Friday, September 06, 2013

Conservative Art, Conservative Notions of Culture

(Updated a bit for clarification of some points)

Over at Rod Dreher's blog, he muses (once again) on why it is that Conservatives don't seem to make good story-tellers.

Where's all the good Conservative fiction? he asks plaintively.

Of course, the problem lies in the way he asks the question.  Conservative fiction does not exist, not anymore than progressive or libertarian fiction exists, except in a few very odd and malformed cases. (As, for instance, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and most of her other words.  Rand set out to write libertarian propaganda, rather than actual fiction, and that's more or less what she succeeded in doing, though you can even today find people who like these items as novels.)

This is not to say that you can't find political elements in fiction.  I'd argue that Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books have some strong libertarian themes, though they also have progressive themes. And I'd argue that books like The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird work conservatively, despite how they glance at an acknowledgement that racial abuses and eugenics are wrong (in Gatsby, it's a very tiny glance).

Despite this glance at racial social justice, both texts essentially see their cultures as just fine. Oh, Nick Carraway leaves the wicked, wicked East at the end of the novel, having learned his lesson about the excesses of Capitalism -- but he does not believe there is anything wrong with Capitalism per se.

And Atticus Finch is sad that Tom Robinson has been such a fool as not to trust the white man's justice to act right (when it has never yet acted right in the past 400 years), but he doesn't quit the law profession; and in fact the last scene we get in the novel is the law acting right: doing the right thing for the (white) community.  The take-away, in other words, is that despite a few hiccups and dead young black men, this is a civilization that works.

Fiction that works this way -- to reassure the reader that their culture is okay, and that they don't have to change it -- works, essentially, as conservative fiction, whether or not it was meant that way.

Fiction that interrogates the culture, that probes the conventions and shows that the cultures is not, in fact, working just fine, and needs to be changed if it is to continue working: that's going to be working as progressive fiction.  Good science fiction works this way, by showing either the dystopian nature of our culture, or a better way at work.

I had a brief, though friendly, argument with one of my students after WLIT class Wednesday.  We're reading Fredrick Douglas's Narrative of the Life, and I pointed out how much a single slave cost at this point, and how much the South had invested in slaves (information I first learned from Ta-Nehisi Coates' wonderful series on slavery) and what this meant, in regards to why the South was not going to just walk away from slavery.  My point was that Narrative of the Life, as an abolitionist document, was revolutionary: it was fighting to make (white) people in America see that slaves were people, and that as people they had rights and they deserved to be freed.

Anyway, this student wanted to argue that the Civil War didn't need to be fought; that the South would have transitioned to a machine economy within a few years; that the plantation owners would have freed the slaves of their own free will within forty or fifty years if they had just been left alone.

I gave him various points of evidence to counter this interesting view of history (which I am sure is one that is being taught in some local high school around here) but it's what I'm talking about: the Conservative view of the world seems to be that one: things as they are work fine.  Nothing to fix here.

See this comment here, for instance, from Rod's blog:

David in MN says:

For a story to be “conservative,” it should be cautionary, warning its readers against having unrealistic expectations or fantasies. It warns against the human tendency to dream, to rise above one’s pre-ordained station in life, or usurp the natural order of things. The moral of a conservative story should be Be humble and stay in your place. So if conservatives wish to revive the “conservative” story, they [sic]  no shortage of stories from the ancients that follow this convention.

That's a point of view that looks fine if you're Atticus Finch, or Nick Carraway. It's less attractive if you're Tom Robinson, or Calpurnia (who doesn't even get a last name), or Myrtle Wilson, that slut.

And fiction -- which should, of course, primarily work as fiction, or it fails (that is, it must be art first, and not propaganda) -- fiction can either speak for Atticus Finch, or it can speak for Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell and Walter Cunningham and Calpurnia.  Right now almost all of our art speaks for Atticus Finch, so when Rod Dreher wonders with his touching innocence just where in heavens name the conservative art could be, well.

(Can it speak for both?  That would be a piece of art. That would be a book indeed.)

I still remember the day I realized I was one of the trashy poor whites Atticus Finch called common. I mean, he was nice about it and all.  He let the little sharecropper boy eat at his table, and talked farming with him. Because noblesse oblige.  But you know that was as far as it would go.

Well, here's my point, and I do have one: from over here on this side of the tracks, this culture of yours? It ain't look so nifty, frankly.

And no.  I don't think I will keep my place.

Time for some true progressive art, maybe.  That's what I say.

Update #2: Check out this post on Oz, from Kiss My WonderWoman, on what else is wrong with conservative art: the thesis: Hollywood is afraid of change, and being afraid of change creates crap (and in this case racist) art.  True story, y'all.


Bardiac said...

I think a lot of white male fiction is pretty conservative in assuming that white men are and should remain the center of everything, are the only characters worth telling stories about, and that all others are just objects to be used by the white male characters.

Elizabeth Conall said...

This is why I make art. It's got to be good art above all else, I know, but if it is not also progressive art then I have failed in my calling.

Historiann said...

You have got to read James Salter's latest novel. I read it this summer and was like, WTF? It was a historical novel (set in the 1940s-80s or so), but the author betrayed no self-consciousness or humor about its setting or the way things were. It was just really frikkin' weird.

delagar said...

Now you have me intrigued, Historiann. I gotta go find it.

Me & the kid were watching Blade Runner last night & it's a perfect example of this. It's MEANT to be anti-slavery, but it is from the POV of the ruling class (and the slave hunters) and shows no concept that the slaves' POV might be, well, of interest.

And, of course, despite the interesting world-building, all the main characters are straight white European English-speaking males.

RPS77 said...

Very interesting post - I think you'll have a new regular reader for your blog.

One slight disagreement - the way I've always understood conservatism (I used to be a conservative) is somewhat different from your definition. I don't see conservatism as necessarily opposed to all change, or always supporting the status quo, but rather as being in favor of slow, incremental change and opposed to fast, radical change. A conservative would argue that when people try to change their society quickly and radically, they tend to get a new society that is even worse and more oppressive than the old one. The massive bloodshed of violent revolutions is usually considered as a warning of what happens when people try to change the entire order of society.

Still, even though conservatism allows for slow and gradual change, I agree with your point that it doesn't have much to offer to the people who are treated worst in the current society. At most it can offer that maybe their children or grandchildren will have things a little bit better than they have it.