Is there any such thing as a conservative artist?

September 18, 2007 at 12:47 pm (art) (, )

Seriously, can anyone think of even one?

It has to be a real artist. Meaning, an artist (in any medium) who uses her work to: actively explore her inner world and the world around her, express her emotions and values, and in some way affect her audience. What this rules out is people who are very skilled at a craft (i.e. painting) but use this aptitude only mechanically (i.e. painting lovely but meaningless sailboats over and over). I think any form of creation is art if it is used to communicate what the artist finds urgent and/or profound (communicate through symbols, probably; compiling a set of statistics of urgent importance isn’t usually art). Using this definition of art*, has there ever been a socially** conservative artist?

I’m waiting to be proven wrong here, but until I am, I’m going to stick by my gut feeling that fundamentalists and their ilk are absolutely right to demonize artists along with liberals, communists, queers, and others who threaten the current world order. Art is a direct and profound challenge to bigotry of every variety, because art attempts to communicate the truly human. Since everyone (women and black people and poor people even) is ultimately human, art erodes the idea that it’s appropriate to treat others in ways you yourself would not like to be treated.

Ironically, I think art fulfills the mission religious fundamentalists purport to be interested in: convincing everyone to love others as they love themselves. I find it damned difficult if not impossible to hate someone when I’ve seen and understood their deepest, realest self-expression. And hatred often comes easily to me.

Edited to add a note about writers: Certainly there are many conservative bloggers, writrs, thinkers; I don’t think academic and/or political writing counts, but less material writing forms like fiction and poetry certainly do (again excluding the mechanical skill thing, which in this case I think applies to things like trashy novels).

* If anyone really disagrees with the substance and intentions of this definition, feel free to quibble with it.

** I’m not talking about fiscal conservatives here. Strictly social conservatives, folks who are opposed to the progressive work of humanists like feminists, anti-racists, queer rights activists, disability advocates, anti-classism activists, etc. etc.



  1. Daisy said,

    Commenting on my own post: Emily, if my intuition is right about this, it should pretty effectively rule out the possibility of that writer joining the KKK and spoiling your tattoo.

  2. Deb Seeger said,

    I used to think there was such a thing as a fine art conservative since I had dreams of practicing fine art and I “thought” I was a conservative. Through visual and written self exploration I find that I am nothing what I believe myself to be. After a century of life, I realize I too, am a bigot, self serving ingrate who pretends to be liberal, loving and one for all.

  3. Ampersand said,

    I don’t think I agree with you. Look at the right-wing artists who paint adoring pictures of Saint Reagan or (less frequently nowadays) Saint Bush. I may think they’re awful artists, but they certainly are using their art to communicate something they consider urgent and profound.

  4. Daisy said,

    Come again, Deb Seeger?

  5. Daisy said,

    That’s an interesting example, Ampersand. If you can think of any specific artists off the top of your head I’d love to look them up.

    My gut feeling was that honest artistic self-expression leads people to understand themselves as human and, by extension, others as human, undoing the fundamentalists framework of paranoid demonizing of what’s different. But I suppose that wouldn’t happen if your most honest self-expression were your undying love of Reagan.

  6. ballgame said,

    I don’t know if anti-Semitism/racism is functionally equivalent to social conservatism for the purposes of your argument, but Ezra Pound, Richard Wagner, Leni Riefenstahl, and D. W. Griffith come to mind. I think some would also argue that Ayn Rand was a great writer (though many would disagree).

    Personally, I’m ambivalent about your thesis. Certainly I think that great art often incorporates insight about human connectedness that undermines rightwing ideologies that tend to either deny it or which adopt a “WE’RE human, it’s those OTHERS who are not” frame. But I also have to admit that not all aesthetically powerful work incorporates such themes, and not all creative and talented people are progressive.

    I’m not sure how to resolve this seeming contradiction, if there in fact is one. Maybe “aesthetically powerful” ≠ “great art”? Or maybe “great art” ≠ “ideological coherence”? I’m not sure … I guess my intuition has been that neither my appreciation for art nor my political insights would be enhanced by trying to intellectually resolve this ‘dynamic tension.’

  7. Daisy said,

    Yeahhh, okay.

    I think my statement is an unfair generalization. A more correct statement might be something like, There are conservative artists, however art is fundamentally a threat to conservative ideology.

    I think that’s pretty reasonable: it incorporates my previous ideas while allowing room for people like your examples, ballgame. I think the work of conservative artists is still a threat to bigotry (which fairly or unfairly I have been using semi-interchangeably with social conservatism throughout this post) because even if the artist is still racist, their expression humanizes them, making reverse bigotry (demonizing racists, or any other group of which the artist is a member) more difficult.

  8. Daisy said,

    But I also have to admit that not all aesthetically powerful work incorporates such themes, and not all creative and talented people are progressive.


    A core idea for me is that even art that doesn’t intend to incorporate those themes does, inherently, simply by virtue of being an attempt to communicate as a human to other humans. The only exception would be art made with the explicit intention of doing the opposite (like say, Nazi propaganda), but then one can argue that that stuff isn’t art.

  9. Tommy G Thompsaon said,

    I am an Artist. I declare myself this even within your interestingly narrow definition and somewhat amusing aesthetic pomposity. At this time in history we find a great movement called Liberalism and it’s seeming counterpart Conservatism. We actually think they are distinct. I find both of them a religious movement of faith and doctrine…. which is fine. They depend on a belief in a paradigm model that will bring about some future result and both believe their model will bring about the best and most beneficial resultant order for humanity. At the core of both is a belief that people and governments are good and curiously, at the same time evil. That is very funny to me. Yet the truth is they are all that… good & evil. I have embraced both belief systems at different times in my life and finally had to admit that my reasoning mind finds conservatism the more attractive. But not wholly, for I hold any unnecessary intrusion on fundamental freedom and human dignity abhorrent. Tragically there are too many examples of those unnecessary intrusions in both camps and don’t subject me to a litany of the obvious times intrusion is warranted. The failings of my fellow species make the intelligent imposition of order crucial. Nevertheless, to many times these belief systems, and others, have both gone way to far in there zeal. No doubt, this has been the case with many conservative movements, as well but at this time the Liberals are winning the prize for repression and intrusion. The so called ‘Liberal’ movement is not actually liberal. Government is held responsible for many ills & evil deeds and yet my Pollyanna friends are eagerly ready to turn almost every aspect of their lives over to that government… with an unrealistic faith that a “Liberal” regime would be somehow different. This viewpoint completely forgets the lessons of history that the amazingly wise framers of our constitution were able to see and understand. That is power is a highly corruptive force and the bestowing of power must be accomplished with extreme caution and with constant vigilance. That means we must be free to discuss, demonstrate and publish without fear of reprisal and censorship. In that regard -unrestrained- Conservative and as well as Liberal regimes have had horrible histories. Yet there seems this insane urgency to turn almost every aspect of our lives over to this phantom, Father/Mother Government. Amazing! Liberality has shifted to mean, nanny-state, please save us from the evils of those forces of power and wealth, by institutionalizing their imperial control over us, their lowly subjects. Hahaha…. and so in this current Twilight Zone, many conservatives become the raging defenders of individualism. In truth, I am ready for a new movement and a pox on both of your despotic religions… Do what you will I am and will remain free. Socialism kills the human spirit… and an artist without a spirit is not.

  10. Matt Prater said,

    I have to disagree first with the idea of a “social conservative” is someone who is opposed to diversity or is bigoted at heart. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I prefer to see the arguments of conservativism and liberalism as a preference for either a Platonic or Aristotleian world view. That is, I think the main characteristic of a “social” conservative is someone who believes in unshifting values and absolute truths, and that thier holding to traditional social values is not neccessarily to the discrediting of those who don’t share thier social practices, but rather as an affirmation of thier own values. It’s doesn’t mean that they have to be bigoted…I think a better word, although far from perfect, would be “old-fashioned”. That said, here are a few artists I believe might hold some conservative leanings, yet ones who are still good artists— and not bigoted:

    Bob Dylan, Akira Kurosawa, Clint Eastwood (a libertarian…watch Unforgiven, the only movie you’ll probably ever see with a black cowboy whose race is never mentioned even once), Ray Bradbury, Johnny Cash (though his conservatism is questionable), Townes Van Zandt, obviously Ayn Rand as was mentioned…although I’m not sure that you’re counting libertarianism, as most of these artists have those leanings, under the banner of conservatism.

  11. Tyler said,

    If art is a pure representation of the self (an embodiment of social and environmental positions, etc), then I think that the art will evoke different reactions based on the reactor’s social and environmental (etc) position You, the reactor, will judge the artist as closed or open based on your own social and environmental (etc) position.

  12. Robert Jones said,

    The author of this post writes from a point-of-view so narrow and bigoted, finding said author guilty of the very detriments of character she so disdains.

    To the question can I think of even one betrays an ignorance of artistic history that makes me wonder just how far beyond that of a dilettante is the author’s own knowledge.

    Another reader added anti-Semitism as a possible source of said artists and curiously adds Ayn Rand’s name to the list. Are we to infer that Rand — the nom de plume of Alissa Rosenbaum — was an anti-Semite?

    Great Art is not necessarily a function of good politics anymore than bad art is the byproduct of an evil worldview.

    To the list of artistic conservatives, may I add also Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Sibelius, Salvador Dali, A. Aubrey Bodine, Billy Wilder (a Democrat, conservative by today’s standards, and an ardent anti-communist), Sergei Rachmaninoff, (yes) Ayn Rand, John Dos Passos, Charlton Heston, and Barbara Stanwyck.

    This list is just scratching the surface, as I do not keep tally of artists’ political proclivities. I revere just as many leftist artists.

    The leftist who penned this screed need take a dose of her own medicine and treat conservatives as persons worthy of living, rather than demonizing differences of opinion. You may proclaim to “f*ck all puritans,” but very few are more puritanical than today’s PC puritans, out to witch hunt their conservative nemeses.

  13. Daisy said,

    I’m turning comments off, since this post is so old and I’ve already admitted being wrong. Know that anyone who’s still commenting here at this point (aside from ODIM regulars) probably deliberately went looking for a post with these ideas, since it’s no longer getting hits from anywhere.

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