Art in a Political World

I. The Question of Ideology Politics is a pervasive influence on Western society in contemporary times. Indeed, intractable political division, which springs from ideology as much as from social temperament, is a defining characteristic of life today. The power of public education and corporate media ensures that there is no escaping the reach of the political organization and orientation of life. There appears to be nothing it does not touch and bend to its gravity. From gilets jaunes to Antifa to the so-called alt-right, we are suffused with political ferment. However, the contemporary immersion in politics is of recent vintage. In the “benighted past” ideology was the nearly exclusive province of the so-called intelligentsia, the common man knowing little, and caring less, about the political controversies of the day beyond their effect on the price that grain would fetch at the market. Such was the essentially religious and pragmatic temper of traditional existence, whose metronome was set by the seasons and the liturgical calendar. Where there were loyalties, they were personal, local, and practical: family, dynasty, church. Even where organized revolts irrupted into the pattern of daily life, their energies were largely concentrated on issues of immediate importance. The arrival of politics proper—in the modern sense of organized faction around matters of polity that reach to the “hearth” of the common man—is principally a work of the Enlightenment and the widespread use of the printing press, prior to whose appearance the technical means of transmitting ideas beyond word-of-mouth was reserved to those who could employ scribes, couriers, and criers. The pamphlet (or tract) was among the first uses of the new technology of printing at-scale. While its emergence dates to an earlier period, the pamphlet did not come into widespread use until the Protestant Reformation, which saw vast numbers of leaflets distributed by reformers in Germany and France in denunciation of the Pope and the Roman Catholic church. Their coarseness was such that laws were enacted to suppress their distribution, and, ultimately, they were banned by imperial pronouncement in 1589. These events amount to the first appearance of truly industrial-scale propaganda, and, while not strictly political, they almost certainly contained implications for the public view of government. The development of specifically political pamphleteering was to come a short time later, and reached its peak in the days just prior to the French Revolution. The connection is patent. With the rise of political upheaval during the Age of Revolution, the West witnessed a concomitant increase in the reach and sophistication of political ideas. This observation maps the the movement of politics into the foreground of public life, into a position of social primacy. Social volatility and the primacy of political expression seem to be intimately related. With the technical means to produce and disseminate propaganda came the rise of politics as a collective, organized enterprise transcending the bounds of dynastic and sacerdotal interplay and the related subscriptions and loyalties. Where once the vision for societies flowed from the individual beliefs and commitments of prelates, rulers, and their agents and assigns, today the influence of the professional politician and the commercial activist is everywhere felt. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the emergence of the corporate press as a significant influence on society was coeval with the development of the technical means of dissemination, and the increasing desire by powerful private interests to counteract and contravene the traditional mechanisms for the inculcation of the dominant social outlook. Such is the history of social critique as a tool of ideological faction. The spread of ideology was in former times limited to the epistolary intercourse of leading intellectuals. Nowadays we are informed by figures such as Cornell University’s Satya Mohanty that everyone is shaped by ideology, that there is no longer any “theoretical innocence.” But what do we mean when we say ideology? Allow me belatedly to advance a lexical shorthand: ideology is but the formalization of politics into credal simplicity and conformity. That is, politics have become industrialized, and are shaped by the instrumental operations of production: the product being ideology, to be sold in the marketplace as a catalyst of identity, a lucrative enterprise. It may be that for the first time in the history of the West (the civilization with which we are primarily concerned in this publication) politics really does rule all. [1] II. The State of Art in a Political World Now let us briefly turn to the social connection. It is perhaps uncontroversial to assert that politics is downstream from culture. Men are formed by the culture first (culture is surely present in their nursery rhymes, even their idiom, after all); they become political animals afterward (with due apologies to Aristotle, though, by political, he likely meant something that closely approaches the term “social”). This means that sensibility precedes subscription. We are formed in our souls before we are formed in our beliefs, our self-consciously held theoretical ideas about the order of the world; and beneath the topsoil of political ideology there is a substrate, a pre-rational deposit from the intimate and organic relation to the culture of one’s upbringing. This is the location where rebirth must rise and take root. To strike a personal note, some of my earliest memories are of Sundays spent in the care of a stern old Southern Baptist church, whereupon I learned of my origins as a being-in-the-world, and my purpose there. Yet even before this, I was nursed on the stories of Holy Scripture, on the colorful pictures of my little children’s bible: Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to witness the arrival of Christ; Mary and Elizabeth, and their two blessed children, the one a Master, the other a servant; the withering of the Fig Tree; the blood and agony of the Cross. This is what formed me. In other cultures, the stories are different, and so the pictures, but they are the same in one important respect: they give us a tone, a texture, a color, a shaded lens upon the mental landscape, they ravish the imagination long before we understand why we believe what we do, and set out on the course of shaping our world using the tool of “ideas.” Being a Southerner by birth, by training, and by choice, the prevalence of “ideas” was foreign to my constitution. It seems to me that we operated mainly by instinct, deep into adolescence. We knew what was fair, good, and right, and had no need of instruction in these things by means of pamphlets, Powerpoint presentations, or television programs. We received no tutelage in the specifically political sine qua nons of modern civilization. Our philosophy was distilled from Sunday school, and Saturday cartoons, where the evil men had hard, cruel faces so that one could distinguish them from the heroes. To tell the truth, my first exposure to ideology proper was during high school, in the form of Libertarianism, which, next to Communism, is the most virulent of the extant strains of ideology; it inflicts itself on its adherents most severely, to an extent that the merely human is sacrificed for the theoretical, the abstraction, and not the other way ’round. It seems to me, nearing my fifth decade, that there was something essentially right, and salutary, about this insulation from political abstraction and from a focus on subscription as the most important (to some the only) common ground between men. The life of the South during my childhood was filled with what philosopher Michael Oakeshott once called “known goods,” for which all the ideas of the world of political striving were but poor substitutes.[2] The struggle over the apparatus of governmental power (the power to control and impose) was very far from my consciousness, nor was I atypical among the other boys in this regard. Even the passions of the “Late Unpleasantness” had settled into deep accommodation with what was. I was later to learn that the true causes of that sad and avoidable conflict were not precisely ideological at all, but the instinctive yearnings of a civilization that had developed along distinct lines for well over a century—yearnings that conflicted with the will-to-modernity of the Industrial Power and the ideological furor of reformist provocateurs. The collision of the aristocratic outlook of the South with the ambitions of Capital and Reform was as avoidable as it was tragic. The political manifestations of social schism were not the cause of division, just as the war was not their cure. Let us add one observation to this historical reflection. It is widely recognized that the South in “postbellum” times developed a literature of enduring and truly international stature, a feat barely matched by the wealthier and vastly more sophistical Industrial Power. And yet, there were and are no Southern philosophers of much note. This is not an accident of history, but flows from the aristocratic mentality of the South in that era. As philosophy has become (of late) a mere prolegomenon to ideological formation, a path to sinecure, it has lost both its savor and its use. Historical examples of the primacy of aesthetics are ready to hand. Rome, well-known for its administrative genius, produced relatively little philosophy of much importance beyond the denizens of the Stoa, and yet its aesthetic splendor is practically unrivaled in human history, from the grandeur of its public architecture to its immortal sculpture. It is not unreasonable to assert that Rome was preeminently aesthetic. And while there is some truth in the claim that the vast and imposing public legacy of Rome was enmeshed inextricably in politics, it should be noted that this was not the politics of ideological faction, as we have today, so much as the politics of imperial glory and power, and dynastic prowess. Art is not a cure in itself, most especially as the art of today has become deeply enmeshed with non-aesthetic aims, with the politics of social reform, or liberalist triumphalism.  It will be the work of decades to free art from the overtly political influence of faction that would use it for its own purposes, rather than to reflect the soul of a people. Art must be returned to the expression of genuine culture, and not exist, as it does today, as the captive of political activism, or the rootless kitsch of the marketplace.  Something remains to be said in this vein: when the predominant aesthetic guiding the recognition of creative artifacts by the cognescenti as important is seen to be “transgressive,” one must recognize that art has now become an offensive instrument (a weapon) to effect social dissolution rather than to foster unity and comity. That is, it has become anti-cultural (and not, as claimed by some, counter-cultural). Art that is genuinely cultural cannot become a mere instrumentality of social critique.  Notwithstanding, one need only glance at the art receiving funding by the U.S. Federal Government to recognize that its selections are shaped by non-aesthetic criteria, by the canons of political subscription and conformity. Today, great poetry is considered that to which the appropriate assemblage of political brahmins has given their assent; aesthetic criteria have virtually disappeared. To take but one example, Tracy K. Smith has written some poetry that is notable, nor are poems such as the rather fine Duende to be dismissed, yet her oeuvre is not one that befits the office of Poet Laureate of the United States (and which includes several truly poor specimens). One suspects, not without reason, that her selection for the office was based on political premises and that her membership in a social minority fulfilling the requirements of intersectional feminists—who have come to dominate not merely the salons and publications of the Western art world, but also its positions of prestige and power within government and foundations—was the prime motive in her elevation. III. A Return to Aesthetics This leads me to the purpose and aim of the present undertaking. The New Fugitive is a publication dedicated to the dissemination of art that is judged on aesthetic criteria alone, and to the amelioration of social malaise by raising artistic accomplishment to a position of public esteem and preeminence irrespective of its political penumbra—not art unqualified, but art possessing the contours of a spiritual orientation to life, which is determinable only from the features and qualities of the artifacts in question. This will necessarily exclude works that have (by our sole judgment) no artistic merit in themselves. In the preceding paragraphs we have laid out a belief that the preeminence of politics in the contemporary West is an impediment to the return of social health to the country of which we find ourselves citizens by birth. It is felt by our writers and editorial staff that the symptoms of social decline and decay are seen first in the arts and later in the rest of society, as the creative cadres of a nation are its most sensitive elements, its sensory apparatus, and that the healing of a society, beyond a commitment to True Religion, begins with the reclamation and restoration of the arts, and that art, divorced from the eternal impulses of spirit, becomes devoid of meaning, and ceases to exert a salutary social influence, ceases to adduce to the vigor and health of the people. Thus, our counterrevolution against the insipid march of modernity, as distinct from mere contemporaneity, and the consequent reign of banality and kitsch, is conducted entirely within the realm of aesthetics, and the metaphysics of the various departments of creative production—first and foremost within the ars poetica, but also in the genres of short fiction, literary reviews, criticism, and the visual arts suitable for print and online publication. Footnotes: 1. Aesthetics in a Multicultural Age (33) 2. Oakeshott, who published little in his lifetime, was an exemplar of the virtue of theoretical reticence and humility.

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