The Plight of the Conservative Artist in a Liberal World
By Kay Clarity, The Imaginative Conservative
The left has long understood the power of the arts in furthering radical ideas, in a way conservatives have largely failed to grasp in defending theirs. Conservatives with the financial means must increase their support of conservative artists for the sake of a culture in immediate need of the wisdom that a long intellectual, cultural, educational, and political conservative tradition has produced.
I am an artistic professional—a singer-songwriter—who is also a political and cultural conservative. Needless to say, it has been a lonely road.
For those unaware, artistic circles—musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers—tend to be of the most liberal-leaning sort in comparison to the general populace. This is not universally bad, by any stretch, at most points in history. They are often the dreamers, the innovators, the explorers, in and out of the artistic realm. They thrive on creatively challenging the status quo, and status quos often require such challenge.
But, particularly in recent years, this strong tendency toward radically leftist politics has become more extreme and more dogmatic among many of the strongest voices—so much so that conservative artists, in even the broadest sense, prescinding from partisan concerns, seem to the outside observer not to exist at all. And in a real way, that seeming is truth, at least in terms of successful professionals in their respective sectors, particularly in the younger generation. The more that extreme left dogmatism becomes normative in the art world, the harder it is for conservative-leaning artists to get past various gatekeepers as well as work with their colleagues on projects, particularly as those projects lift off increasingly more from authentic artistic expression into committed ideological agenda (the former being generally unifying, the latter generally divisive). The conservative artist is either explicitly starved out of her industry, or she is forced to work on projects antithetical to her convictions, stifling her authentic perception and raison d’etre as artist. Taking also into account the influence of the near-universal peer ideology, few survive in this climate with their convictions and artistry intact.
There remain nonpartisan, authentic, worthy projects, but these are diminishing, even within the last few years, as the lethal mix of socialist propaganda and unbridled market concerns takes deeper root in the cultural landscape at the expense of honest art. There is simply not much good work for the principled, conservative artist. There are limited niche conservative projects, but while these don’t violate the conservative element of the artist’s convictions, they do, unfortunately, often violate his artistic ones—an unfortunate “other side” to the unique challenges of the conservative artist. Propaganda remains propaganda even if it is essentially true; it is a controversial, oversimplified means of communication, and one that is certainly outside of the voice of any valuable artist (just as it is arguably below the intelligence and dignity of any human person). The conservative projects that are able to raise necessary capital are often those that tend toward thin moralism and this feeling of propaganda, as they easily draw out a predictable, niche audience, securing investment return. The riskier ones—the ones that our best and most talented artists conceive of and incubate—can therefore rarely plug into the systems necessary for success, on either side of the political spectrum, although for different reasons.
Mediocrity and ideology thus regularly triumph.
The Conservative Artist in Hiding and Plain Sight
So where then is the conservative artist? Outside of perhaps the niche evangelical film and music market, and perhaps areas of the country music genre, the conservative artist is either floundering or hiding in plain sight, never to come clean, increasingly also even in Christian circles—either as artist or as conservative, and perhaps sometimes as both.
If he succeeds in his industry, he walks a constant tight rope; he shows up and must do the most excellent work; he can never speak of politics or religion; he subtly weaves his voice in with the strong liberal one around him, and accepts the small addition or move in direction he is able to offer—a little more redemption, a little more sense, a little more of a well-rounded character in the script with neutrality rather than hostility toward the values he holds dear; he goes to secret meetings at unreleased locations with others from the industry in hiding; he fights the incredible loneliness that comes with forced, constant inauthenticity, and seeks desperate nourishment through a few trusted friendships. It is a life of worthy sacrifice, but a painful one.
Or, he languishes outside of success, unable to continue in his craft in a professional way if he hopes to pay his rent.
The conservative artist is not a mythical creature; he is a silenced voice.
But before we rage against the “liberal Hollywood machine,” as is a habit of besieged conservatives, there needs to be a reckoning within our owns ranks—for this silencing has both an active agent as well as a passive one, and the passive one is perhaps the more destructive.
Although the cultural shouting down of the conservative voice is not to be dismissed as inconsequential, the silence of the conservative artist is principally a lack of magnification rather than a strict tightening of the lips. The artist is not silent, but the voice remains largely inaudible due to lack of amplification by those who could provide it. Again, the radical left has long seen fit to fund and support its artists with a view to long-term influence on the culture and without primary concern of financial return. Conservatives as a whole have largely missed the opportunity to, at the very least, respond to such an onslaught. Conservative artists, understanding this principle, find themselves suffering from a feeling of homelessness and abandonment, confused by the lack of support.
It is simply fact that without conservatives as a large subset of the population demanding quality art, such art cannot be shared in any meaningful, culturally-affecting way. Art depends, as it always has, on devoted patrons as its lifeblood—moviegoers, book-buyers, concert attendees, and, perhaps most principally, various investors.
A Cultural Challenge for the Conservative Sector
Many things must happen for this demand for, and crucial patronage of, conservative artists to occur.
First, many more conservatives, particularly fiscal and political conservatives, must concern themselves with art, especially the humbler “folk” art, the language of the people, which they are often notably reticent to do—often except, as mentioned above, in the case of safe investment returns. The tendency toward a utilitarian concern with mammon rather than sacrificial and generous commitment to ideals is, arguably, the conservative Achilles’ heel. Investment in the arts must be seen as cultural, educational, political, and even spiritual investment, alongside the potential financial—while always resisting the slide into propagandic forms.
Second, conservatives have to be willing to be educated in quality in all artistic media, from the highest forms down, rather than look for cheap, ingratiating affirmation of their political or religious leanings. True art is the deeper heart that assumes rather than always proclaims the artist’s convictions. Philosophical underpinnings necessarily bleed through and stain the artist’s production. We have to be trained to see these bleed-throughs, rather than applaud and reward only the neon signs, thus magnifying the tacky and ineffective. Whether or not his subject matter is more forthrightly conservative, the artist—if he is good—speaks a subtle, worthy, intimate language; we must be attuned to the whispers.
Third, conservatives must understand the ramifications of supporting or not supporting their brothers in the arts, and allow this to directly affect their monetary decisions. Ultimately—for the pragmatist, if he does not live in any meaningful way for ideals—it is bad for business. Culture convinces and changes; stories and narratives—the artist’s terrain—shape the collective consciousness of a nation and civilization, and thus also the market. The incoming socialism of our age, particularly in younger generations, should be sufficient threat to motivate action, but even the increasing rejection and attack on conservative businesses in all sectors should be enough to sound the alarm. To reject support of the best conservative artists, many who make great personal sacrifices to produce culture-shifting quality work, is to fundamentally reject one’s own existence in the broader culture, in spite of being a sizable subset of that culture. It is only a matter of time before this complete rejection becomes apparent; perhaps we are nearly there.
Put positively, supporting conservative excellence in the arts, in all of its forms, will produce a substantive movement that fosters thoughtful, responsible, and virtuous citizens. It will do this simply because the conservative voice, if authentic, is a voice of common sense, strength, goodness, magnanimity, integrity, stability, and hope. Edifying work affects people in a real and lasting way. Narratives that affirm conservative values—again, organically rather than in a propagandizing way—from hard work and meaningful leisure, to familial loyalty, to compassionate, connected responsibility, effectively change the cultural conversation over time.
The influence of the artist extends far beyond a spread sheet and cannot be directly quantified; books, poems, songs, and films stay with a person indefinitely. Who doesn’t find a song lyric or scene from a movie or book coming into the imagination after years of forgetfulness? The psyche holds on strongly to art, largely because the arts pair with the electricity of emotion in a human person, carving a strong neural pathway for memory. These memories persist long after conscious interaction with the art. To dismiss this power as unimportant or quaint is marked foolishness.
The radical political left, we can say, has had the benefit of the mainstream media, Hollywood, the humanities, and the music industry. It may be so, but it is so largely because conservatives have not taken sufficient interest in and ownership of these sectors of society, and this neglect has had deleterious effects. The radical left has for decades taken the longview, of which we are now seeing the dramatic fruit in its more extreme manifestations; it has long understood the power of the arts in furthering radical ideas, in a way conservatives have largely failed to grasp in defending theirs. Funding for the arts in a radically left direction, particularly through private means in mass media and popular culture, has therefore been ample; conservatives must at least begin to try to compete.
Millennials and Gen Z are receiving most reports of national and international events through the lens of a celebrity social media post and their most recent Spotify playlist. They are not, as a whole, reading the paper or books, nor anything that even electronically resembles these. They are often not even on Facebook anymore—the meatiest of our social media offerings—where they may on the off-chance come across an Imaginative Conservative essay to skim.
The ramifications of this reality can be hard for the sage and virtuous conservative thinker to fully grasp. Our political fight has now shifted almost entirely to the cultural arena, and our lone artistic soldiers have little armour.
Signs of Hope
There are strong signs of hope burgeoning in the more traditionally intellectual, “high” artistic fields, often Catholic—The Colosseum, Wiseblood Books, Dappled Things. While not politically focused, these are broadly conservative in the sense of simply not engendering the extreme leftist politics that is dominant in most artistic circles. But one searches in vain for an equivalent conservative music producer, or film company, or record label, largely because these things require substantive financial support. Those who are such often have their cards impeccably close to their chests to maintain their livelihood through their liberal clientele, to the point that they are not recognizable; but nearly all are simply not conservative. We do not currently have a significant stake in that part of the game.
(Perhaps one new exception is the series on the Gospels directed by Dallas Jenkins, THE CHOSEN, which has creatively sourced funding from its audience to produce quality film storytelling around the Christian narrative. While evidently explicitly religious in theme, it is unique in its ability to capture the Gospel characters in an authentic and new way without veering into sentimentality—admirable and rare.)
There remain many little individual engines that could, however. They remain largely isolated, but fighting. They are generally both strong and talented if they have survived this far.
The conservative artist exists. I am one of them, and recently stepped out clearly as such, tired of the hiding and hungry to be free artistically to tackle the issues I care about, such as socialism and the shallowness of our times. I am also privy to a quiet network of others like me in the behemoth artistic liberal metropolis of Los Angeles and beyond. It is difficult to mobilize without resources—financial, business, and otherwise; self-funding is ideal, but difficult, as most artists scramble simply to survive. Savvy business mentorship (an area where artists do not generally shine) is much needed, although always without disproportionate concern for the market.
Religious connections are unfortunately not, as a rule, tangibly meaningful here, particularly if one does not deal directly in religious content. Being a Catholic is only small help, surprisingly; many robust Catholic artists and art-lovers who reject sentimentality and poor quality increasingly lean heavily liberal also, driven perhaps by their generally sensitive and compassionate temperament, a desire for worldly sophistication, and the real effect of the views of their professional artistic peers. I imagine it is similar in other religious groups. Thus, the authentic conservative voice is a voice often related to but ultimately distinct from a simply religious one, and is thus in great need of collaborative support from those with similar convictions.
Much needs building, and the solutions are not simple. But the voice itself exists. It is time for this quiet, nuanced conservative voice to be heard in the arts, in a way only the arts can be heard. It is time for these quiet voices to courageously sing and speak with gusto and fearlessness, and for conservatives with financial and entrepreneurial means to intentionally amplify their words, songs, stories, and brushstrokes. This must be done for the sake of a culture in immediate need of the wisdom that a long intellectual, cultural, educational, and political conservative tradition has produced—a tradition that will often only come to the people through art.
It is time for conservatism to shed its often-reduced version of itself, concerned primarily with finances and the immediate political landscape, in favour of a much richer and long-lasting focus. It is time to fight squarely for conservatism’s rightful cultural place.
Note: This article originally appeared on The Imaginative Conservative. Reprinted with permission.