Thursday, June 12, 2008

Art: Liberal and Conservative

A post at Althouse has spurred a discussion over liberal vs. conservative art.

Art, of course, is neither liberal nor conservative, though it can be used to convey a message that may be politically defined. The more direct that message is, generally the more art used to convey it suffers. Even a master propagandist, like Leni Reifenstahl or Michael Moore, is subject to violating the reality of the viewers.

Reifenstahl got away with it because of the limited information popularly known about what the Nazis were up to. Similarly, Moore could portray Iraq as a kite-flying paradise in one movie and get away with it since most of have never been to Iraq, but he had a harder time selling the worker's paradise of "universal state-provided health care" because too many people live in countries that actually have universal state-provided health care. Or, in the case of the USA, have been to the DMV.

But the more you have to alter or cherry-pick your reality, the more your art will suffer, which is why conservatives often reject Hollywood TV shows and movies as laughable, and why the slew of Iraq-based Evil America movies that have been released in the last couple years have been so disastrous.

Here's a quote:

Trevor Jackson mentions success.

In the '60s, facing increasing competition from television, movie box office receipts dropped. Big spectacles were risky, and so movies were increasingly made on low budgets and were what you might today call "vanity projects".

Lotsa film critics adore this period.

The beginning of the end came in 1975 with Jaws, with 1977's Star Wars being the nail in the coffin. "Waitaminute!" studio execs cried, "We can make movies that people will actually go see? And more than once?"

And movies were ever thus changed--some film critics maintain that they were ruined.

Success-wise, "conservative" beats the tar out of "liberal" at the box office.

Even Trevor mentions Rocky, Rambo, Red Dawn, and other big hits. IMDB's all time USA Box Office list is not scaled for inflation, so it's deceptively weighted toward modern movies, but you won't find much in the way of moral ambiguity in the top 100. (Itself an interesting discussion: What are the morally ambiguous films on that list? Chicago at 130, I haven't seen, but from what I've heard is murky.)

While liberals apparently believe in the ideal human, they don't like movies about them, unless they're actively doing liberal stuff. If they're confronting evil in a non-approved way, the narrative is "simplistic".
. . .

I should add that I, personally, find that period of cinema (late '50s to late '70s) unwatchable along a bell curve. Ugly to look at, ugly music, ugly themes and ugly characters.

At least the Expressionist knew art design and pioneered film technique.

Trevor clarified to mean that "success" was an accurate reflection of the truth. I figured he didn't mean, you know, actual success. No, seriously, there is a difference between artistic and popular success, with the greatest artists knowing how to back off the artistic just enough to reach the popular.

But what Trevor says about truth isn't much different from what I'm saying. I added:
By your own definition, then, the only art that could be successful is art that agrees with you.

Do you see that? You judge "success" by accuracy of reflection of truth (as do I, in one sense, though I'm willing to ignore a whole lot of liberal distortions if the technique is good), but we're talking about truth as you see it.

Worse, in many cases, if not yours specifically, we're talking about "truth" as one has been indoctrinated to believe in, not what one has observed. Hence, "Crazy stripper makes wild accusation" becomes "Four rich white men rape poor black woman."

The problem being that if you have a narrative in life--any narrative at all--you're no longer observing what's actually there. As a result, however good your technique is, your output suffers to the extent that your audience is able to observe the real truth.

For example, if you make a movie about Che Guevara, you leave out his unfortunate tendency to mass murder and his general incompetence. The Motorcycle Diaries is a better movie than The Lost City, but only if you don't know (or just accept as a fairy tale) the real history of Che. The need to omit data that doesn't conform is so severe that Soderbergh's 4 1/2 hour Che movie allegedly skips around those little details.

Compare with Lean's Gandhi, itself overlong and omitting data. Is it okay to leave out Gandhi's flaws but not Che's? I would probably say yes, since Gandhi's flaws were secondary to what he accomplished, where Che's flaws--that unfortunate incompetence and tendency toward mass murder--were, in fact, a big part of what he accomplished.

Trevor Jackson's basic thesis is here:

My contention is that it's easier to create complex characters if you have a view of people that seems to be shared by those who support liberal policies.

The hilarity of this should be apparent to anyone who has heard the left completely demonize--without nuance or subtlety--the Bush administration of the past eight years. Bush and Cheney and Rove aren't just wrong, they're the embodiment of evil. I disagree with the administration on almost everything, but I think they're good people. (Indeed, I think that's part of the problem: They feel compelled to do something about things that should be left alone.)

Anyway, there's a (not accidental) confusion of terminologies at work, with modern leftists hijacking the word "liberal" and "conservative" being a mushy amalgam of often contradictory values.

If you're classically liberal, you have to believe that Man is inherently capable of good, of responsible self-governance, and of better self-governance than an elite body (be it king or oligarchy). We're all (mostly) pretty well indoctrinated not to believe that any more.

Distinct from the classically liberal, modern left-wingers operate on the notion that Man is selfish, and that the only good, responsible folks are those who agree with left-wing policies. This amounts to a polar opposite of the above. And it requires one to ignore a great deal of available evidence. Also it causes them to create ridiculous caricatures of their political opponents as should be obvious watching any number of movies and TV shows.

This category includes environmentalists, collectivists, and some "New Age" groups, and a not insignificant portion of Hollywood.

Modern conservatives can fall into the previously mentioned "classical liberal" philosophy. This means that they have a fairly nuanced view of Man as both good and flawed. Most great narrative art probably falls into this category, from Shakespeare to Dickens to, say, JK Rowling. But it requires the recognition of evil, else you have no Iago, no Bill Sikes, no Valdemort.

The difference between the flawed and the evil usually being that the evil attempt to exploit the flawed to destroy them. But the distinction is usually clear: Scrooge, for all his faults, is no Sikes. (I've never met a Valdemort, but I have met Iago, who may be the most real portrayal of evil in literature.)

This is because it's observably true that people are flawed, some are much less so than others, and some are (for all intents and purposes) evil. Therefore, if you're writing about what you've observed and not trying to tie it to some particular policy notion, it's probably not going to violate classical liberal notions. (This distinguishes, say, a Capra from a modern hack trying to influence policy: As evil as Potter was, there was always a Bailey there to act as a foil.)

Of course, some other conservatives are in the "don't care" category: Man may be good or do good or be evil or do evil, but as long as the rules are clear and strictly enforced, it's nobody's business. But it's hard to imagine this type being narrative-based artists. Ayn Rand, maybe?

Then there's the dreaded Religious Right (or some hardcore section thereof), who are currently Republicans, but not really conservative. They share many of the characteristics of left-wingers: They believe that Man is only redeemed by adherence to their particular philosophy, and they tend to caricature their opponents as wanting to wreak havoc on the world.

But, as The Passion of the Christ shows, even a highly religious movie doesn't have to be preachy.

In my observation, politics and even personal flaws (of the artist) has little to do with the art itself, and when those things do creep in, they tend to taint and detract from the final output. (If you can sit through it, Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda? is basically a core dump of his aberrations.) Charlie Wilson's War, for example, completely omits any mention of Reagan, to the point where it's a little weird. The Constant Gardener is an incomprehensible mess where the message of "Big Pharm is bad" completely destroys what might have been a good movie. Even my beloved Cinematic Titanic's The Oozing Skull suffers from a pointless and unimaginative "Bush is stupid" joke. (Actually, the same is true of the MST3K movie: The weakest part is a reference to John Sununu.)

But the great artist, in composing his work, is not Democrat or Republican or Socialist or Communist or Libertarian, but a pure and watchful eye, a master of technique, a communer with the audience, and in the moment of creation, empty of himself.


  1. What most people lack is a historical perspective? When we talk about movies we have to go back to the master, the original, the one and only D. W. Griffith. He is the one who devised the book that all others have followed. As a political artist his masterwork is the now discredited Birth of a Nation. But it was roundly praised and touted by a famous Democrat Woodrow Wilson. People forget that the Democratic Party was the home ground of southern racism and white supremacy. Now your basic radical leftist Kossacks will love to lay this movie and it’s sensibility at the feet of conservative Republicans. It’s not a conservative work but I am sure it would be labeled as such. As it was it established the narrative framework that has been copied endlessly to this very day.

    A true conservative filmmaker is the great John Ford. His patriotic themes and conservative narratives were immensely popular back in the day and it is my contention that Hollywood’s abandonment of this style is one of the reasons so many movies fail at the box office. John Ford was heavily influenced by his brother Francis who was an acolyte of Griffith as an actor and a second unit director. Ford influence can be traced in the work of directors as diverse as Kurosawa and Scorsese. The lineal narrative and conservative themes that run through Ford’s movies are conservative art at its best.

    Oh I have to go to dinner. Bye.

  2. Yeah, the "re-imagining" of slavery has laid it pretty completely at Republican's feet, even though the party was created to end it.

    Even people who know this historical fact will claim that that all changed during the Civil Rights movement--when more Reps voted for Civil Rights than Dems.

    But then all the racist Dems went to the Rep party. Not a one left in among the Donks.

    Except, I guess for the half that didn't vote for Obama. The other half, of course, being sexist.

  3. Ford, Hawks, Hughes, Huston, Walsh--that'd be quite a conservative-off.

    Though I imagine some of them were liberal, they were tough-ass liberals.

    The term "liberal" has been roundly abused.

    I should do a Ford retrospective or something. Only problem with my local theater is convincing them to devote a screen a night to an old show.

    They did it a couple of times and it was great.

  4. Use those guys and add William Wellman and Michael Curtis and you will have some of the best movies ever made.

    You could have a cluster of action, westerns, film noir, and mad cap screwball comedy that will blow the doors off.

  5. I'm late to this conversation -- I ignored the Althouse post at first because I can't watch Woody Allen anymore. Just want to say that I love that while accusing conservatives of having narrow and unimaginative views, Trevor recites the tired laundry list we've all heard 100 times, and it boils down to: Me Smart and Artsy, You Dumb.

  6. Knox--

    Yeah, that's kind of funny. They're still dealing with conservatives as though they were 19th century, Dickensian, stove-pipe-hatted, orphan beatin', elite-lovin', art-hatin' cro-magnons.

    But really, a lot of conservatives today are quite radical. I mean, if you espouse the views of the Founding Fathers, you're a radical, really. Although I bash on 'em a bit, Lucas and Spielberg were complete radicals in the '70s because they made movies that people actually wanted to see! (And you can read plenty of hatin' on them from film critics who preferred movies being made for them, rather than for audiences.

    Likewise, if you say "Yes, there are many problems in society, but individuals should be allowed to figure them out for themselves," you're pretty far out.

    I wonder, though, how many people ever believed those principles.


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