Reimagining American Community

Responding to Mark Signorelli’s review of Beauty Will Save the World, I agree with Mark and author Greg Wolfe that life requires beauty, culture comes before politics, and the imagination plays a central role in social health.

If conservatism lacks those things, it becomes a matter of team spirit and arbitrary rules and assertions. Team spirit and arbitrariness have their uses, but they’re not something anyone would want to live by. For something more adequate we need the transcendent, which means we need imagination and cultural tradition to make it present to us, and beauty to make it attractive and worthy of love.

I line up with Signorelli on the need for traditionally-minded people to find cultural styles and forms that suit their understanding of what life and the world are about. The view that we need to adopt current styles and forms, because they are current, comes too close to the view that the actuality of the present moment is what there is, so if you don’t like it you don’t like reality. That view expresses the modern rejection of imagination, cultural tradition, and the transcendent. It’s what we need to get rid of, so why buy into it?

If an artist can use current stylistic elements for his own purposes in an effective way, or if he can bring out aspects of today’s life and culture that point to better things, that’s all to the good. The need though is for engagement with the good, beautiful and true, rather than with dominant cultural and stylistic tendencies that reflect a turn away from those things. Presenting something better and more hopeful is also engagement with culture. Wherever that can be found is where we should go.

Since we’re talking about basics, I’d like to add that more than beauty is needed to save the world. Beauty, imagination, and cultural tradition are wonderful and necessary, but they don’t hang in the air. They require an understanding of the world that supports and orients them. In the end, it’s what’s most real that matters to us, so they have to be understood as ways of knowing reality.

That requires an understanding of the world that’s essentially religious. A crisis of imagination and culture that goes deep enough to discredit beauty is fundamentally a religious crisis. It means that our relationship with realities that are basic to human life but can’t be observed, measured, and pinned down has been shattered. At bottom, it’s the restoration of that relationship that’s needed to save the world. That restoration will require beauty, along with goodness and truth, but most of all it will require what is holy.

About the Author
James Kalb, a lawyer, Brooklyn resident, and Catholic convert, writes on politics, culture, and religion. His first book, The Tyranny of Liberalism, was published by ISI in 2008.