The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Navy Smurf, Cowboy Smurf, CEO Smurf, NASCAR Smurf, etc.

I've talked before about the dismal results that occur when ideologues try to be funny. I've mentioned the amusingly homoerotic, borderline obsessive tone of right-wing fetishization of its heroes. I've even given a nod to hilarious attempts by wingers to co-opt pop music. Now there's an extremely funny article about reactionary art criticism in the Prospect.

Take, for example, 300. Did you think its opening-weekend success was due to its dazzling comic-book violence and histrionics? Not so, says Victor Davis Hanson of National Review, who explained that its financial triumph really represented a national reaction to the moral degeneracy of our time. . . . He cited "the Iranian hostage taking" of British sailors at the time of the film's release as another factor in its financial victory. One wonders why he did not make the same claim for the following weekend's box-office champ: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Great, so a schlocky comic book movie most notable for its homoeroticism and fetishizing of the male body is a conservative wet dream. Why am I completely unsurprised? As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory." Or maybe the desperation to see the world as one wishes it were is more like the stereotypical doormat girlfriend, insisting to her friends that she just knows it'll be different this time, and she can change him.

Then there's the flipside. Along with this insistence that great art is, by definition, driven by right-wing ideology is the paradoxical claim that great art is non-controversial, non-thought provoking, and a sort of... opiate for the masses?

National Review's Larry Kudlow broke serious ground with with his 2004 encomium to "Conservative Art." "Conservative art," in Kudlow's mind, traces back to "the post-Civil War period, when we became the premiere global economic power. There was no income tax... Religious virtues governed our culture. Unbelievably good literature and art were produced." In contrast with "the negative pessimistic crap that too often passes for art in blue states like New York," Kudlow argues that Con Art produces "beautiful, calm, pleasant pictures. Stuff you can enjoy looking at, which is what I think art should be."

Why do I keep bringing this stuff up? Like I said before, it generally makes for fun reading. But I also wish I could understand what sort of person can actually adopt, as a serious view of culture, the same stance taken by the most notorious and repressive regimes of the last century. Of course, one of the motivations behind state-approved art has been a very un-American belief that the public needs to be told what to consume by anointed heads of state for the good of the country. These criticisms are pure, unadulterated intellectual noodling even as they tacitly acknowledge the importance of providing purely non-intellectual art to the masses. But I don't call them neo-fascists for nothing.

By the way, I found myself largely unable to name renowned authors and painters from the "post-Civil War period" and the openly imperialistic Golden Age Kudlow claims it was. For his part, Kudlow doesn't provide a single example (his article, fittingly enough, is a commercial for his wife's artwork, which apparently emulates these unnamed 19th century greats). I thought of Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, both of whom I love, but who were far too satirical and iconoclastic to be called 'conservative artists.' There's Frederic Remington, who I'm sure conservatives would love to claim was 'one of them,' but he's more 20th century. Same with N.C. Wyeth. Most other 19th century Americans who come to mind were pre-Civil War. Anyone have any suggestions for a list of great American artists and authors, 1865-1900?