Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

Envy and American Art

Envy, by Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926)
In the hurly-burly of politics, we usually don’t stop to note our simple, unadorned love of the things that make this country so marvelous. That’s what we’ve asked our contributors to our latest special issue, "What We Love about America," to do.

Envy is a sour, seething desire for someone else’s possessions, whether things, abilities, spouses, or good luck. It’s a universal disease, one of the seven deadly sins, but in my opinion it’s much less likely to afflict Americans. This is a great American virtue. 

We take this for granted, but we’re blessed that envy isn’t part and parcel of our civic culture. When I was in Dijon in France a few weeks ago, a French friend and I chatted about how uneasy, how sullen and impotent, the French seem now. He said, “The French are taught to be unhappy and to blame the state and the rich.” Blame is envy’s bad-seed baby. 

Envy is powerful and corrosive. It eats the soul. It reveals a void that comes from a want of freedom and autonomy. You covet what you don’t have and assume you can’t get. Envy and blame are states of being but also states of mind. When people don’t feel free and independent, envy and blame rear their ugly heads and toss their curls. American art has so much landscape and seascape for the obvious reason that they’re ubiquitous subjects, but they’re also open-ended. They evoke freedom and possibility, not limits. 

Our identity as citizens, as Americans, draws from notions of freedom the way a tree draws water. I think that’s why envy and blame haven’t paralyzed us. Sure, as in any complicated organism, every emotion or trait finds an outlet. We’re a collection of people, and everyone is unique. Americans, though, as a rule don’t envy what others have. We don’t hate the rich. We don’t want to punish them. We want a society where everyone can become rich. 

Americans are far less inclined to play blame games. Puzzling our way out of a bad situation is an instinct well supplied to Americans but less elsewhere. We’ve never been a culture of constraint and limits, which are dead ends. We’re a culture of opportunity. In most of the world, things are fixed, which can mean rigged as well as unalterably set. 

When the European chattering classes denigrate Americans, what they consider our yahooism, what they’re saying is that they envy our freedom and, of course, our prosperity. I’ve experienced this hundreds of times, in work and personal relationships. 

I write about art, and this really isn’t about art. It’s about character and citizenship. Victimhood, though, is a big subject in art today. I’m a sucker for a hard-luck story, but victim art gets tiresome fast. It’s a visual pity party. It’s trying to win by pretending to lose. Since we’re talking about bad seeds, victimhood is envy’s sibling. Each is as likely as the other to beget blame. Victim art is something new in American art. It’s art with little energy, drive, or curiosity. I think most of it is junk.

This article appears as “Freedom from Envy” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

In This Issue

What We Love About America

U.S.

American Men

American men — with few exceptions — treat you like a human being, in a free, natural way, because they’ve done it from the nation’s youth.

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Most Popular

Culture

‘Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself’

It was just one more segment to fill out the hour, and thereby fill the long 24 hours of Saturday’s cable news on November 2. Or so it seemed. Navy SEAL Mike Ritland was on the Fox News program Watters World to talk to Jesse Watters about trained German shepherds like the one used in the raid that found ... Read More
Politics & Policy

ABC Chief Political Analyst: GOP Rep. Stefanik a ‘Perfect Example’ of the Failures of Electing Someone ‘Because They Are a Woman’

Matthew Dowd, chief political analyst for ABC News, suggested that Representative Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.) was elected due to her gender after taking issue with Stefanik's line of questioning during the first public impeachment hearing on Wednesday. “Elise Stefanik is a perfect example of why just electing ... Read More
Film & TV

The Manly Appeal of Ford v Ferrari

There used to be a lot of overlap between what we think of as a Hollywood studio picture (designed to earn money) and an awards movie (designed to fill the trophy case, usually with an accompanying loss of money). Ford v Ferrari is a glorious throwback to the era when big stars did quality movies about actual ... Read More
White House

Impeachment and the Broken Truce

The contradiction at the center of American politics in Anno Domini 2019 is this: The ruling class does not rule. The impeachment dog-and-pony show in Washington this week is not about how Donald Trump has comported himself as president (grotesquely) any more than early convulsions were about refreshed ... Read More
U.S.

What Happened to California Republicans?

From 1967 to 2019, Republicans controlled the California governorship for 31 of 52 years. So why is there currently not a single statewide Republican officeholder? California also has a Democratic governor and Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. Only seven of California’s 53 ... Read More
World

China’s Holocaust of Children

Using the aggressively bland term “one-child policy” is a bit like saying that 1942 Germany had restrictions on Jews. You may never have thought much about how a huge nation enforces a limit of one baby per family, but the horrifying details of China's Holocaust of children emerge in a powerful documentary ... Read More