Conservatives do not do the arts very well.
My friend Stephen Catanzarite and I are trying to form a nonprofit organization to study and celebrate popular culture, with a special emphasis on rock and roll, from a conservative perspective. We think that rock and roll is a dynamic source of spiritual and humanistic value, and a powerful celebration of love and the natural law. I am the author of the forthcoming “A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Stephen is the author of the great book “U2 Achtung Baby: Mediations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall.” We want to launch a website, a journal, and have an annual conference at Georgetown University. We want to challenge the left on its own turf.
The Heritage Foundation and AEI have not been begging to give us money. I would like to gently and lovingly say to my right-wing brethren that this is not a good thing. For all their complaints about victimology, conservatives are world-class whiners when it comes to popular culture and the arts. Oh, Hollywood is so socialist! Publishing blackballs the right! Britney Spears is corrupting our children! They tsk-tsk and tut-tut and outright blast, then sit back and wait for the next outrage. And they don’t even bother to listen to Britney’s music, some of which – the album “Blackout” – is brilliant. Conservatives have set up their own successful publishing houses, but the books all have that same, well, sameness. Obama the Communist. The Outrageously Outrageous Politcially Correct Politics of Outrage. The Death of the West Parts I-XX. I’m all for the free market and these writers getting rich – hell, I hope “A Tremor of Bliss” makes me rich. But there has to be room for something beautiful, something different, something forward-thinking. The next Elia Kazan needs to be supported.
An example: I have experience in digital video, and I want to make a documentary, “Whittaker Chambers’ Washington.” It would be a walking tour of the spots in my hometown of Washington, D.C., made famous in Chambers’ classic book “Witness.” I thought I could bring a fresh interpretation to this timeless story by viewing it not only as a towering work of anti-communism, but as a religious text, comparable to Dante and St. Augustine. It’s exciting, because these days the technology has made it possible to make a cinema-quality film for $10,000.
It has been almost impossible to raise the money. Now, I know it’s the conservative way to work 17 jobs at minimum wage to finance your independent movie, which fellow righties will demand to see for free on YouTube, and even on a salary of a substitute teacher and feelance journalist I was – am – willing to put my own credit cards on the line. But I at least should be met halfway (Glenn Beck, are you reading this?). Sure, perhaps a movie about Chambers would not generate the hits or the outrage of illegal immigration, or the corrupt lefty media, or the tea party. But it could be a beautiful work of art that could last generations. In 100 years a kid could click on YouTube and be captivated by the story. He would know who Whittaker Chambers was, which the left would rather prevent. You’d think Fox News would at least give me a call.
But who needs that when we can have another book about those evil liberals, and Sean Hannity attempting to sing country music?
I want to emphasize that I write all this with deep love for my conservative brothers and sisters. They are generous, talented, funny and compassionate people. And many of them are open to helping ground troops in the culture war who want to push into the left’s turf. They just need to take it to the next level. A few weeks ago, I had a meeting with a foundation that gives grants – some even to conservatives. I had gone to ask them for money for the Cavern Institute, the rock and roll and pop culture foundation that Stephen Catanzarite and I are trying to start. They could not have been nicer, and were tremendously interested in what we are attempting. However – I knew there would be a however – it was probably a long shot. They explained that they are more involved in policy. Still, they would take our proposal to the board at their meeting this summer.
So there’s hope. And for the curious, here is an excerpt from our proposal:
Thank you for this opportunity to propose the support of a research and advocacy organization that aims to consider popular culture – with a primary emphasis on popular music – from a conservative perspective. We believe that the existence of such an organization, be it an independent institute of a unit of another research and public policy foundation, is long past due, and appreciate your willingness to consider supporting its existence.
Among the more troubling aspects of American life in the early 21st century is the widening political polarization, including the heating up of what, at the end of the last century, came to be known as “the culture wars” — those inevitable battles that break out whenever and wherever the demands of a religiously-informed conscience and the claims of secular liberal democracy come into conflict. With so many aspects of our shared life presenting us with serious and complicated challenges — from healthcare to warfare, the economy to the ecology — do the American people still have the capacity to find common cause and transcend partisan and sectarian bickering through the rediscovery and cultivation of a shared set of values?
We believe we do. We also believe, audacious though it may sound, that rock and roll, when fully and thoughtfully considered, may help us recall and reflect upon certain principles and values which have long-served as the foundation of American liberty, ingenuity, and greatness. As Russell Kirk observed: “Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.”
It may be worth noting that, as music scholar Martha Bayles has written, a lot of neoconservative dislike for popular culture is based on the neoconservatives’ roots in the Marxism of the 1930s and 1940s. It may be time to admit that and correct it, while at the same time being trenchant and unwavering critics of the silly excesses of the Left, which at this point owns popular culture. Frankly, we are tired of having to get our music news from the likes of Rolling Stone, with its leftist agitprop and narcissistic resentments, and our movie reviews from Entertainment Weekly, while National Review and the Weekly Standard ignore what for many people is the poetry of their souls and soundtrack of their lives, as well as the culture.
Is it really possible to be both a consistent and coherent champion of the conservative mindset and an unabashed (or at least only somewhat-abashed) fan of ‘the Devil’s music’? Rock and roll is, after all, purported to be the music of “rebellion” set to the “rhythm of sexual intercourse,” and its chief practitioners are most often associated with both the agitations and agitators emanating from the leftist-most edges of the political spectrum. But after more than sixty years of growing up together (for rock and roll and the modern conservative movement share a genesis in post-World-War-Two America) is it not possible, and even likely, that these two potent, culture-shaping forces will have become, if not wholly-reconciled, at least conversant with each other? What if the presumption that rock ‘n’ roll is rebel music is, well, wrong? What if it is a modernist art that, at its best, reinforces spiritual and political conservatism? Imagine if that paradigm were to be dismantled.
We seek to initiate and lead the conversation about conservatism and popular culture. The principle goals of the Cavern Institute for the Engagement of Popular Culture is to create an online journal that will publish both professional, research-based essays and less formal (but richly-informed) daily commentary; to establish a network of like-minded people from a diversity of disciplines that will contribute to this important conversation in a variety of public forums; and to hold, perhaps in partnership with a college or university, an annual conference that explores the relationship between modern intellectual conservatism and popular culture. We would also like to publish a quarterly newsletter.
That’s our pitch. We may be damned fools, but more foolish, and more cowardly, is a conservatism that does not support such visionary idiots.