I do not remember when a book has ever aroused in me the sort of pronounced ambivalence I felt in the course of reading Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save The World. For there are really two theses at the heart of Wolfe’s book. The first of these stems from the author’s dismay at the wholesale abandonment of the arts by Christians and conservatives alike, and the trivial politicization of right-wing thought that has been proceeding relentlessly for several decades now. Throughout his book, Wolfe argues repeatedly for the precedence of culture over politics, and the important role which the imagination must play in restoring our society to health, declaring, on the opening page, “I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic.”
Simply put, this is the insight which people of a traditional bent of mind must digest, and it is their failure to digest it as of yet which has led directly to the marginalization of their views in contemporary society. Policy battles and elections will never suffice to mold minds and hearts in a fundamental way, and when the cultural forms which do display that power – film and literature and music foremost among them – all embody ways of thinking about the world which are entirely alien, and even hostile, to traditional patterns of thought, it is ridiculous to suppose that any political victories on the part of traditionalists will prove more than pyrrhic in the end. Wolfe’s emphasis on this point could not be more timely, or more clearly stated.
Beside this thesis, however, Wolfe asserts a second one which concerns the way Christians and conservatives should resume the cultural and artistic labor which they have neglected for so long. According to Wolfe, traditionalists have consistently erred in rejecting the prevailing cultural forms of our times, including the various styles of modernism and post-modernism (and they really are one thing, post-modernism being nothing more than a late and necessary development of modernism) to be found in the respective arts. He laments, for instance, that “conservatives frequently mock abstract art, experimental fiction, the theater of the absurd, and functionalist architecture.” Instead, Wolfe thinks, conservatives should embrace these styles, should “contribute to the renewal of culture by participating in the life of art in our time,” precisely because it is the art of our times. It is this position of Wolfe’s, reiterated forcefully at numerous points in his book, that I found myself objecting to most strongly while I read. I think Wolfe is wrong about this, and moreover, I think this second thesis is incompatible with his first thesis. I am convinced that so long as persons of traditional belief confine themselves to the dominant cultural forms of our age, they will continue to find all of their efforts to create artwork adequate to their beliefs futile and self-defeating.
To begin with, Wolfe’s account of the relationship between conservatives and contemporary art strikes me as wildly inaccurate. Far from being generally hostile to modern styles of art, conservatives now promote the production of these styles as routinely as any other segment of the public. Influential conservative thinkers like Roger Scruton and Roger Kimball have argued strenuously for the merits of modernist art, and for the congruity of its forms with their conservative beliefs. Conservative publications like The New Criterion and the Claremont Review of Books have celebrated avant-garde authors ranging from August Strindberg to David Foster Wallace. Other conservative publications regularly publish reviews of various pop cultural phenomena, thus signaling their esteem for these branches of contemporary artistic production. The brutal steel and concrete boxes of modern architecture are erected with as much frequency in conservative bastions like Nashville or Birmingham as in the unabashedly liberal strongholds of New York or San Francisco. I could go on, but I think the point is obvious by now. The fact is there are absolutely no prominent vehicles of artistic production or opinion making remaining in the Western world, on the left or on the right, which have not been thoroughly shaped by the stylistic cataclysms occurring at the turn of the twentieth century. There are no thriving centers of artistic production which have avoided the imprint of the modernist revolution, or which have successfully preserved pre-modern traditions of making. Conservatives and Christians are as deeply implicated in this mess as anybody else. Their failures in the cultural sphere cannot then be attributed to some obstinate resistance to prevailing trends in the arts. To the contrary, it seems very clear to me that the failures of traditional minded artists throughout our age have resulted from their passive, at times pusillanimous, acquiescence to those prevailing trends. They have failed because they have never created rival cultural forms which might serve modern traditionalists as alternatives to the degraded forms produced by the broader culture.
But if Wolfe’s assessment of the present scene remains unconvincing, it is his consistent misreadings of history which, in the end, really vitiate his argument. Consider his interpretation of Christian Humanism, found in Chapter Four. His point in this section is that devout Christians of the Renaissance like Thomas More and Erasmus managed to reconcile their faith with the humanistic culture of the period, and the forms of classical antiquity upon which that culture was based. He offers their careers as models to modern Christians: “Because Christian humanists believe that whatever is good, true, and beautiful is part of God’s design, they have the confidence that their faith can assimilate the works of culture. Assimilation, rather than rejection or accommodation, constitutes the heart of the Christian humanist’s vision.” Of course, as an argument in favor of modern art forms, this statement simply invites the question of whether those forms can fairly be called good, true, or beautiful; in the case of Abstract Expressionism or Black Mountain Poetry or rap music, it is not obvious that the answer is yes.
The deeper problem for Wolfe, though, is his assumption that any meaningful analogy can be drawn between the “secular” culture of antiquity and the “secular” culture of our times. For one, the artwork of the pagans wasn’t secular, not in the sense we attribute to that term, as denoting a sphere of meaning thickly separated from the theological. The works of Sophocles or Praxiteles are not secular in that way at all. Its not even clear that the idea of the “secular” – a realm of civic life totally detached from religion – dates back any further than the Enlightenment, or that a deep divorce between the impulses of worship and artistic creativity occurred prior to that time.
More to the point, the forms of classical antiquity embodied a dignified, and even exalted view, of human nature which proved to be remarkably consistent with much (though not all) Christian belief. If Christians assimilated these forms to their religion, it was because there was something assimilable about them. On the other hand, many of the forms of modern art embody a distorted or degraded view of human nature. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, for instance, notes in his essay The De-humanization of Art that most paintings of the early modernist period “betray a real loathing of living forms or forms of living beings.” Can such vandalism of the human form be reconciled with a faith teaching the innate dignity of the human person? Can a “theater of the absurd,” built on a suspicion of the meaningless of all narrative, become a sufficient vehicle for expressing belief in a religion teaching the eternal significance of both one particular narrative, and our own individual narratives?
Quite frankly, it appears to me rather perverse to ignore the monumental differences between the forms of classical art on the one hand and modern art on the other, between say, the Parthenon and the Bilbao Guggenheim, or between the tragic theater and a poetry slam, or between the Laocoon and the installments at the Moma. There is just no way a Christian artist’s acceptance of the former models can demonstrate his need to accept the latter. And after all, Wolfe fails to mention that a ruling impetus of the Renaissance humanists was a thoroughgoing detestation for the “gothic” culture of their times (represented best perhaps by Petrarch’s complaint about being born to a barbarous people, in a barbarous age), and that their general goal was to return to the models of a previous and, to their minds, more glorious era. Such motives run directly contrary to Wolfe’s admonitions to present-day Christians to appreciate and work within the cultural forms of their own age. So it is not even clear that a real appeal to the example of the Renaissance humanists would not lead to conclusions for modern Christians diametrically opposed to the ones he espouses in his book.
I have dwelt at length on Wolfe’s interpretation of the Renaissance because it demonstrates the thinness of his historical awareness, and this thinness, I take it, is the source of his misguided confidence in the appropriateness of modernist forms for contemporary traditionalists. The only way to really understand the significance of those forms, and their real incompatibility with traditional belief, is by grasping their historical development. This is the argument at the heart of a book published recently, Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici is no foe to modernism; he is himself an experimental novelist, and laments the failure of contemporary novelists to learn the appropriate lessons from the modernist “masters.” Yet in narrating the genesis of modernist styles, Josipovici emphasizes their origins in the accumulating spiritual crises of the modern era: “In our modern age, an age without access to the transcendental and therefore an age without any sure guide, an age of geniuses but no apostles, only those who do not understand what has happened will imagine that they can give their lives (and their works) a shape and therefore a meaning, the shape and meaning conferred by an ending.”
The only honest artist, in our day and age, is the one who embraces this absurdity, who, like Duchamp, “draws the inescapable conclusion: since all art is choice and all choice is in the end arbitrary, a mere throw of the dice, why not face up to this fact, make one big choice right at the start and leave it at that.” The modern artist realizes “what is at issue is reality itself, what it is and how an art which of necessity renounces all claim to contact with the transcendent can relate to it, and if it cannot, what possible reason it can have for existing.” In the end, such an artist must acknowledge, in theory and in practice, that “certain ways of writing, painting, or composing ‘are not possible any more’ because they are worn out, thin, lacking in interest, as well as because there are certain things we are not capable of doing any more.”
No one can deny the power of Josipovici’s case, or fail to recognize the spiritual lineaments of our era in his description. But look closer at the assumptions hidden behind his words. The modern era has not simply been cut off from all transcendent sources; it has been cut off for all time from those sources. This is not a contingency of one particular era, but an irreversible dynamic of historical development. There was a necessity at work in the formation of modernity, which rendered it disenchanted at first and will continue to keep it so forever. No possible change in our ways of living could lift this cloud of despair from us (Josipovici writes of Eliot’s Waste Land, “in Eliot the disjunction goes deeper because there is no sense that a change in the attitudes of society would set things right…”). Art, from hereon after, must bow before this iron imperative, and artists must simply reconcile themselves to the severely constricted possibilities of their art. Behind all of Josipovici’s pronouncements lurks a faith in a massive historical determinism, and it is unquestionably from this same faith that the forms of modernism sprung.
Well, what if one doesn’t believe such things? What if one does not subscribe to stories of historical determinism, and suspects that they are really obscurantist fables, contrived by Western peoples in order to avert their eyes from their own grotesque spiritual malfeasance? What if, for instance, one has read any number of authors, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, or Jacques Barzun, or Edward Feser, who have argued persuasively (I would even say, conclusively) that far from unwinding in any necessary fashion, the confusion and disillusionment of our era have resulted largely from a host of willful and repeated philosophical errors? What if one believes it is impossible for us to be eternally cut off from the transcendent, and that anyone who really understood what is meant by “the transcendent” would know this? What if one believes that no historical contingency could ever reduce art to mere choice, or choice to arbitrariness, and that those who believe otherwise are treading along the boundaries of insanity? What if, that is to say, one rejected the entire world view of Josipovici and all who think like him (probably the far greater portion of the western public)?
I take it that all traditional minded persons, conservatives and Christians included, do reject that world view; I simply take such a rejection to be implicit in a traditional perspective. I have no wish to speak for Christians, but I am quite certain that their doctrines absolutely prohibit them from regarding human life as a story lacking in shape or meaning, or from feeling compelled to renounce the transcendent for all time. So what should such people make of modernist forms, forms which came into the world to be the embodiment of a perspective they do not share, a perspective they find plagued with error from beginning to end? It seems quite clear to me that they should do whatever artists have done historically when they find their era burdened with dead forms instantiating alien patterns of thought: they should turn away from those forms entirely and turn their attention to creating new ones.
Wolfe never entertains such a course as a real possibility for traditionalist artists because, unlike Josipovici, he never fully owns up to the historical origins of modernism. The closest he comes to acknowledging an inherent incompatibility between the forms of modernism and the beliefs of a traditionalist are when he advocates his aforementioned notion of “assimilation,” the idea that artists of traditional belief can “adapt and transform” the seemingly hostile forms of modern culture. But a sensible Christian or conservative artist will ask why he must be saddled with a burden no other artist in history has been forced to endure, by working in forms utterly foreign to his vision of the world. He will ask why he may not have the same privilege enjoyed by every other artist, of selecting the forms most appropriate to his understanding of reality. Yet even to address these questions is to assume that there is something in modernist forms capable of being “redeemed,” or turned to the intentions of the traditionalist artist. It is to assume that there is nothing essentially incompatible between such forms and such intentions. And that assumption, as I have argued, can only spring from a real failure to come to terms with what modernism is fundamentally about.
For Wolfe, a thoroughgoing rejection of contemporary art and culture amounts to one thing and one thing only: despair. As he writes, “There is a large body of believers who have essentially given up on contemporary culture…One might almost say that these individuals have given in to despair about our time,” or later, “the stark truth is that despair haunts many on the Right.” The truth, however, is that by insisting on the necessity of working within the impoverished forms our culture offers to us, it is Wolfe’s views which condemn us to despair, for he is demanding restriction to habits of artistic creation which came into the modern world to be the explicit manifestation of its despair. What he cannot see is that so long as he encourages aspiring artists to confine themselves to the forms of modernism, he is implicitly telling them that the grand artistic achievements of past eras are simply “not possible any more.” And what admonition could sound so desperate to a developing poet or composer as that!
It is on this point – a psychological rather than a historical one – that I part ways most dramatically from Wolfe. For he believes that acknowledging the extreme decadence of contemporary culture is a demoralizing act. I strongly disagree. Facing reality candidly is never an act of despair, and it is the plain truth that our contemporary culture is more worthless than anything seen in the western world since the invasion of the Huns. Saying so is not demoralizing. It is bracing and galvanizing; it arouses us from our complacency, it focuses our energies on the monumental task at hand, and it inspires us with all the fervor of a righteous cause.
Most importantly, it provides us with clarity about how to move forward, a clarity we will never achieve so long as we toy with paradoxes about making the ugly beautiful, or the chaotic orderly. Every historical movement which has left any mark in the world, whether in the spheres of religion, politics, or the arts, has begun by drawing a line in the sand, and brazenly declaring, “these are the errors which have misled us into our moribund condition, and therefore these are the errors with which we will no longer have anything to do.” It is an unfortunate fact that Christians and conservatives in the modern era have been notably unwilling to draw any such lines, that they have bent repeatedly to every new puff of the progressive breezes, until the Church has morphed into one more branch of our therapeutic culture, and the right-wing has twisted into another branch (a very vociferous though deluded branch) of liberalism. But as far as the arts go, traditionalists have exceeded even their normal levels of spinelessness, not only acquiescing to the cultural deterioration of our age, but cheering and abetting it with all the gusto of their contemporaries. I am sorry to say that Wolfe’s book looks like just another act of concession in this long surrender.
The imagination does hold the power to restore our society to sanity; Wolfe is gloriously right about this. But the special virtue of the imagination is to discover possibilities for human life concealed by the immediacy of present circumstances. Throughout the modernist era, the imagination has been shackled in that immediacy, compelled to speak of nothing but the anarchy of the times, and forbidden to perform those liberating duties it alone can perform. It has been denied all converse with the transcendent, its favorite object and best source of nourishment, told instead that it must be content to “renounce the transcendent” forever. Most crucially, the imagination has been starved of beauty, according to the pernicious bias that whatever is beautiful is inherently untruthful. This is the deadly yet inescapable contradiction at the heart of Wolfe’s book; he implores us to find hope for our times in beauty, while offering us nothing but artistic forms which have been marked from the beginning by an extraordinary degree of hopelessness and brutality. It just won’t work. Beauty will indeed save the world, but beauty will never be attained by imitating the artistic visions of those who regarded the world as beyond salvation.
[Editor’s note: For another take on Wolfe’s book, see this review in The American Conservative.]