As the “art-house right” continues to garnish attention, a loose phenomenon whose description involves references to Dimes Square, hipster trads, and usually a mention or two of Silicon Valley rightists Curtis Yarvin and Peter Theil, there has been little talk about art itself. Sure, there are some art-hoes (a term I use affectionately) who are on the right, and yes this occasionally worries the fine folks at Vanity Fair and the New York Times, but is the connection between politics and art merely accidental?
To be a Tory Bohemian means that the connection between politics cannot be accidental. If it is accidental, then the attention given to the art-house right phenomenon is either a fad or shows the right to have an inferiority complex that leads it to clamor anytime a rightist comes close to imitating the Parisian lifestyle of New York liberals. The Prudentialist put the former concern well here, and I share many of his worries. Yet, unlike Prude I do not think “only time will tell”. If the art-house right is capable of talking about art in such a way that does justice to art, but is also distinct from how the left talks about art, then I think we may see the return of Tory Bohemians. To this end I would like to propose some basic principles of art criticism.
I.) Art is surplus, and thus cannot be reduced to its artist’s intent or cultural background. When an artist sculps a sculpture, paints a painting, or writes a poem, there is something more in the art than the artist. By this I mean that, provided we are talking about a well-made piece of art, we can see the artist in the artwork, but the artwork is not reducible to the artist. Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Michelangelo’s David, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water are remembered to this day because they are not externalized forms of their artist. That phrase, “externalized forms of their artist”, describes what would have to be true if art was the artist’s self-expression. Yes, there ties between art and artist that cannot be broken, but art reaches out into the world, not, primarily, into the soul of the artist. Martin Heidegger, in The Origin of the Work of Art describes this reaching out in the context of a Greek temple on a cliff:
“Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the obscurity of that rock’s bulky yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, first brings to radiance the light of the day, the breath of the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of the air. The steadfastness of the work contrasts with the surge of the surf, and its own repose brings out the raging of the sea. Tree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as what they are. The Greeks early called this emerging and rising in itself and in all things physis. It illumines also that on which and in which man bases his dwelling. We call this ground the earth. What this word says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere, or with the merely astronomical idea of a planet. Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises as such. In the things that arise, earth occurs essentially as the sheltering agent…The temple-work, standing there, opens up a world, and at the same time sets this world back again on earth, which itself only thus emerges as native ground. (Basic Writings, 169)”
The temple, standing there, shows the environment for as it is, but how it would be missed if the temple was not there. It is the temple that makes present the crashing waves, for it is against the stable ground of the temple that the raging storm is contrasted. Above the temple is the sky, which is contrasted, by the presence of the temple, with the rocky earth. By housing an immortal, the temple gives mortals context. A world, by which Heidegger means a vision of Being that includes earth and sky, immortals and mortals, is revealed by the temple-work. By building the temple, the mason did not erect an externalized form of himself but made something that, by its presence, reveals to its admirers a world. Good art does this, regardless of the art is masonry or poetry, painting or singing. Yet, the world revealed is not a world we wish was, or a world other than our world, it is a true reflection of reality (Heidegger would say of Being). This does not exclude fantasy or science-fiction, as the works of Tolkien and Herbert, while set in imaginary lands, tell us something about our own reality.
Giving art this dignity, by allowing art to be more than an artist’s self-expression, and cultural background, by allowing art to reach out into the world and reveals its being to us (you can see how all art takes on a metaphysical character), much of what goes by the name of art has to be rejected. Spoken word poetry, which tends towards the public airing of one’s psychoses, comes under suspicion. “Art” meant to advance political agendas, be they leftist (The Handmaid’s Tale or The Crucible, for example) or rightist (Atlas Shrugged and The Turner Diaries come to mind), falls short because the “art” is wholly reducible to the artist’s political beliefs. There might be political implications (Eliot’s The Wasteland surely includes some), but these implications are like the surf or ground of the Greek temple: they are pieces of the broader world being revealed by art, they are never the temple-work.
II.) Art is imitative, is differentiated by its mode of imitation, and is thus rightly judged by whether or not the object of imitation is imitated well and according to the mode of imitation. This second principle is less metaphysical and more technical, yet equally important. Aristotle begins De Poetica by saying,
“Epic poetry and Tragedy, as also Comedy, Dithyrambic poetry, and most flute-playing and lyre-playing, are all, viewed as a whole, modes of imitation. But at the same time they differ from one another in three ways, either by a difference of kind in their means, or by differences in the objects, or in the manner of their imitations. (1447a, 14-18)”
This principle might be more controversial than the first, because in this principle there is no place for the popular notion that art “is self-expression.” Even more than Heidegger, Aristotle believes the artist, if he is an artist, is focused on something completely other than himself and his job is simply to imitate that something. It is the object of imitation, in addition to the mode of imitation, that differentiates genres of art. Aristotle says what distinguishes Tragedy and Comedy is that, “the one would make its personages worse, and the other better, than the men of the present day. (1448, 18-20)” This distinction might be strange, since we usually think of a comedy as anything that makes us laugh. Yet, to speak of tragedy as portraying characters worse than the men of today is a bit closer to today’s sensibilities, since we have retained the motif of “the tragic flaw.” Whether we agree with Aristotle on Comedy is less important than agreeing that art is imitative and differs in mode of imitation. Judging the quality of a song, for example, becomes hard if we do not accept this definition. Songs are about something, and they imitate that something. Sad songs are typically in minor keys (unless you are Third Eye Blind), while happy songs are typically in major keys. Metal makes use of throat singing, while rock uses the diaphragm and usually, but not always, has a simpler composition. How could we articulate that Metallica is better than Limp Bizkit if we did not have imitation and mode of imitation in mind? Unless there is a mode of imitation that makes metal what it is, a mode that we can say Metallica does well, but that Limp Bizkit falls short of, then we might think one band is better than the other, but we could not articulate a reason why that would also be applicable to other metal bands. What we are left with is self-expression, a world where no band is better than another, or where music is judged by its usefulness to a political cause (be it leftist or rightist).
It might be objected that while this principle makes a consistent and coherent evaluation of art possible (Metallica imitated emotion/theme “X” well, while skillfully incorporating the mode of imitation proper to metal), this principle would turn art into a rigid science, leaving little room for creativity. Does not imitation mean strict imitation? If there is a defined mode for a genre, does that not mean all artworks within that genre will be the same? Guitars have six strings by definition, and they are to be held in one hand and strummed with the other. Do these categories mean that all guitars are the same, or that guitar making is a “rigid science” devoid of creativity? No. Standards do not hamper creativity but provide a space for creativity. A garden without boundaries is no garden at all, but the wilderness.
III.) Ketchup should go with fries, not the other way around. While applicable to other genres, I am thinking primarily of film. The use of language and romance should be tasteful, not indulgent or pornographic. This is not because saying “fuck”, or sex is a bad thing, but because their overuse is sloppy writing. Let us start with romance. Imagine you are a director, and you have to show the audience that character A and character B are attracted to each other. Putting in a five-minute sex scene either means you are incapable of showing sexual tension (which, by definition, is not the sex act), do not possess the art of subtlety, and you are straying away from the task at hand (to show attraction between A and B), and into the category of pornography. Now look at this scene. It is obvious that both characters are attracted to each other. Furthermore, this scene is incredibly erotic, there is electricity in the air. Compare that scene to something from Game of Thrones or Shameless. Brassed Off’s romance is equally as sexual as either Game of Thrones or Shameless, but is better written. Why? Brassed Off is fries with some ketchup. Sexuality and expletives help make a point, they are not the whole point. Having ketchup with fries, either means you would prefer to eat straight ketchup but feel some impropriety about eating the sauce alone, or it means the fries are nasty and need to be covered up. Likewise, gratuitous sex, language, or violence in film either indicates a fixation, or is to cover up sloppy writing.
This third principle is a necessary adjustment to how the right will often react to shows like Games of Thrones and Shameless with cries of “degenerate.” They are right, of course, but to end the conversation there is to make the conversation purely moral. My question, and the question of a Tory Bohemian, is “are these shows well written?” If the critique is purely moral, or if the Good is not synonymous with the Beautiful, then it is entirely possible to create good art that is degenerate. However, if what makes “art” degenerate is also the same as what makes for sloppy writing, then it is possible to critique art in a manner not incidental to one’s political position. For the Tory Bohemian, the True is the Good is the Beautiful, and this means well made art, since it is beautiful, is also true and good. If something is either false, bad, or ugly, it is not only one of these but all three.
Like everything I write, these principles are not exhaustive (there are more principles of art criticism, and more detailed accounts of the ones I provided), but the start of a conversation. By starting a conversation about art, in addition to the ongoing conversation about artists, my hope is the art-house right can go beyond being a fad and rekindle the Tory Bohemian tradition. Should Tory Bohemians return, this cultural vanguard will lead the charge in our collective fight for civilization.