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Luke O’Sullivan: Cultural conservatives have lost their way. That is why their art forms are weak

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What’s wrong with art today?

It’s a question lots of disaffected cultural conservatives have tried to answer, usually after a depressing trip to the Tate Modern, or after seeing a beloved novel butchered by a trendy modern adaptation.

Socialist George Orwell, asking the same question in the 1940s, thought he had put his finger on it when he said that ideological orthodoxy hampered the creative process. He was not the first or last person to have said this, but in recent times he was perhaps the most influential, and it was an argument he won, more or less. How often do we hear it said that the BBC is “too orthodox” to allow great artists to flourish. If only the BBC would take its controlling hand off the cultural life of our country, all sorts of wonderful art would spring up.

Would it? Most people aren’t so sure. So the next thing they do is to ask why, at the grassroots level, our institutions are not producing the artists we would like. “Where is our modern Shakespeare?” is a regular question. “Why is there no great contemporary opera or ballet? Why does poetry no longer rhyme or scan? Why is contemporary classical music so tuneless and discordant?”

Inevitably this line of thinking leads us to argue that our education system is failing and that our government-funded arts centres are not fit for purpose. But this too is absurd. Our education system cannot replicate the medieval thought processes that nurtured Shakespeare. Even if it could, would we want it to? As for our arts institutions, they are only dominated by left-leaning metropolitan intellectuals because that is the milieu from which much of our country’s art originates.

Cultural traditionalists are wasting time and energy. The truth is that every human being, and certainly the Neo Protestant George Orwell, adheres to an orthodoxy. Accepting this is the first step to realising that the more truthful and beautiful the orthodoxy, the better the art. GK Chesterton, the Catholic novelist and literary critic, was right to say that, as man “piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human.”

It’s not hard to demonstrate this point. Consider for a moment how much of the greatest art was constructed beneath the scaffold of an orthodox set of ideas. Take Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid to celebrate Rome and its empire; or Jane Austen’s novels, which are exquisite distillations of an Anglican mindset; or Tennyson’s poetry which explored and celebrated the views of the Victorian establishment; or Kipling’s poetry which did the same but for the British Empire. Think of the art produced by Florentine Catholics: Dante, Botticelli, Fra’ Angelico, and Michelangelo, or of the Catholic novelists of the 20th century, such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. All of this art is great and powerful because, not in spite of the fact, that it was shaped by orthodox thought.

If, like me, you’re angry and disappointed by obscene, catchy pop songs (think Rihanna), or clever, sex-filled music videos (Beyonce) or films in the cinema which glorify infidelity and marriage breakdown (Woody Allen), or big budget dramas that normalise promiscuity (Sex and the City); or if you find the contemporary art of men like Anish Kapoor (think The Dirty Corner) and Damien Hirst (For the Love of God), not inspiring and truthful, but infantile, and morally vacuous – then don’t blame the art form, which in many cases is very sophisticated, or the BBC or the Arts Council, which I think, with some exceptions, are quite effective at finding and promoting grassroots art. Instead attack the orthodoxies that underpin them, which have monopolised the cultural life of this country, and which inform the vast majority of our country’s art. They are the orthodoxies of the sexual revolution—an ugly mutation of the individualism that Orwell espoused.

The reason ‘conservative’ art is in such a mess and ‘liberal’ art so popular and well organised, is that the conservative cultural orthodoxy has become vague and weak. By contrast the liberal cultural orthodoxy is clear, even if people are increasingly realising it is also untruthful.

So where will the next revolution in culturally conservative art come from? As the sheen wears off the sexual revolution I think those seeking artistic fulfilment are as likely to find it in the side-chapels of Westminster Cathedral (which are just now, incidentally, being decorated) as in the turbine hall of the Tate Modern. My expectation is that a significant contribution will be made by Britain’s churches, where the meaning and limits of cultural conservatism have been debated for the best part of two millennia.

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Luke O'Sullivan
Luke O’Sullivan is the Editor of Quadrapheme, a conservative cultural review site.

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