Art and Societal Renewal

James F. Cooper, in the last chapter of his Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape, says this of the role of art in renewing our society’s disoriented moral compass:

A revolution of beauty, truth, and goodness requires leadership from all parts of society–parents, educators, politicians, business people.   Solutions for the crisis in contemporary culture cannot be successfully addressed only by looking to the past.  We must use language that speaks directly to the people of today.  We must create public and private spaces that invite worship, civility, education, virtue, love, and fidelity.  

Cooper then mentions two fascinating historical precedents for what he envisions.  First,

The emperor Augustus dramatically revitalized the faltering Roman Empire, beset by internal chaos and civil strife, by embarking on an ambitious “cultural program.”  Refurbishing old temples, creating beautiful new works of civic architecture and public sculpture, he found a way to express the longing of the Romans for the virtues of the past.  


When Moses comes down from the mountain carrying the ten commandments, to discover the Hebrews praying to a golden calf, the Bible offers no description of the pagan symbol.  Instead, Exodus provides twelve chapters, 411 verses, describing in great detail how God commanded the Hebrews to create holy artifacts….Thus Exodus provides us with a parable for cultural renewal.  

This optimistic call for the forging of a new cultural alternative–a true counter-culture, if you will–reminds me of the pessimistic Mark Steyn making a similar call recently in Commentary magazine:

The Democrats used their brutal Romney-gives-you-cancer/ Ryan-offs-your-granny advertising in Ohio as bad cop to the good cop of Obama’s cultural cool. The trouble for conservatives is we have no good cop. That’s to say, we have no positive presence in the broader cultural space where real people actually live. We have all the talk-radio shows and cable networks we need, and the rest of the country is happy to leave us walled up in those redoubts. But culture trumps politics, and not just in the movies and pop songs, grade schools and mainline churches, but increasingly in the boardrooms, too. Instead of giving your hard-earned dollars to help drag some finger-in-the-windy squish with an R after his name over the finish line every other November, conservatives need to start fighting on the turf that matters. We risk winding up like the Shakers–dependent on conversion while eschewing all effective means thereof.

Steyn and Cooper both write based on an observation that I share, that conservatives have all but abdicated their role in American culture for decades.  As academics retiring to the ivory tower rather than bringing enlightenment to the people, conservatives have preferred to create echo chamber ghettos for themselves, focusing on a few aspects of life–economics, hot button social issues–and completely ignoring the one thing that actually galvanizes people: culture.

Not only have we ignored it, we’ve even become hostile to it.  I’ve read more than one Ann Coulter column where she derides actors as people who just wear make up and play pretend.  Such attitudes may lead to some in-crowd snickers, but will never, ever, engage the larger population.  As Steyn very wisely wrote, “culture trumps politics.”  If we mean what we say, we need to take our message into the public sphere with quality artistry.


A little earlier in his book, Cooper writes of politically correct art, “If political dogma is to replace formal aesthetics, we might ask why bother to create works of art?  Why not just publish political tracts, with headlines that read ‘End Racism’ and ‘End War’?….  These works are little more than propaganda posters for liberal ideological causes.”

This quip reminded me of the common conservative question of liberal ideas about constitutional law: if the Constitution is meant to be reinterpreted by each new generation as it sees fit, instead of being a binding charter upon all generations, then why bother having a Constitution at all?