Back in the day a distinguished professor of literature named George Steiner tried to shed the light of reason on a secular dogma. He suggested that there is nothing magical about great art, that great art does not purify your soul and fill it with the correct opinions. In truth, he noted, the concentration camp guards at Auschwitz spent their leisure time listening to classical music, to Schubert, I believe.
I recalled this thought when reading an article— probably in the New York Times—to the effect that if George W. Bush had developed his artistic talent before he became president he would not have invaded Iraq. Or some such thing.
People who despised W. in their marrow have been trying to explain how it was possible that he seems to have mastered the art of making art, that is, of painting pictures that are not bad at all. In a better world these same people, who did nothing but excoriate and vilify Bush from the onset of his presidency, might reconstruct their own views of Bush, recognizing the good as well as the bad. Alas, it is not going to happen. They do not make mistakes. And they never say they are sorry. They prefer to invoke a counterfactual—if only he had discovered his creativity he would have been a better president.
One understands that Bush himself remained nonplussed by all the criticism directed against him. He played rope-a-dope with the press, much to the chagrin of his supporters. He did not exhaust them and did not start throwing punches at them. One reason why our current president has taken out after the media on Twitter—damaging himself and his presidency in the process—is that he refuses to have happen to him what happened to W. Trump has chosen to fight back against the media. For now he does not seem to be doing very well. But, if Trump has declared war on the media, one reason is that the media demonized George W. Bush and that Trump wanted to return the favor.
Now, Ross Douthat has penned an intriguing column about Jane Austen, of all people. In it he responded to a new panic on the radical left. The alt-left is terrified that the alt-right will appropriate Jane Austen and make her something other than a propagandist for global warming. Or something. Apparently the alt-left cannot imagine that a great artist can have less than the most politically correct opinions. One assumes that these same alt-leftists believe that art achieves its highest purpose when it disseminates politically correct dogmas… which only means that they have no understanding of art or its purpose.
One hastens to point out that art has occasionally been relegated to just such a function… in totalitarian dictatorships. You will recall Nazism and Communism and you will certainly recall the art police who were afoot during Chairman Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. During the latter great pogrom Mao’s wife, a leader of the revolution, had dictated that the only opera worth watching was opera that conformed to Mao’s thought. And, of course, the only thoughts worth thinking were those of Mao himself. People were not allowed to read anything else anyway.
Today’s alt-leftists have created their own totalitarian enclaves on college campuses. And they want to bring their favorite authors along with them. If they thrilled to reading Jane Austen, then Jane must be politically correct. They would hate to have to burn all Jane’s books, so they must protect her from the alt-right.
Of course, there’s nothing liberal about this. Yet, Douthat, in a gracious moment, calls them all liberals. In his words:
This is an idea with a powerful hold on the liberal mind — that great literature and art inoculate against illiberalism, that high culture properly interpreted offers a natural rebuke to all that is cruel, hierarchical and unwoke. The idea that if Mike Pence really listened to “Hamilton” he would stand up to Donald Trump … that Barack Obama’s humanistic reading list was somehow in deep tension with his drone strikes … that had George W. Bush only discovered his talent for painting earlier he might not have invaded Iraq … these are conceits that can be rebutted (with Wagner or Céline or Nazis-at-the-symphony references) but always seem to rise again.
Obviously, there’s method in this madness. They are working to create a new religion, a religion of culture, a religion that will form the basis for a new human community, one that is dedicated to the pursuit of justice. It was the great Communist hope; it was even the great Nazi hope. Replacing religion with a new culture is the ultimate goal of the alt-left.
Douthat offers his reasoning:
In part they endure because contemporary liberalism has substituted aestheticism for religion, dreaming of a universal empathy sealed through reading rather than revelation. But they are also powerful because the last few generations have produced very few major artists or movements that are not liberal or left-wing. The defeat and moral disgrace of fascism, the eclipse of traditional religion, the philistinism of American conservatism and the narrowing of post-1989 political debates have all helped forge a political monoculture in the arts and the academy, making the link between literature and liberalism seem natural, inevitable, permanent.
The moral of the story: perhaps the National Endowment for the Arts is not as much about the arts as it is about cultural indoctrination. And perhaps the National Endowment for the Humanities is less about promoting the humanities than about running an indoctrination mill.