"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Bane of Conservative Cultural Criticism

The Achilles heel of most conservative cultural critics is their tendency to characterize repugnant works of pop culture as establishing that society as a whole, or some great swath of it, is irredeemably corrupt. In commenting, for example, on Carol Iannone's scathing review of the pro-homosexual and apparently exceedingly vulgar and imbecilic British film The History Boys (written by the overrated and immensely asinine author Alan Bennett), Lawrence Auster of View from the Right claims that "the British elites despise their country, their culture, their history, and secretly or openly wish to have done with it all."

Auster says that this movie shows that Britain is on a "path to national suicide."

One play, of course, does not a culture make, and Auster can undoubtedly claim his point is that The History Boys is not conclusive in itself but is revealing as part of a massive chain of evidence of corruption. Auster, however, writes, "by the time the movie ended, the realization hit me that the British elites that created a movie like this, that praised and recommended a movie like this, seek with cold and deliberate malice the destruction of their country."

Now, that is surely wrong, and it is why conservatives so seldom gain much traction in discussions of culture. The "irredeemably corrupt society/elite" argument is simply an unsophisticated, incorrect, and uninteresting critique.

There is undoubtedly a significant proportion of the British elite that is as corrupt as Alan Bennett, and there is surely a goodly portion that is sympathetic to them although they cannot bring themselves to go that far. But there are also certainly a great many who don't accept the premises of Bennett and his ilk. That's the Omniculture: Everything happens.

A shot from TV program Footballers' WivesLook at the BBC and other British television, for example, and you'll find a good deal of material that is repugnant to the sensibilities of a reasonable, spiritually and mentally healthy person, and you'll also find much that is sensible and good. Even in openly sleazy shows such as Mile High and Footballers' Wives there are highly traditional assumptions and moral lessons to be derived. It all depends greatly on the viewer's own point of view.

Things are just a lot more complex than Auster appears to be willing to recognize. It seems clear to me that people are struggling, in England and the United States alike, to find a wordview, mentality, and culture that makes sense after the post-World War II demolition of American society's shared values. It is a process that is ongoing today, and no one can say where it will ultimately lead, whether toward destruction, regeneration, or a perpetual unhappy tension between the two. It is simply not ours to know at this point.

The fact is, anybody can cherry-pick a few especially vivid examples of popular culture on either the wilder or more traditional edges of the Omniculture and claim that things are getting worse or getting better. But the creation of simple dichotomies and the demonization of one's cultural enemies will get us nowhere. False and/or simplistic, Manichean statements simply undermine one's credibility and that of one's allies in the struggle to redeem the culture.

From Karnick on Culture.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree and disagree, STK. I dredge up Chesterton again in that one can touch a man's heart, but as for his head, one can only hit him on it. This, I think, is your point about Mr. Auster's essay, that he chose the latter (ineffective) technique, and who could disagree? Certainly, many conservative cultural critics are unbearably clumsy from the pulpit, and can be heard only by their choirs.

But as they eschew churches themselves, I do believe that many in the arts use their product as their pulpit. This does not necessarily violate the spirit of art, so the question for the conservative critic is whether to critique the piece on its own terms or in the greater context of society and underlying philosophy.

An effective bridge would be to explain that a given piece fails because it does not hold an underlying truth, because if it defies truth, it must fail, eh?

S. T. Karnick said...

The problem is that Auster and other conservative critics tend to tar the entire culture with one brush, leaping from unpleasant experiences to the conclusion that society is decadent beyond repair. That is simple puritanism, and it has all the flaws to which that worldview is heir.

The critique that sees mass social decadance in the existence of repugnant art objects is neither real criticism nor useful, mainly because it ignores all that is good in order to bleat its Cassandra song. In addition, that critique too often concentrates on surfaces and neglects the underlying meanings of things. Chesterton defended "penny dreadfuls" because he understood this very point. Auster tells us about some rotten surface and claims to be finished. But the numerous examples of what is good and salubrious in our culture give the lie to such conservative critiques. Things are just much more complex than such critics are willing to acknowledge.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I just ran across anther Auster essay, trashing Steyn and "Spengler" of the Asia Times for being too simplistic in their prediction of woe over sinking European birthrates.

Dunno what it all portends, but it portendeth something.