The Corner

Re: Hockney and Hirst

Thank you for posting that, Andrew. I have not read Oakeshott, or even the full review you link to, but this will not stop me from recklessly commenting on both.


To be conservative . . . is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

Can you have this preference in politics but not in aesthetics or in your own pattern of living?  Can you like unchanging, historically tested forms of governance because they increase your personal freedom to try new things? Won’t it matter what it is that isn’t changing? (“Taxes are likely to stay low, no new regulations on the horizon — good time to start that business.” “Long live our familiar, tried, Communist order! May our gaze ever be fixed on Utopia!”)  In personal life and action, can “unbounded[ness]” mean jettisoning preconceived ideas or fixation on the past, and could this allow you better to take notice of the near, the sufficient, etc.? Could that in turn help you spot openings into a profitable unknown? (“But we’ve always driven this way!” — a protest from the back seat as you read the map and see a shortcut. Who prefers the tried in this case? Yet whose mind is near, and whose distant?)


[If you are a progressive,] you will not be bound by unprofitable attachments to particular localities, pieties will be fleeting, loyalties evanescent; you may even be wise to try anything once in search of improvement.

Does this all have to be a bundle? Can you carry your pieties or loyalties with you from place to place? Can this be praiseworthy? (The voluntary soldier, the missionary.) Is there a value in trying once, if not anything, at least those things that are compatible with your pieties and loyalties and various aims, and that you have some reason to believe might serve them? (“What if I tried my water skis out on the snow?” somebody once asked himself — and this led to a new kind of snow-ski design that many people find worthwhile in powder.) How serious is Oakeshott with this “anything”?  Does anyone, even the progressive, “try anything once” totally without discrimination?


“There is no such thing as a good as opposed to a bad spot painting,” noted the Telegraph’s art critic Richard Dorment in a review last week. Hence the need for experts to explain to a baffled public why Hirst matters: the arts establishment love him so much because he gives them a priestly role.

What is meant by “good” and “bad” here? Couldn’t you find this spot painting more satisfying that that one, and couldn’t you notice patterns in what satisfied you? (“These colors adjacent, but never those . . .”) Couldn’t you explain this in the sense of showing examples to me, and couldn’t I then predict, with at least some accuracy, what you are going to like? But is that really explanation? When we say that there is good or bad representational art, do we explain why this is better than that? Or do we just show it to you and let you see for yourself, as with the spots? (“Look at the subject’s eyes in this photograph. Now look at these successive attempts of the artist to paint them.”) We will no doubt agree with one another more on “What is a realistic representation of those eyes?” than on “What is a satisfying arrangement of spots?” — but does this mean we need an arts establishment to answer the latter question for us?  If Damien Hirst is a millionaire for making what we could have made ourselves, is this because there is no value in what he has made, or because we have the wrong idea of what decides between the good and the bad?  (“But that critic wrote his dissertation on what is a good arrangement of spots — surely he has learned things that I have not.” “But that critic wrote his dissertation on what is a good representation of a pair of eyes . . .”) Are there times when you might want to see a distorted representation of a pair of eyes, might regard this as good? Are the anatomical proportions in Botticelli and El Greco realistic? Their colors? Why might it be good that they are not? (“The extreme black-and-white contrasts of that sky really make me feel the drama of the Crucifixion . . .” “There are too many pastel spots in this corner, and too many dark ones opposite it; the whole thing feels like it wants to tip to the left . . .”) Have the great representational artists always done what was “familiar” and “tried”? Isn’t creativity always a departure into the untried — not an overthrow of the familiar, but the inspired modification of it?

I would greatly prefer spending time with El Greco and Botticelli to spending it with Damien Hirst, and I think his talent is more common than theirs. But I am skeptical of sweeping definitions of what is conservative, or what is good, and even more so of their application to everything from taxation and social policy to painting.

An afterthought (1/21): Oborne also thinks that the conservative will prefer the particular (and hence the representational) to the abstract. Suppose I am painting my room, but instead of using solid colors I cover the walls with representational murals. Is that more conservative? Certainly it is less “familiar.” (You could draw a distinction between art and interior decoration, but Oborne seems to think that there is some essence of conservatism that applies across the board, so what difference should the distinction make for him?) Or if we may switch to music: The Well-Tempered Clavier is much more abstract (and much less attached to particular localities, expressive of loyalties, etc.) than gangsta rap; is it also much less conservative?

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