How the Arts Shifted Leftward

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Many readers were surprised to learn, in Joan Didion’s obituaries, that the New Journalist par excellence never fully abandoned the Goldwater-endorsing, National Review contributing conservatism of her youth, despite her harsh critiques of Reaganism.

Isn’t there, after all, an affinity between the innovative, the inventive, the groundbreaking, the creative, and the avant-garde and the political left?

Today, the liberal left dominates the arts and other cultural institutions: publishing, journalism, media, and, of course, the academy. But it wasn’t always so.

Here, I’m not referring to the Tory radicalism of Dickens and the later George Eliot or the smug conservatism of the genteel tradition or the class-bound traditionalism of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

Rather, I’m thinking of conservative modernists. Many foundational modernists in literature and the arts embraced values that we today quite rightly consider “range from the objectionable to the obnoxious.”

It’s not just Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, but the Southern Fugitives (including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Merrill Moore, Laura Riding, and Robert Penn Warren) and those like Max Eastman, the erstwhile editor of The Masses, and John Dos Passos, who gravitated rightward over the years.

Then there were the Cold War modernists.  As Victoria Phillips demonstrates in her gracefully written, analytically powerful of study of modernism in dance, Martha Graham’s Cold War, the U.S. government promoted modern dance as pro-Western Cold War propaganda, supposedly symbolizing the values democracy, freedom, and individualism. Jazz and abstract expressionism, too, were also deployed the government as weapons in the Cold War “to woo European intellectuals,” with figures including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock abandoning or downplaying the more radical views of their early years.

To be sure, many modernists stood squarely on the political left, notably the Greenwich Village radicals that Christine Stansell chronicled in her study of Bohemian New York, American Moderns. Then there were others, like Virginia Woolf, who occupied an uneasy middle ground, revolutionary in style, radical on some issues, but conservative or traditionalist on others.

How could it be that many of the creators of transgressive works of art or literature, which broke taboos, overturned conventions, and challenged boundaries and conventions of all kinds, could lean rightward?

recent essay in Commonweal by the literary critic and theorist Terry Eagleton offers a key to unlocking this mystery.  Conservative and the more radical modernists embraced an anti-capitalist ethos that could be left or right leaning.

Nominally a riff on the life and works of TS Eliot, the Eagleton essay examines the nature of conservative modernism. It demonstrates that far from a non sequitur, conservative modernism represented a strong and enduring current in modernism and even postmodernism.   Conservative modernists like Eliot:

  • Railed against commercialism, the philistine middle class, and “the dictatorship of finance,” and decried the godless materialism, selfish individualism, the arid rationalism, the capitalist greed, the cult of utility, the exaltation of the solitary ego, the worship of the machine, and spiritual vacancy of contemporary society.
  • Expressed strongly elitist views, and considered the mass public “hollow men” who were “incapable of what might properly be called thinking” or of aesthetic appreciation of a high order.
  • Celebrated custom and tradition, myth and ritual, and denounced the transformation of history into “a readily consumable commodity known as ‘heritage.’”

As Eagleton observes, apart from its (abhorrent) elitism and disdain for democratic society and its (repugnant) blindness to cultural diversity, conservative modernism shares many concerns with liberal and radical modernism.  T.S. Eliot saw no conflict at all between the classical ideasl of order, balance, and harmony, and modernist poetry “marked by spiritual disorder, sordid imagery, broken rhythms, banal snatches of speech and barren inner landscapes,” since modernism needed to draw upon the imagery of contemporary life and everyday experience and speak to cultural anxieties and social disorder of its age. 

So, if there had once been a strong conservative modernist current within the arts and literature, how did modernism subsequently become synonymous with the political left?  

Let me suggest some possible explanations that go beyond the argument that the problem lies with various gatekeepers – publishers, critics, agents, art dealers, and professors in academic creative writing and arts programs – who self-consciously discriminated against conservative artists, poets, and writers of fiction:

1. Artists and writers came increasingly from the margins.
The avant-garde increasingly consisted of writers and artists who were Black, Jewish, women, gays, lesbians, immigrants, or members of other outsider groups, who came to define themselves in opposition to society’s existing traditions and power structures and conservative values.

2. Conservatism in the arts and literature became associated with reductive realism and simpleminded moralism.
Like much of the contemporary art of the Civil War or the American West, conservatism in the arts has become anything but modernist.  It is easily dismissed as second-rate, pedestrian, tacky, and tasteless, as crude, clichéd, contrived, and clumsy—and deeply moralistic, exclusionary, restrictive, and nostalgic to boot.

3. The radical cultural critique that T.S. Eliot advocated became largely the province of the left.
There is no intrinsic reason that conservatism in the arts can’t be incorporate the kinds of cultural criticism associated with Eliot (or, for that matter, with Nietzsche).  And certainly, the more radical forms of modernist and postmodernist art can easily descend into dogmatic agitprop and crude propaganda. But while liberal and radical modernists found language, symbols, forms, and approaches to express their cultural critiques, more conservative modernists did not.

4. The realms that might have produced alternative forms of modernism failed to do so.
Heightened secularism, the growing role of colleges and universities in training writers and artists, and the nationalizing and globalizing of the arts world have increasingly displaced the realms where artistic countercurrents might emerge.

Art is never apolitical. Even the slogan “art for art’s sake,” the early 19th century idea that art needs no justification and need not serve a moral purpose, itself served a political end: To reject the belief that works of art should be morally uplifting or didactic.

Modernism – the challenge to established orthodoxies and older styles and forms and the artistic experimentation that acquired impetus from Freudian psychoanalysis, the rise of physics and the discovery of a hidden world of radioactivity, the invention of photography, new understandings of optics, the influence of non-European works of art, and the growing emphasis on imaginative fantasies, subjective emotions, the abstract, the unconscious, and streams of consciousness – was almost certainly the late 19th and 20th centuries greatest contribution to art and literature.

As art and literature shifted away from more straightforward forms of mimesis, from what Terry Eagleton has termed “representational realism,” art became more explicitly and self-consciously political.  The drift from verisimilitude toward more modernist, abstract, surreal, ironic, and democratic forms of representation was driven, in part, by new psychological understandings, new political outlooks, and far-reaching societal transformations that called into question older forms of representation that had been deemed realistic.  

To view works of art as intrinsically political needn’t distract from their aesthetic dimension.  But it should deepen our appreciation of works of art and literature, which never simply reveal life “as it is.” Rather, as Erich Auerbach argued nearly 80 years ago, such works always refract reality through various artistic and literary conventions.  But, it’s essential to add, those works also carry profound social, political, and ethical meanings and implications that readers or spectators need to learn how to decipher.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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