I am a dyed-in-the wool conservative. Should I be concerned that "the arts" are largely dominated by the political Left?
To establish my credentials as someone who is fit to comment on the matter, I think I should initially point out that I am in general very much "into" high culture:
I can recite around 100 lines of Chaucer in the original Middle English plus some mainstream Goethe poems in German. I know who Belisarius and Justinian were, J.S. Bach is my favourite composer and I rather like Canaletto. And my favourite song is in Latin. And my Serbian girlfriend has been very helpful in introducing me to lesser-known Russian literature. And I acknowledge modern genius in the form of Philip Glass and David Williamson. So it would be hard to brand me as a Philistine.
But I regret to say that I do not share the common assumption below that the arts are in general important. To me they are just a small niche in the entertainment scene. Somewhat to my distress, football entertains far more people and should in consequence be more deserving of conservative attention. I see no virtue in the fact that I personally enjoy more arcane forms of entertainment.
And I don't think that much is lost by inattention to the arts as we have them today. Any message in them is usually Leftist dribble and very few modern artists are of anything like the quality of the greats from our past. Catching up with the canon of Russian literature would give us all greater insights than reading anything from the vast outpouring of modern novels or attending to most modern stage-shows. Some modern productions will of course stand the test of time but the wearisome task of finding the wheat among the storm of chaff is not for me. The classic past offers much better prospects for finding artistic enjoyment. I would rather (for instance) put on my favourite video of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, knowing that I will find great joy in that
Some works of art are undoubtedly politically influential. Orwell is the prime example of that. But the canon of classic English literature has much more potential to influence thought so promoting an awareness of that would seem to be a better task for conservatives. It was in his final year of High School that I discovered to my distress that my son had never heard of Coleridge or Wordsworth so there is much work to be done in that direction.
There are some notes about the sort of thing that I do and what I value here and here
Conservative political thought’s fractured history and philosophical developments should make for compelling artworks and literature. However, the Right is often perceived as the enemy of both the artists and writers, who predominantly fall under the Left’s protection.
Conservative political commentator Douglas Murray’s article "Publishing is a left-wing bubble" notes that those on the Left vastly outnumber those on the Right in the publishing industry. Birmo’s pride and prejudice show ARC grants need new rules written by postcolonial world literary studies professor Ben Etherington criticised Simon Birmingham’s decision to deny funding to arts and humanities projects.
The animosity between the progressive arts sphere and the political Right appears mutual: complaints about Woke publishing often feature in conservative discussions about the Australian cultural sphere, occasionally followed by a call for alternative media.
However, this article suggests several reasons for the Right to value and invest in the arts.
First, during 2020’s Covid-related funding reductions in the arts, I argued in "Anyone can do art – so why fund the Arts?" that art and literature are key to democracy. They allow us to model and exchange complex social experiences and arguments. The article then provided evidence to support a statement from Centre For Stories director Robert Wood on the need for resources in the arts:
‘It is fiction to think that art flowers without support. That it is only a calling that does not require resources.’
While the thinkers and organisations referenced in Anyone can do art were from the Left, there is no logical reason for the Left to monopolise the arts. Historically, parts of the Right have advocated for artists and writers who fled communist regimes. One cornerstone of libertarian thought is a novel, Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged".
Art allows for the coexistence of multiple truths without demanding one be ‘proved’ at the expense of all others. Topher Fields’ documentary "Battleground Melbourne" explores the costs of Victoria’s harshest Covid control measures. It was an emphatic recount that illustrated the rapid escalation in the state’s power, deterioration in social wellbeing, and mainstream media’s increasing approval of state-approved violence. The existence of Fields’ documentary does not discount, say, the efficacy of vaccination in reducing the severity of Covid symptoms in vulnerable groups, or the aggression and entitlement that some who opposed Covid vaccines exhibited. In the arts, two conflicting truths do not cancel each other out: they granulate our understanding of a complex world where people of different experiences and backgrounds attempt to coexist.
Advertisers have long understood that emotive stories, not hard facts and numbers, influence people to engage with products, services, and charity efforts. Right-wing thought is filled with storytelling material: it has a nuanced and diverse history of scrutinising social and cultural concepts such as nationhood, family, marriage, and community. Angela Dillard’s book "Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner: Multicultural Conservatism In America" examines strategies that ethnic and sexual minorities used to assimilate themselves into traditionally Anglo-European and Christian conservative movements. Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson’s book "Strange Justice: The Selling Of Clarence Thomas" considers tensions between African-American recognition, feminist concerns, and conservatism during Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas.
Despite the profound discussions arising from fractures within the Right, the Australian vocabulary about right-wing thought is woefully limited. Australian conservative politicians are said to have ‘become left-wing’ if they express support for gay marriage or decriminalisation of abortion.
The prominence of unfavourable personalities further degrades public perceptions of the Right. Even people seeking to sympathise with the Right often preface their statements ‘I’m not on the Right but–’ Many are unaware of the Right’s profound intellectual history which studies the balance between a need for change and the maintenance of cultural integrity. The Right needs art more than ever to capture the public’s imagination.
While this article pushes for the Right’s appreciation of the arts, it does not support squirrelling into ‘alternative outlets’, an idea floated among various Right-wing outlets. Ideas that defy the progressive consensus of Australian arts industries may need to circulate among more sympathetic spheres (arts industries in non-Western countries) to gain initial momentum before Australians recognise its validity. Having a multitude of artistic and literary platforms framed around different values and tastes may improve our access to different perspectives on controversial issues. But these should still lie within a generally unified cultural sphere, rather than walled off into separate echo chambers. A unified cultural sphere allows for the acknowledgment of viewpoints across the political divide. Echo chambers are deaf to external information and descend into polarised stupidities.
Conservative commentators frequently note a progressive takeover in mainstream Australian arts and media. For example, Alexandra Marshall’s article "The Sydney Writers’ Festival: so woke you want to call for blood tests" observed the Sydney Writers’ Festival’s platforming of simplistic racial and gender identity politics. One may question or disagree with her derision towards Wokeness in the media. However, her observation about the conservative viewpoint’s absence begs an important question: where are the conservative creatives? The simplistic understanding of conservatism in Australia is unsurprising: deriding artists as ‘lefty snowflakes’ and siphoning out their money damage any chances of artists studying right-wing thought, let alone sympathise and be inspired by its nuances. If the Right is truly concerned about Leftist dogma in media and culture, it needs to be serious about regaining cultural territory through investment, training, and respect for artistic and literary practitioners.
In time, I would like to see Australian Right-wing and Left-wing writers and artists in conversation at national cultural events. A rehash of the ‘we are more similar than different’ conclusion may not directly answer questions like ‘should big churches be heavily taxed?’ or ‘why are fuel prices so high?’ But it may provide necessary reminders to people that political adversaries are simply humans with different priorities on particular issues, not demonic lunatics to be exiled from workplaces and social groups. That would go a long way in detoxifying political debates.