a disaster, especially for the rare, right-leaning artist hoping to promote his or her work.”

It doesn’t help that the conventional wisdom is that conservatism and the arts are mutually exclusive. A quick Google search yields a fascinating cross-section of headlines. Starting deep down the rabbit hole we have the r/Socialism_101 subgroup on reddit asking bluntly, “Why do conservatives hate the arts?” while a 2021 story on rabble.ca is about how “Control freak Conservatives take on the arts.”

Emerging slowly into daylight we have self-published articles on medium.com, like Peter McClard (a self-described “creative type, entrepreneur and philosopher”) stating that “There is no such thing as the conservative arts” and Michelle Teheux (a former newspaper editor) explaining “Why conservatives love STEM but hate humanities.” (She reflects in a sub-head that “I think some of them would outlaw all education if they could.”) The Alberta Worker proclaims simply that “Conservatives don’t like the arts.”

In 2022 The Spectator Australia wondered, “Can conservatives embrace the arts?”, while Britain’s Independent asked “Why are right-wingers so afraid of modern art?” In 2008 Psychology Today wanted to know “Are conservatives less creative than liberals?” (Short answer: yes, but that’s because liberals are more likely to be victims of childhood trauma, which makes you more creative. There’s probably no room here to examine this venerable trope.)

Looking toward Canada, Macleans published an article in 2009 retelling the age-old battle of “Conservatives v. the arts” while in 2021 the Globe and Mail’s op-ed section ran a piece where Kenneth Whyte suggested hopefully that “Not all conservatives are philistines. They should help fix Canada’s broken cultural system.” In 2015 The Coast wrote about “Stephen Harper’s war against the arts.”

Two years ago the British pop culture magazine Dazed (formerly Dazed & Confused) published Beth Ashley’s piece about “The Tory ‘art panic’” which proclaimed that “Conservatives have always hated creativity” while that same year The Guardian claimed without qualification that “Tory contempt for the arts means we face a second dark age.”

It doesn’t help that conservative media is often too happy to reinforce this idea. In 2019 an article on The Federalist website explained “Why conservatives should stop giving to arts organizations,” while The American Conservative was more forthright two years later with a piece economically titled “Defund the arts.” (“Let artists struggle to survive,” writes Alexander Zubatov. “Let them search for patrons and sponsors. Let them go avant-garde again and find their way back to the center like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Let them live in exile until they earn their return to our midst.”)

The weakest defense offered by conservatives is that they love the arts – provided it’s work by old masters or in service to traditional aesthetics and established canons. A popular account on Twitter/X called Culture Critic (@Culture_Crit) – its bio reads “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire” – frequently posts photos of cathedrals and castles and European opera houses and medieval town squares and asks “Why did human beings stop building wonders?”

They also posted a picture of a museum docent in front of a Cy Twombly painting, stating “If you have to explain why it’s beautiful, it isn’t” while noting that the painting sold for $70.5 million at auction in 2015. Modern art is a frequent touchstone for conservative culture criticism; Mark Rothko’s abstract canvases, many of them seventy years old by now, are frequently cited as baffling, especially when public money is spent acquiring them.

In 1993 the National Gallery in Ottawa acquired Rothko’s No. 16, 1957 for $1.8 million, which a Progressive Conservative MP named Don Blenkarn called “disgusting” and “absolutely crazy.” Admittedly, though, the dramatic rise in the value of Rothko’s work (a Rothko canvas sold for $82.5 million in 2021) has made these purchases seem like sound investments, which should please fiscal conservatives if nobody else. (And even then, big ticket art is more about tax sheltering and money laundering than creativity or tastemaking.)

In “The dilemma of the conservative artist,” published on the Imaginative Conservative website last summer, James Baresel states that good art demands innovation, and that conservatives are committed to political battles – that they’re “philosophers” more concerned with ideology (Baresel calls it “truth”, but I would beg to differ) than beauty. “The ideas may be entirely correct,” he writes, “but the artistic failure will not give aesthetic pleasure and will not convince anyone of the ideas expressed aside from those who already accept their truth. A good novel can only be written by someone who is primarily concerned with the beauty of his work rather than with the ideas which it contains.”

But in too many conservative spaces it’s an article of faith that a Rothko cannot be beautiful while a cathedral always is: a false argument that forces you to take a side in what might never have been a battle, that a real conservative cannot like Rothko – or Twombly, or Warhol, or Damien Hirst or Tracy Emin. It’s a stance where conservatives themselves are obliged to perpetually assume the role of pearl-clutching critics recoiling in outrage in front of a Picasso or a Manet.

And it’s hard to elicit sympathy or support while you proudly point at a self-inflicted wound.

In 2022, comedian and writer James Harris published “Conservatism and the arts: An argument for ideological diversity” on his Substack, Stiff Upper Quip. “I spent quite some time trying to get this placed at various liberal publications, without success,” he wrote as a postscript to his essay. “If anyone would be interested in bringing this piece to a larger, though of course not better, audience, please be in touch.”

He proposed a little game – that the audience imagine the response if “a group of artists of refreshingly diverse backgrounds – mixed gender identities, ethnicities and sexualities” proposed to the Arts Council that they’d like to put on a performance advocating for the return of the death penalty to the United Kingdom. He said that he’d put this in front of friends in the arts, and that their answer was that “that they would have to get their funding elsewhere. Many would even add that they think art in part exists to advance progressive goals.”

Harris admits that a polemical piece like this would be bad art, and that the Arts Council would be justified in rejecting funding for this reason alone, but what about all the propagandistic work that gets funded happily despite its open bias – often while calling for the overthrow of the very system that oversees arts funding?

“Fundamentally, there’s an inherent paradox in ‘rebellion’ being publicly subsidized,” Harris writes, “in taking government money to tell the government it’s s**t, especially as said money is normally generated by the private sector. As rebellions go that is one pretty morally compromised from the off.”

It’s also one that’s so old it was summed up by a cartoon in Spy magazine in 1992. Artist asks man in suit “Can I have a grant so I can finish my art?” while standing in front of a portrait of the man in the suit with “F**KING ASSHO” written underneath. It’s an evergreen meme, reposted on social media daily. And let’s not talk about how rebellion against the establishment has been transformed now that conservative populism is throwing around words like “insurrection” and “overthrow.”

“If only for the sake of variety,” Harris writes, “I would like people in the arts to be able to present right-wing views without offence at their very existence.” And that would be nice, though I can’t see any cultural trend in play right now making this possible; political polarization is simply too valuable to the electoral playbook, not to mention how it’s baked into the essence of social media engagement.

And then there’s the comment at the bottom of Christian Toto’s plea for conservatives to support conservative art: “Maybe it’s a competition thing – they don’t want to draw attention to other conservative outlets for fear that their audience/subscribers will start patronizing a competitor.”

Which sums up where we are now, after at least two decades of declining audiences for mainstream media and the precipitous decline in box office for Hollywood movies that the right is constantly celebrating. Audiences are atomized into ever smaller groups that only relate to each other in the tiny spaces where their interests and obsessions overlap, none more so than self-identified conservative media and its audience.

I am coming up on the 15th anniversary of this column, writing about faith, culture, and politics from the position of someone who has spent his whole adult life working in journalism and the arts. It’s a pretty good run, and at another time I might have found myself in a dialogue with other people concerned with the same issues.

But the last decade and a half have felt like I have been walking deeper into a cave, with little sense of an audience of peers or readers. And I’m not alone: the rise of self-publishing platforms like Medium and Substack and the proliferation of ever-more tightly focused websites has made entrepreneurial punditry feel like sitting at the end of a telegraph line, tapping out messages and getting only the most occasional, isolated response.

And there’s the other half of my career, as a photographer, creating work that (I hope) transcends whatever conservatives or liberals claim as the other side’s political or aesthetic “tell.” I don’t think I’m alone not wanting to potentially alienate half my audience. (Though that hasn’t bothered Disney lately.)

It would explain all the bad art, made with its ideological prerogatives baked in from the start, delivered to us in our political silos. And even if conservative art is being ignored by conservative media obsessed with patrolling the boundaries their brands, at least they’re not just clapping mindlessly for whatever artist survived the last round of cancelations.

As James Harris writes, “Good art always ends up being cleverer than its creator, and certainly cleverer than their politics.” If our art is bad, perhaps we shouldn’t encourage our artists to be stupid.