We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Art to the left – art to the right

The buzz started by the Two Blowhards about whether righties like art or not, etc., rumbles on most entertainingly. I particularly liked this posting. Here’s a few more pennies-worth from me.

If you are a lefty, you believe in actively shaping the details of the big wide world out there. You and your friends are going to plan it, shape it, sculpt it, collectively and democratically if you are being nice about it. Therefore your opinions about everything, including art, are a public issue. If you prefer abstract impressionism to neo-realism, then you have a positive duty to say so, because when you have finally become the Benevolent Despot of Everything of Behalf of Everyone, your opinion is going to make a big difference to all those favoured or thwarted artists and art fans out there. Ditto your opinions about history, geography, biology, nuclear physics, literary criticism, sport, car design or car abolition, Linux-v-Windows-v-Mac, gay marriage, tupperware, who should or should not get the Nobel Peace Prize and who should or should not be allowed to enter the Eurovision Song Contest. And when you finally realise that you aren’t going to be the Benevolent Despot of Everything on Behalf of Everyone, there remains the matter of badgering the person who is into giving political support to the art you approve of, and to everything else that you approve of, and dissing everything you want dissed. There are no boundaries to politics. Everything is political. Even the personal – in fact especially the personal, because that makes this quintessentially leftist point so strongly – is political.

And then there’s the right, by which I mean me. Actually I don’t care for the word “right” to describe my noble and infinitely nuanced self, for all the usual libertarian reasons. Legalise drugs, hurrah for the international free migration of labour, blah blah blah. But the word refuses to detach itself from me. So yes, the Other Position I contrast with leftism is my own. So, a day or two ago I get inspired – partly by some kind words from a Blowhard about the pleasing tendency of us Samizdatistas to write not only about terrorism, war, taxation, and our preference for our preferred politicians, but to write also about artsy-fartsy weirdy stuff – and I do a rant about Madonna. And guess what comment number one was. It was: What the hell was that all about? Why are you writing about Madonna? You obviously took a lot of trouble over it (no, not really, I just sat down and wrote it), but why? What was the point? If you like her, buy her videos, go to her movies, if not not. End of story.

And the point is he has a point. In the unlikely event that I or someone severely influenced by me becomes the Benevolent Despot of Everything on Behalf of Everyone, the answer to most questions will not be for me to expound my opinion, it will be for me to expound my meta-opinion (as Perry de Havilland might put it) that my mere opinion does not matter. The serious question I ask and answer is not (e.g.): which art do I prefer and therefore think should be hung on these walls of this art gallery? My serious question is: Who owns the art gallery? I may have all kinds of fancy artsy-fartsy opinions about the matter, but the serious part of my opinion is that “my opinion” is not the point.

Thus, in Brian-world, neither I nor anyone else is inclined to take my views on art very seriously, since they are not ever going to matter that much, any more than those of anyone else with a wallet or a credit card. I adore Rachmaninoff piano concertos, but I do not think that either Rachmaninoff music or anti-Rachmaninoff music (if you get my drift) should be subsidised, so, who else really cares what I think of Rachmaninoff? Not even I care that desperately. I’m never going to make an important decision, of the sort that will involve anyone else’s pleasures besides mine, on the basis of what I think of Rachmaninoff, so I can relax and worry about it later, if at all.

And there is a big part of the answer to why righties do not seem to care about art. The answer is that we do care, but that we do not care. We have our preferences, maybe extremely intense ones. But our most intense preference of all is for each to be allowed to have his own preferences, and for no one to be over-ruled by any Benevolent Despot, no matter how many mere opinions we happen to share with the Benevolent Despot. The point is, he is a despot, and that is not right.

It actually is something of a cliché of right wing British politics that dull besuited men, who have spent all of their working lives making impeccably dull and philistine pronouncements about such things as the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement or NATO Enlargement or the Common Agricultural Policy, but who are suddenly, when they leave office, revealed as having a passion for early nineteenth century romantic poetry or Chinese ceramics. Suddenly they start writing articles in cultural magazines to this effect. Well, well, what a surprise. Who would have thought the old stick had such juices flowing inside him? But the point is, such tastes were always personal matters, not political ones. Now that he no longer matters in politics, he can indulge in his merely personal – albeit no longer private – preferences, in circumstances where no one can possibly misunderstand him as saying that Wagner ought to be compulsory in all primary schools or Chinese ceramics purchased more aggressively by the British Museum or not smashed so much by those damned communists, or whatever. He just likes it, is all he is saying.

There was another Two Blowhards posting a day or two back, about some poetry czar that some US politicians had appointed or were about to appoint or some such thing. A Blowhard said: If there has to be a poetry czar, this is the kind of poetry czar we should have. (Actually it was boss of the NEA, but “czar” will do.) And I, of course, would never dream of commenting on such a discussion without including in my comments this comment: to hell with poetry czars. Being poetic is no excuse whatsoever for being a czar. And I go on and on about czarism and what a bad thing it is, and am all too likely to let the poetry take care of itself.

Sorry this was so long. As with the Madonna rant I do not have the time just now to shorten it, and make it something that lots of people will want to read. Ah what the hell, it was only about art.

7 comments to Art to the left – art to the right

  • Speaking as the person who wrote comment no. 1 of your Madonna rant, I wasn’t objecting to the fact that you’d written about some singer / actress. I was actually just amazed that someone could write so much about Madonna. My reaction was probably tempered by the fact that I know so little about Madonna, and don’t care to know very much.

    I agree with you on the term “right”; to me, that brings to mind people like Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan. I strongly dislike these individuals for different reasons. At the same time, “left” brings to mind images of Stalin and Truman. I strongly dislike these two for exactly the same reasons (between the two of them, different reasons frome Falwell and Reagan). “libertarian” seems OK, though.

    In any case, good post. ’nuff said.

  • Conservatives have always cared about art. In fact, they’ve put their money where their mouth is and built huge collections of the stuff, paid for out of their own pockets. The Liberals, on the other hand, prefer that “the Government” pay for and own all art.
    I always liked this quote from Sibelius:

    “[Musicians] talk of nothing but money and jobs. Give me businessmen every time. They really are interested in music and art.”
    – – Jean Sibelius, explaining why he rarely invited musicians to his home.

  • All art is political since it commands an audience.

  • A_t

    Some interesting points here, but I think you’re too ready to condemn all who would describe themselves as ‘leftist’ to a stereotypical existance. Despite (or, as i prefer to think, alongside) my taste for some of the beliefs bandied around here, I would describe myself as leftist. Yet i have no desire to impose my taste in art on the world. Sure, I get exasperated at the mediocrity of what passes for popular entertainment, which shops/tv etc. subject me to, but I’m no Stalin. I don’t want popstars banned, and Steve Reich made mandatory listening. Nor are any of my friends who’d describe themselves as leftist.

    Also, to suggest art and politics are utterly separable is oversimplistic. For a start, the art someone chooses, and their level of involvement with it, can be very revealing about their general thought processes and tastes. Similarly, sad but true, in many cases, people’s opinions come in ‘packages’… show me someone who’s listening mainly to Will Young & boybands; watching mainly soaps, and generally, they aren’t going to be that interested in deep thought. Now, I know many of you could come back with a friend who does both of these, and is highly politically engaged, or a doctor of philosophy, but they’re in a minority and my generalisation; stereotype if you like, stays. Generally speaking, a genuine interest in an artform indicates the person will at least be interesting in some way; have some depth of thought. Why else would pretentious types try to fake the knowledge?

    It’s also clear that if art (of whatever type; high or low, accepted or unacknowledged) moves you, affects you, then the disturbances it creates in the chaotic system that is the brain *will* affect your perception. They can’t help but do so. You may, or may not be aware of the changes they’re instigating, but to deny their existance is dishonest.

    Also, on the one hand, you say that private patrons are right to fund the art they prefer. Yet politicians have also risen, through hard work, personal enterprise, within a system. Why then should their preferences not matter? Aha… but i guess their words or opinions affect the redistribution of *stolen* money, yes? (not my word, but the impression i have so far!) Further, they’re supposed to be representing the public, & so sublimating their personal preferences, no?

    That last paragraph wasn’t intended to be sarcastic, though it may be somewhat provocative. I’m just interested to know what peoples’ take on it all is.

  • Politicians have the right to represent their own personal beliefs in what they vote for, but they have the duty to not violate the rights of citizens for frivolous reasons. Violating the rights of the people to handle their own money in exchange for a police force to stop criminals is not a frivolous reason, but violating the rights of individuals in order to support the arts is a frivolous reason. People should be allowed to not spend their money on art if they so choose.

    It seems to me that people should talk about their opinions on art, but they shouldn’t force their opinions down others’ throats in the form of government patronage for the arts. That’s an important distinction: your opinion does matter if it’s any good, but even if it does matter, that doesn’t mean the government should spend money on it.

    As for the misrepresentation of leftists, well, maybe, but not in my experience. Most leftists I know (my friends are, in point of fact, hardcore Leninists–seriously) are in favor of public subsidies of the arts because they think the public is too stupid to pick good arts. The public’s tastes are far too vulgar to let them have say in what art is produced. So much for respect for the working man. More moderate leftists probably think differently, but this has been my experience with actual communists.

    Regarding the philosopher thing, Ludwig Wittgenstein read American pulp detective novels, and said that they had more philosophy in them than most philosophical papers coming out of Cambridge 😉

  • Jacob

    Very good piece.
    Now that we rest assured that you are not any kind of czar, please keep writing art pieces. Don’t leave all the burden to John Derbyshire, as in this :