Not long ago I was introduced to an audience as an “intellectual.” This was a well-meaning choice of word, and a flattering one, but it was slightly off. An intellectual is a person who is mainly interested in ideas. I am an aesthete—a person who is mainly interested in beauty. Nowadays the word aesthete carries with it the musty reek of high Victoriana. Still, there remains no better word to describe the way certain people—people like me—view the world.
It’s not that aesthetes are hostile to ideas. But it’s part of aesthetic wisdom that there is great danger in allowing ideas alone to take the reins and ride mankind, since too often they end up riding individual men and women into mass graves. Far too many intellectuals have been what Jacob Burckhardt called “terrible simplifiers,” the power-hungry idea-mongers whose utopian visions have inspired the world’s most murderous tyrants. That is reason enough to decline to be counted among their number.
And yet it is also true that many aesthetes are too impatient or uninterested to learn the details of how things actually work and end up taking a comically simple-minded view of the way they should work. If there were an Artists’ Party, its platform would look much like the one summed up in James Gould Cozzens’s novel The Just and the Unjust: “Any kid can work out a program of more ice cream and less school and free movies and him telling other people what to do instead of people always telling him.”
Still, as I say, aesthetes have it over intellectuals in one important respect: You’ll rarely catch them hustling anyone off to the nearest guillotine. For all their frequent foolishness, their hands are stained with ink and paint, not blood.
Needless to say, aesthetes have their own enemies, as does art itself. H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” While Puritanism was and is more complicated than that, Mencken was on to something. If, for instance, you take a look at the long list of items that were banned by the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, you’ll find “any equipment that produces the joy of music.” Rarely have the enemies of art unfolded themselves more fully.
But America, too, has its share of earnest, well-meaning, narrow-minded folk who don’t much care for art. Not that this should surprise anyone. Ours, after all, is a can-do, no-frills culture shaped by the frontier experience and the Protestant work ethic, and even in this Age of Leisure, the notion that a person might want to look at a Balanchine ballet or a Cézanne watercolor purely because it makes him happy is alien to many Americans. It’s not enough that art should please us: We want it to improve us, to make us smarter and richer, and maybe even thinner.
This is not a uniquely American error. It goes all the way back to Plato, in whose ideal republic music would be banned because it stirred the passions unaccountably, and was expounded at length by Leo Tolstoy in What Is Art?—perhaps the most willfully wrongheaded book ever written by a major artist:
Just as people who conceive the aim and purpose of food to be pleasure cannot recognize the real meaning of eating, so people who consider the aim of art to be pleasure cannot realize its true meaning and purpose…a means by which humanity progresses toward unity and blessedness.
All of which serves only to prove that even a genius is apt to lose his way when he goes wandering in the barren desert of ideas.
Yet art does indeed have a greater purpose, one suggested in this pithy line from an essay by the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter: “When I paint, I think that what would satisfy me is to express what Bonnard said Renoir told him: make everything more beautiful.” That is the point of being an aesthete. If, like the Taliban, you hate the world, then it follows that you will hate art as well, or at least distrust it. But if you love the world, you will find in art a way of magnifying (in the religious sense of the word) its beauties.
To be an aesthete in an idea-driven age is to run the risk of being dismissed as irrelevant by those who prefer ideas to beauty. Not a few conservatives fall into the latter category, though by no means all: Norman Podhoretz, for instance, started out as a literary critic of the highest seriousness, while William F. Buckley, Jr. was an amateur harpsichordist sufficiently accomplished to have played a Bach concerto with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. But this passion for the arts does not seem overly typical of today’s conservatives and libertarians, many of whom appear to favor postmodern pop culture over high art and in some cases would probably get along just fine without either one.
If the characteristic error of conservatives is to be indifferent to serious art, then the characteristic error of liberals is to instrumentalize it. Not since the days of the Popular Front has there been such widespread suspicion on the left of the notion that great art can exist in a realm independent from that of politics. Visiting an art gallery or going to the theater today too often reminds one of Daniel Tokenhouse, the fictional artist of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time who believed that “a picture is an act of Socialism” and painted in a style that he dubbed “Political Symbolism,” producing such canvases as “Four Priests Rigging a Miracle.”
Jed Perl, the art critic of the impeccably liberal New Republic, recently went so far as to speculate that “more and more liberals find the emotions unleashed by the arts—I mean all of the arts, from poetry to painting to dance—something of an embarrassment.” Tom Stoppard dramatized the psychological roots of this embarrassment in Travesties, his 1974 play about the birth of modernity, when he put in the mouth of his fictionalized Lenin a remark that the real Lenin made to Maxim Gorky about Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata:
I can’t listen to music often. It affects my nerves, makes me want to say nice stupid things and pat the heads of those people who while living in this vile hell can create such beauty. Nowadays we can’t pat heads, or we’ll get our hands bitten off. We’ve got to hit heads, hit them without mercy.
To be sure, the wise aesthete also steers clear of the art-for-art’s-sake extremism implicit in Oscar Wilde’s declaration on literature: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Important though it is, earthly beauty does not trump all other values. Moreover, it serves no purpose to assert that all political art is bad ex hypothesi. It is perfectly possible to make great art that serves as the instrument of an exterior purpose. That is why Chartres Cathedral was built and the St. Matthew Passion composed.
But making reality over into art, while it necessarily entails a measure of simplification, also demands that the artist simultaneously acknowledge the proliferating complexity of human nature and experience. Therein lies the problem of political art: The artist whose chief goal is to enlist his audience in a cause, no matter what that cause may be, is rarely prepared to tell the whole truth and nothing but. He replaces the true complexity of the real world with the false simplicity of the ideologue. He alters reality not to make everything more beautiful, but to stack the deck.
To strive toward the higher end of beauty, the serious artist must seek to tell the truth as he sees it about the world he sees around him, a task that can be pursued to the fullest degree only under the aspect of freedom. Where there is no freedom, there is no art, save at the risk of the artist’s neck. This freedom includes, among other things, freedom from the paralyzing obligation to persuade. Great art doesn’t tell—it shows. And this act of showing is itself a moral act, a commitment to reality. The greatest artists seek not to change the world, but to see it as it is, then show it to their fellow men with the transforming clarity that is beauty, thereby heightening our perception and enriching our understanding.
Hence Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a work of the creative imagination that uses history as its raw material in the same way as (say) Shakespeare’s Richard III, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, or Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian. The beauty of these works is not contingent on their historicity, nor was it the goal of their creators to persuade those who read, heard, or viewed them to take any specific form of action, political or otherwise. Their purpose, rather, was to make us say, Yes, life is like that.
The creation of such art is a supreme act of freedom, not least because it has the power to open the doors that the latter-day followers of Tolstoy and Plato would have preferred to keep tightly shut. For in addition to giving comfort and joy, great art has the miraculous ability to let us live in other men’s skins, to test our perceptions and beliefs against theirs and to be transformed as a result—not infrequently in the unpredictable ways that are the fruit of freedom alone.
If the making of great art is an act of freedom, might it be that its transformative power can be understood in some meaningful sense as an essentially conservative phenomenon?
It could well be that the artists who shun the terrible simplifications of ideology partake naturally of what Michael Oakeshott called “the conservative disposition,” which he defined as “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be.” They are, in other words, content to describe the world instead of being keen to change it into something else, more often than not in the name of what those with short memories are pleased to call progress.
But it’s risky to pursue this line of argument too far, since it leads in perilously short order to that otiose species of “criticism” that endeavors to prove that whatever the critic in question happens to like is, mirabile dictu, conservative. By the same token, the fact that Aaron Copland was a Stalinist fellow traveler who simplified his style in the ’30s to bring it into closer accord with the political objectives of the Popular Front doesn’t diminish the power of the music he wrote in that foul decade. (If anything, it heightens the mystery of how such artists as Copland and Bertolt Brecht can draw sweet water from poisoned wells.) In the final analysis, Conservative Art is no more satisfying than Liberal Art, much less art that strives to lead humanity toward Tolstoy’s chimerical goal of “unity and blessedness.” What we should want—what we can never have enough of—is beautiful art.
This brings us full circle. When making art or writing about it, the aesthete tries never to moralize. Nor will he look with favor upon artists who do so, no matter whether their particular brand of moralizing is religious or secular. But he can and must be fully, intensely alive to the moral force of art whose creators aspire merely to make the world around us more beautiful, and in so doing to pierce the veil of the visible and give us a glimpse of the permanently true. That is his job: to help make sense of the pandemonium amid which we live.
Henry James, that aesthete pur sang, put it best in 1915 to H.G. Wells, among the most relentless of literature’s terrible simplifiers: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”