Politics & Policy

Can Conservatives Win Back the Arts?

Despite the Left’s best efforts, conservative and American values are coming back into the culture.

After years of declaiming against the Left’s domination of our culture, I’m startled and delighted to discover that the tide is beginning to turn. My fellow conservatives should take note and lend a hand.

For the last three decades or so, the usual conservative approach to the arts has been threefold: We complain about what’s being produced; we fret about the influence it will have; then we give up with a shrug.

We complain because it seems to us the anti-American Left has made of the arts its private fiefdom. Moviemakers produce film after film decrying the anti-Communist blacklists of the ’50s, all the while blacklisting and slandering conservative filmmakers and their points of view. Critics give prizes and praise to second-rate leftist works — from dreadful tripe such as The Color Purple in the ’80s to the recent slew of soporific and dishonest anti–War on Terror propaganda flicks such as In The Valley of Elah and Green Zone — while ignoring or attacking works with which they disagree. Public funding is available to display desecrated crucifixes as “art,” while art that might be offensive to Muslims — such as the novel Jewel of Medina or the TV satire South Park — is censored with barely a murmur.

We fret because we fear that ignorant people — especially the young — will take leftist art as truth, essentially giving the Left the power to rewrite history and reality in the American mind.  Perhaps the next generation will come to believe that Oliver Stone’s absurd but well-made JFK tells the true story of the president’s assasination or that American operatives and soldiers routinely committed the sorts of atrocities depicted in Rendition or Redacted. As former ambassador Joseph Wilson boasted about the contrafactual heroic impression given of him and his wife, Valerie Plame, in the new film Fair Game: “For people who have short memories or don’t read, this is the only way they will remember the period.”

Finally, we shrug and give up because the matter does not seem urgent. Leftist arts may poison people’s minds over time, but jihadists want to kill us right now. Oliver Stone and Michael Moore may make hypocritical millions attacking capitalism, but politicians are dismantling free markets as we speak. And even if the arts are urgent, most of us aren’t artists or critics, so what can we do?

The complain-fret-shrug approach has become so habitual among conservatives that it blinds us to the astonishing change that’s been taking place. Despite the Left’s best efforts, conservative and American values are actually coming back into the culture.

We should ease off on the complaining. For the last few years, movies promoting the Western ideals of self-reliance, morality, and faith have scored at the box office — see The Incredibles (“If everyone is special, that means no one is”), The Blind Side (“Who would have thought we’d have a black son before we knew a Democrat?”), and Toy Story 3 (a takedown of the nanny state). They have also been more innovative and creative — 300, Gran Torino, No Country for Old Men — than the products of the desiccated and outmoded Left. Our best novelist (Tom Wolfe) and two greatest English-speaking playwrights (Tom Stoppard and David Mamet) are now all open about their political conservatism. And new top-notch mainstream TV shows (Justified, Blue Bloods) have arrived to offset the lefty Law and Order and Jon Stewart.

Equally important, an alternative critical infrastructure is starting to grow up in support of conservative culture. John Nolte at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood website has repeatedly put leftist Hollywood on the defensive by exposing their bias. And even as other newspapers shorten or delete their serious culture pages, the center-right Wall Street Journal has expanded its coverage with an excellent Saturday Review section.

We should stop fretting about the consequences of lefty art, too. The arts, to paraphrase Shakespeare, are the “abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” The conservative shift in their tone shows that the American consciousness has begun to digest the lessons of 9/11: that the Left’s relativistic multiculturalism is a lie; that freedom is better than slavery; and that therefore those systems that support freedom — constitutional democracy, capitalism, and enlightened religion — are better than those that don’t.

Lastly, we should not shrug and give up, because there’s a lot we can do to support and encourage this nascent phenomenon. A conservative community that has set up think tanks to consider governance, law, and economics needs to give thought and support to the culture, as well. Grants, conferences, and awards for artists who know the value of faith, morality, and liberty could counter the present cultural support system that helps almost exclusively the illiberal Left. And rather than allowing the monotonously left-wing PBS and NPR to monopolize highbrow cultural discussion, conservatives need to establish their own outlets to reclaim the elite and intellectual audience the way Fox News has reclaimed the rank and file.

Most of all, the ordinary consumer of culture needs to remember that word-of-mouth for good works that have been ignored or unfairly attacked by lefty critics can provide a powerful and effective counterbalance.

The fight for the culture may not always seem urgent, but it truly is. Arguments are won and lost in hearts and minds long before they’re ever decided at the polls. The arts not only reflect the conscience of the hour, they also shape the conscience of the age.

— Andrew Klavan’s latest novel is The Identity Man.


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