Politics is downstream from culture. — Andrew Breitbart
In Philadelphia in 2012 I had a short play go up in the first (and only) Republican Theater Festival. A bright and talented producer, Cara Blouin, who is liberal, had grown tired of the fact that theater never challenged, but always reinforced, her liberal beliefs. While the festival was more of a curiosity than a start of a movement, there was one important question that permeated the entire event. Everyone wanted to know what constitutes a Republican, or conservative, play. Was it the nature of its content? Was it style? Was it the worldview being espoused? Most of the answers were negatives, suggesting that basically what defined a conservative piece of art is that it is not liberal or Progressive.
In recent years, there has been a rise in attention paid to art and culture by the conservative media. Outlets like Breitbart, Washington Free Beacon, and this one regularly run stories on culture and art. Last year, Liberty Island opened as an outlet for conservative fiction. The Right is realizing how important it is to compete in what I call the cultural ground game. As conservatives begin wading into these waters, which have been dominated by a progressive hegemony for so long, we must begin to define and forge the uncreated principles of our counterculture. The five principles below are offered as a starting point.
1. A Free and Open Marketplace of Ideas
As I have written about before, the influence of the non-profit sector on American live and written arts cannot be overstated. The three-legged stool of the Academy, the non-profit giving sector, and non-profit arts-producing companies has a liberal lock on almost all of our stages and most of our pages. The free money floating around, supposedly because art cannot pay for itself, keeps these sectors immune from audience influence. The important competition is for grants and donations, not participation. This means that liberal arts funders and producers have little need to appeal to conservatives. Unlike Hollywood, American theater gives us very few “American Snipers” or “Junos” outside of the work of David Mamet.
But the conservative counter-culture should not try to mirror this network of wealth and ideology in bringing more conservative art to life. There is a place for donated resources, in developing content creators and establishing infrastructure. But the works themselves should compete without the overbearing influence of these funds—not only because free markets are conservative, but because they produce the best products. As the Progressive arts entrench their narrative and play to smaller and smaller groups of sycophants, conservative artists should be focused on work that pays for itself. This doesn’t mean work that makes the most money is the best, it means the work that attracts the most participation is. Participation can always be monetized. In popular work we will find our strongest messages.
2. Individuality over Identity
During his recent unpleasantness, Jonathan Chait learned an important lesson about the nature of the modern Left. It turned out that his critique of political correctness was itself a violation of that code, not so much because of what he said, but who he is. Twitter exploded with the message that the white, straight, male scribe had no right to pen these thoughts. In the arts, this toxic blend of political correctness and privilege theory has become an epidemic. It’s not an accident that Chait’s article referred specifically to recent controversies around the plays “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “The Vagina Monologues.” These works, liberal on their face, have been the subject of censorship because of the color of their creators’ faces and the nature of their body parts.
In the Progressive arts, the demographic traits of artists affect not only how audiences are supposed to view the work, but how companies are to produce it. Recently, a consortium of Los Angeles-based theater companies discussed a plan to make 51 percent of employees people of color, women, or people under 35. The conservative counter-culture must be clear that we value artists for their work, not their skin color or gender. We must never foist expectations on artists based on the groups they identify with or with which others identify them. We must accept each artist and each work of art as individual. This is not to say not to grapple with issues such as race and gender, just that nobody should be excluded or put in a box for who he or she is.
3. Advocacy of American Values
Artists have always provided an important critical lens on their societies and governments, often with more power to move people than either the press or politics. But their criticism has not always been, and need not always be radical or revolutionary. Artists can criticize while respecting and promoting the basic values of their culture. Mark Twain had many bad things to say about the American government and American society. But in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” when Hank Morgan finds himself in the oppressive society of Arthurian England, almost all of his solutions are American. From government to industry, even the arts, Twain saw basic American values as the gold standard. When he criticized America or Americans, it was generally for failing to live up to those very values.
Too often today it is the core values of our country that come under artistic attack. So steeped in oppression, it is argued, was our founding and development that little is redeemable from that admittedly checkered past. But this ignores that fact that all of human history is checkered, and every society is steeped in flaws and oppression. The conservative counter-culture needs find ways to celebrate our society’s unique and wonderful contribution to the world without the constant caveats of history’s crimes. Shows like “Sons of Liberty” may suggest we are ready to do just that. What is good about America and free markets and democracy? These are the questions we should ask ourselves. There are already enough artists here telling us what is bad about them.
4. Open Sources
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The old saw goes. “Practice, practice, practice” is supposed to be the answer. But far too often the answer is: “Be wealthy, well-connected, and tell the stories those in charge approve of.” The best chance for the conservative counter-culture is to use open sources to allow people to share and create as much content as possible. Here Liberty Island has made a good start with their Fellowship Program. It is explained here:
Liberty Island invites you to join a Fellowship of Liberty—a gathering of writers and readers, artists, critics and viewers who share a love of great stories and a common dedication to the defense and explication of American ideals. Together they make up not just a community but the core a new counterculture.
This is precisely the right approach. Getting a foothold in major artistic institutions and changing the gatekeepers is a long process. If politics is downstream from culture, culture itself is downstream from the big shows and bright lights. It is only through a more open, less curated approach that conservatives can begin to create and disseminate content that reflects our ideas and beliefs.
As wonderful and rewarding as making art can be, it can also be brutally difficult. As Samuel Beckett put it, the process is often to “try again, fail again, fail better.” Most of the time, failing better is the best we can hope for. More often than not the rewards of creating art are personal, not financial or social. But this must not dissuade us.
A century ago, many families had a member who could play the piano, and the popular songs of the day were spread through sheet music. These amateur musicians never found fame or fortune, but their contribution was nonetheless immense. They showed the people of that time that art and culture are not the sole domain of the special people elites have chosen. If those conservatives with a story to tell, a song to sing, or a picture to paint summon the courage to create and share, change can come. And that change will be deep and structural, not just the cultural fad of the moment.
An opportunity exists here. The arts in America are in crisis. The old funding models and reliable audiences of the left-wing artistic movers and shakers are drying up. Rather than looking for new ways to engage audiences, they are doubling down on failing methods and forms. If conservative artists, arts administrators, and advertisers take advantage of this crisis in aggressive and principled ways, then the path is open to compete in culture for the first time in more than a generation. If that sounds exciting, well, it should—because we can win all the elections we want, but if we aren’t competing in culture, all of those victories will very be short-lived.