Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

A Liberal View of Why Most Artists Are Liberal

Unlike conservatives, they see that the people on both sides of any conflict are equally human. The more human the characters, the better the story. To which the southern conservative characteristically responds: Liberals are in love either with humanity in general or with equally abstracted or contentless individuals; it’s particular people they can’t stand. But we’re still left with the fact that most artists--even excellent ones--pride themselves in being in some sense on the left.

Discussions - 25 Comments

Peter - liberals are to the "left"; but the artists evidently in question are seldom liberal, in anything like the historical sense.

What's the point of being an artist if you are inclined to leave the furniture intact - or worry about prudence, moderation or tax policy?

I think the long and short of it is that artists tend to be very idealistic, mostly living in their own heads. Not having to deal with realities does wonders for one's estimation of other human beings.

No, I think Hasson has a part of the key: You can't write a compelling story about George Patton if you ARE George Patton. You can't write Archie Bunker's lines if you are Archie Bunker. But, you can write Michael (the "Meat-head's) lines if you are Michael.

Does this indicate that Liberals are more self-sufficient than are conservatives?

Well, actually, they took Patton's diaries and made a very creditable book out of them, "The War as I Knew It." He was also an amateur poet, if I recall correctly.

Fung, what you are really saying is that 2-dimensional conservative numbskulls just aren't creative. I guess they aren't, at least in the art of Leftists. In real life, however, there have always been creative conservatives...but it tends to be a disciplined creativity. Folks like us don't become Pollocks (thank God).

Even artists can be wrong!

"Pollocks"? So now you're going after Polish people? Sonny Steinberg's right, you are a Nazi.

Most of the really great artists have been mentally unstable in one way or another. They also tended to behave absolutely boorishly.

And Stan, I'm pretty sure that dain was talking about Jackson Pollock.

This is one entertaining thread so far, although we conservatives reveal too much about our boorishness by telling Pollock jokes.

Is there a certain amount of "self-fashioning" that goes on among artists? Most fashion themselves critics of bourgeois society and normal standards and yet are the epitome of a bourgeois lifestyle. It is also humorous to see just how conformist they are with each other in terms of dress and other affectations while fashioning themselves "non-conformists."

Well, Tony, even bohemians have to listen to the inner ape. Non-conformists need company, and pretty soon...POOF!...you've got bohemian conformist subculture. It's like gravity...inescapable. Also, just like the racist-sexist-homophobic societies they condemn and separate from, they will also have out-group hatreds. Ah...guess who they will hate?

How many Pollocks does it take to paint a picture? Ten! Nine to swivel the canvas and one to drip!

I am reminded of the Aztec Two-Step song in which they rhyme "Jackson Pollock" with "alcoholic." Speaking of art!

But, Dain, I wonder about your separation of real life with the life lived by the artist. While the world created by the artist is ideal, or at least not real, the life lived by the artist is just as real as the life lived by anyone else, is it not?

The difference is that the artist finds a way to transcend a merely subjective view of the world so that others can (a) understand the artistic view, (b) enjoy it, and (c) perhaps apply it to their own lives. That would hardly be possible if the artist did not appreciate and experience real life.

This ability to be able to see yin and yang, while the rest of us only experience one (and generally vilify the other) is one characteristic of many of F. Kafka's characters -- many of whom inhabit the borders of things: walls, for instance. The rest of the characters inhabit the rooms, much less neurotic, as John suggested, but also relatively "clueless."

I am also reminded of the Sex Pistols album: "Never mind the Pollocks -- Here come the Sex Pistols"

Fung, in all seriousness, I suspect the root of art is what Mead would have called "maladjustment" with the real world. Yes, artists understand and live in the real world, but they also feel rejected by it and often think of themselves as rebelling against it. But do they know how to make peace with the world? I doubt it. That's why so many of them die young...self-destructive behaviors, mostly.

If conservatives are less "artistic" than liberal/leftists, I think that's the cause. Mostly, conservatives have a tragic view of social life, and so they expect less from the world (and rant and rave less against it as a result). In short, conservatives are actually more at home in the world as it is (not how they want it to be).

It's important to realize that some paleo-conservatives have also suffered "maladjustment." Tolkien pretty much hated the modern, industrial world (he never owned a television, for instance, and sold his car after a few frustrating years). His answer was to create a better world in his own head.

dain, That's why the paleos fall prey to crudely anti-bourgeois literary politics and end up sounding like leftists. That's why Benjamin Barber has the cover article in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE.

I'd read it, but I guess you have to be a subscriber.

I think we need paleos. Being skeptical of globalization, foreign wars, etc., is healthy. They are sometimes crazy (like Pat Buchanan on the Iraq War), but they serve as a valuable counter-balance to all the libertarian boosterism and neo-con idealism.

The “artist” believes, with some justice, that he/she is able to understand the human soul and its longings more acutely than most ordinary, practical people. The artist’s intense passion for love or meaning cannot be satisfied by tokens that appear to satisfy the philistines that make the world go round. But why should this non-conventionalism be leftist? It is not, intrinsically. It tends to fall into leftist channels of self-interpretation today because the non-conventional is immediately co-opted by the anti-conventional, which is really just a counter-conventionality: progress, liberation, equality – the leftist would-be artist interprets his “difference” as a deference to some elusive figure of the humanitarian good to be realized in some ever-postponed future. In this sense the artist becomes more “conformist” than the philistine (who may at least retain the sense of a source of meaning beyond any political project). A true “artist” would recognize and refuse this deflecting of his transcending sensibility towards this ideological current. The Dixie Chicks have talent, but they need the re-assurance of the leftist crowd. Bob Dylan has more, and needs less.

More later. This is a good thread!

I took my son, the artist, to a modern art show. The newest installations had lengthy explanations of the how and why of what we were looking at. If you have read Wolfe's The Painted Word you know the type of thing I mean. I always meant to give him the book, but have never gotten around to it. He came to the same conclusion as Wolfe while touring the show. "Oh. I just have to come up with something, and then be able to explain it." So, he is trying to find something that he can do consistently to sell himself. He wants to make a living at this art wheeze.


The boy creates naturally and incessantly. A piece of paper will be folded to become something. If he has a pen with the paper, he draws. The silverware and glasses and anything else on a restaurant table become a sculpture. The world is something to be decorated.

But he is learning that to be an "artist" he will have to sell himself and his work. He wants this, too, to have people notice his work and himself - he is a work of art, you should see him. Right now, art is all about him and his need to express. He does reference humanity because that is what is expected of him where he goes to school now. He can spin you a humanitarian rationale for anything he does, and has created a philosophy, "Little-ism," to justify his work, but he and his fellow students are completely self-centered beings. They express themselves. If society doesn't like it, well society can just...can just... well I don't know what because society seems pretty inclined to let them do as they please. Because they create, they see themselves as superior beings: god-like. I do not see that as a love of other human beings.

But they are just students, now. I was grateful that my son saw through to the more conservative aspect of art; that he must find a way to sell it to make a living. The authors Hasson cites all saw that.

We have discussed before, I think, the differences between young artists and more mature ones -- the ones who don't self-destruct, and there are many of them. One of the things that happens, is that high-quality art supercedes the rebel-factor over time, so that we have "Sir" Paul McCartney, and "Sir" Elton John, but I think we are not likely to have "Sir" Iggy Pop, or "Dame" Courtney Love. The artists who depend too much on revolution, and too little on quality, tend to become irrelevant. The survivors combine limit-pushing with niche-making, and thus enjoy a co-development whereby they mature as society wants them to, while they move society to become more tolerant of their previous "deviance."

One of my heroes in psychology, Alfred Adler http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/hstein/c-map3.htm demonstrated his ideas regarding this co-development by associating artists with other "neurotic" ways of avoiding life's challenges: drugs, laziness, crime, inferiority.... But, he also described how not all artists end up the way they began.

Then, too, there are plenty of writers who really are not all that maladjusted at all. Barbara Kingsolver, James Lee Burke, Harper Lee, John Irving, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, all do/did a pretty good job of creating some literary works and don't seem so terribly maladjusted.

Fung, the Adler "angle" is interesting...I intend to look into this.

What may be happening is that artistic success brings with it social acceptance and prestige, undercutting the "rebellion" that animates so much art. Such artists become craftsmen, but often their latter works lose "energy" -- they get boring. On the other hand, sometimes the sense of exclusion has become such a deeply ingrained part of an artist's identity that they are simply unable to accept such "breakthroughs" (e.g., Curt Kobain).

Artists did not always have to be revolutionary. This is part of our modern sensibility and not a constant.


And isn't part of an artist becoming boring a matter of commercial success as in, "If they liked it once, they'll love it a hundred times more." which is not always true. Not just that, but the requirement to make a living at the thing means that an artist must keep producing to maintain himself financially, and here I offer as example the many prints Picasso produced in his old age, which are really tedious, but fetched incredible prices and more respect than they deserve because they were by Picasso.

Dain and Kate,

You are describing something like the "Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea" (Mishima) phenomenon. The author/artist finds success, and is then fattened up and prostituted by that very success: gone is the hunger, the rawness, and the originality, and the artist becomes his/her own mimic, and originality can only last so long.

I have been thinking about Sinatra and Bennett, Sara Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald, and that bunch, who were/are interpreters more than creators of music. I wonder if there is a benefit to discipline, such that one expects to be creative, but within the confines of the discipline -- thus diminishing the burden of the Columbus Complex with every subsequent album/book/painting.

Interesting thread. One thing I'd like to add, though, is that I believe there's a difference between those we call "artists" and and those who actually create art. I think art necessarily has to dip into some truth about the human experience to really be art, and as such most "artists" don't actually create art, though they are creative (rap artists, film school students, etc). As such, true artists have an exceptional understanding of human beings, which I don't think necessarily leads to a liberal worldview. While they may certainly be idealistic (Dostoevsky), they can also be conservative (Shakespeare). I think a better way of putting it might be "creative people are more liberal", or something like that.

I'm rethinking that post - I may be conflating poets and artists. Does an artist/art only require creativity? I think I'm unjustly applying my understanding of poetry and poets to art and artists.

Andrew, I was good at visual art, in the sense of having good eye/hand coordination. That is "technique" and I had that, doing well in drawing classes or having a knack at portraiture. I had no visual creativity, being able to imitate nature but not to create something visually original - I was no artist. The coordination of technique and the exceptional understanding you mention forms the true artist, I think. A poet who understands humans but has no words suitable for expression is no poet. A poet who has words but no depth of understanding might as well be a dictionary.

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