Moving Pictures
Oct 27, 2021, 05:55AM

Is There Great Art on the Right?

Recently, the discourse percolated like a cauldron of boiling shit with the idea that “conservatives can’t make worthwhile art.” 

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Endlessly tedious YouTube record reviewer Anthony Fantano (“The Needle Drop”) stoked controversy in the realm of the terminally online this past week by tweeting “Conservatives are not fun, creative, smart, empathetic, or interesting. That's why they don't make great art. Their art sucks ass. Period. ‘The next great music’ will never come from the right. Ever. It hasn't so far so why would it ever in the future?”

As I’m not on Twitter and never will be, because it’s a fucking dump designed to capture your time by aggravating you, I heard about Fantano’s comments second-hand. “There must’ve been more context to what he said,” I remarked to the person who shared the gist of his statement with me, figuring it was common sense among anyone who engages with as much music as he ostensibly does in his role as “the Internet’s busiest music nerd” that good music—like good art from any medium—is made by people from all over the political spectrum. So I asked my friend to show me the statement in its entirety and, well, you’ve seen it now if you hadn’t before, so you know there was, in fact, not anything further said that might make it a somewhat more sensible “take.”

I suppose the next question to ask is whether this comment was made in “good faith” or “bad faith”—that is, was Fantano sincere in his assertion or was he attempting to “rustle the jimmies” of some conservatives and right-wingers more broadly? “The libs” aren’t the only ones being “triggered” these days; “the libs” are “down to clown” and do some of their own “triggering.” I was shown still more of “the Internet’s busiest music nerd’s” thoughts on the subject by my buddy, who shared numerous other tweets from “the melon” bickering with those who pushed back on his remarks, wherein Fantano argued that certain musicians aren’t actually of the right, are/have always been “overrated,” were being disingenuous in espousing any right-wing views they said in the past, were unworthy of any further engagement (“LOL” responses regarding some artists), were the beneficiaries of talented collaborators who did all the heavy lifting for any quality output they may have had, etc. While it’s impossible to say for certain whether he was arguing in “good faith,” the amount of time and effort he put in to doubling-, tripling-, quadrupling-down, etc., on his original proclamation at least hints that it wasn’t a full-on taking of the piss and so merits a debunking.

While Fantano’s original tweet focused primarily on music, as we might expect given it’s his apparent field of primary interest, he did mention “art” more broadly, so I don’t think it’s immaterial to the conversation to name some of the vast number of generally right-wing artists to underscore what a preposterous claim it is. Let me note that ideas of “left” and “right” can have different definitions to different people; many consider the terms to apply only to economics, with “left” essentially denoting someone who’s against capitalism and “right” basically indicating someone who supports capitalism. I suspect, though, that this isn’t the definition Fantano is using, since the first sentence of his initial tweet invokes the term “conservatives” rather than “right,” and so calls to mind social and cultural issues rather than questions of pure economics. Very well. In that case I’m inclined to adhere to the definitions employed in the sloppy, amorphous blob of modern American politics, wherein “the left” includes anything from self-proclaimed “literal communists” to “the Democratic Party,” and “the right” means an equally messy glut of ideologies ranging from “classical liberals” to “literal fascists” and everything in-between (the GOP, libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, monarchists, the also hazily-defined “Alt-Right,” etc.). Applying these standards to artists of the past seems both tricky and stupid, but the original tweet was also hare-brained (not “hair-brained,” incidentally!), so let’s not let that stop us.

As Anthony spends most of his time listening to new music and creating video reviews of that music, perhaps it’s unfair to expect him to have any degree of familiarity with the art of the past—great literature from the 19th century; the painters whose works line the walls of museums and, in some cases, the ceilings of cathedrals; timeless music that can be described as existing under the umbrella of the “Western Classical tradition;” the classic poetry of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond; brilliant plays from the glory years of the theater; non-MCU cinema—but were he to have such familiarity, he’d find a treasure trove of artists who can be described as “of the right.” From what I was shown of the thread in question, the people responding to him lacked sufficient knowledge of music and art more generally to rebut his ridiculous claim; you got people suggesting Rage Against the Machine! But in fairness to them, Fantano moved the goalposts numerous times, refused to acknowledge that, say, Morrissey warranted any respect as a right-leaning figure from the realm of popular music, dismissed Clapton for being “overrated”—the mere fact that the vast majority of people who are both fans of and knowledgeable about guitar-based music respect his contributions to the way the instrument is played, several different subgenres of rock music, etc., refutes his position, regardless of whether Fantano believes personally that Clapton is over-, under- or accurately-rated; it’s the consensus—and so forth, so it’s understandable that some resorted to grasping at straws. With all that said, let me rattle off a bunch of right-leaning artists who anyone with any sense would at the least acknowledge have value as creators of art, even if not all of them appeal to everyone’s particular sensibilities.

From the world of literature, there’s a plethora of conservative and various other right-oriented writers of mostly enormous value: Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, Walt Whitman (a staunch nationalist who was a fierce advocate of Manifest Destiny and practically invented American exceptionalism—don’t quote “I Sing the Body Electric” or “Song of Myself” to me), Henry James, Ambrose Bierce (read his essay “The Socialist—What He is, and Why”), Poe, Willa Cather... The world of the 19th century is riddled with conservatives and other right-leaning figures, and I could easily go on rattling off more names, but let me assume that any more of these will occasion the complaint that “19th century politics are incomparable to the present day,” if they haven’t already; very well, here are a glut of wonderful 20th-century writers from that end of the spectrum: Conrad (though I’ll grant that his politics are complex and ambiguous in some respects), Edith Wharton (a self-described “rabid imperialist”), Henry Miller, Ernst Jünger, Robert Frost, Zora Neale Hurston, Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and then, hell, perhaps the single most important figure in the Modernist movement and in bringing a variety of artists (from the left, right and everything in-between) in numerous art forms to their earliest prominence, Ezra Pound, would alone make a strong argument for the influence of the right on valuable art. Then, almost Pound’s equal with respect to her work in mentoring young writers and artists from all around the political horn, Gertrude Stein was unapologetic following World War II regarding her collaboration with the Vichy Government, she supported Franco in Spain, excoriated FDR on numerous occasions… and without her, not only would writers like Ernest Hemingway have had a far rougher go of making it as novelists, but we may never have witnessed the full blossoming of the talents of Matisse or Picasso. Later in the century, there are writers like Yukio Mishima, Borges, Kerouac (gasp! Yes, Kerouac was infatuated with William F. Buckley Jr., stated to friends that he wanted Buckley to run for president, cheered on McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings and famously detested hippies), Anthony Burgess, Tom Wolfe, Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy and Joan Didion.

Film, a more collaborative art form than the writing of novels, poetry, etc., is slightly more complicated to parse politically, as there are writers, directors, producers, actors and actresses, cinematographers, etc., to consider. As most people who follow cinema closely are at least mild adherents to the auteur theory—the viewpoint that many (though not all) films can be viewed as principally the work of one artist, usually the director of the film, and thus bear certain hallmarks of that “author’s” style, personality, worldview, etc.—and I think this is the easiest way of categorizing films meaningfully, politically or otherwise. The movies have historically been full of conservative and right-leaning filmmakers of merit, not least of those the legendary D.W. Griffith, who pioneered many modes of artistic expression within the medium—cross-cutting, for one—that remain in use today and make up some of the core language of the cinema.

Griffith is often pilloried nowadays for his role in bringing the masterful but racist 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation, to the screen; Griffith in actuality had little to no interest in “racial politics,” and made the film more so for commercial reasons, though we shouldn’t absolve him of the often grotesque content of the film, which for all its artistic merits did make a substantial contribution to revitalizing the Ku Klux Klan. But in his actual politics, Griffith was a pretty standard Republican, who supported men like Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge in their bids for the Oval Office. Other titans of film directing like Howard Hawks and Cecil B. DeMille were noted conservatives, and the populist champion of small-town values and the little guy, Frank Capra, was a lifelong Republican (he was also an early supporter of Mussolini in his birth country of Italy) who made a number of classics in several different genres, ranging from the proto-screwball Comedy that cleaned up at the Oscars, 1934’s It Happened One Night, to the 1946 Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

Conservatism among legendary directors isn’t limited to Hollywood and the United States, however; the great Japanese film artist Yasujirō Ozu was a social conservative who made masterpieces from the silent era until his death in the early-1960s, with many of those works focusing on marriage, family and the changing views of the successive generations; Satyajit Ray, widely considered the greatest filmmaker to come from India, whose Apu Trilogy of pictures is often counted among the best films ever made (either taken as one full work or as three individual features), was a humanist who sympathized with the middle class over the poor who feature prominently in his cinema, and was accused, even by admirers, of having a bourgeois sensibility at odds with the socialism that was popular during the 1950s and 60s when he was creating some of his most noteworthy pictures; the genius Italian auteur Federico Fellini, whose style was so singular that, as with Kafka in the world of letters, his surname spawned its own adjective (“Felliniesque”), but despite the Italian film industry of his heyday being rife with socialists and socialist sympathizers (such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci), Fellini was firmly opposed to anti-capitalist politics and made features that were generally critical of modernity and the perceived emptiness of life within it.

French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, who began his career as a critic along with the other men with whom he would form the French New Wave—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, et al—at the influential Cahiers du Cinéma film journal, experienced a break with his more left-wing associates in the 1960s, with his conservative political and social values also echoed within his cinema, which favored more classical modes of expression than those of his former colleagues, who were experimenting with radical editing techniques, the “Cinema verite” approach, etc., in sharp contrast to Rohmer’s measured, novelistic approach.

Some of the most notable filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s and beyond have been conservative or right-leaning: Stanley Kubrick, who’s pretty much the default choice among young budding cineastes for “GOAT film director,” had a vaguely left-leaning, idealist humanist bent in early features like the ostensibly anti-war Paths of Glory, but even regarding that film, which culminates in a French battalion during World War I being slaughtered in pursuit of an anthill of marginal strategic value, Kubrick made comments at various points about the goal having been attainable for a sufficiently motivated French battalion, seemingly disagreeing with the denouement of his own movie. Later, he moved rightward rather dramatically for features like A Clockwork Orange (an adaptation of aforementioned right-leaning author Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel) and Full Metal Jacket, which take a dim view of humanity that suggest an inherent animalistic violence within man. In his personal life, he made comments opposed to democracy, suggested that a “benign despot” would be a better sense of government and praised Irving Kristol’s neoconservative ideas.

One of the more accomplished filmmakers, still at it after more than 50 years of directing and nearly 70 as an actor, Clint Eastwood, is a noted conservative, though his views are somewhat idiosyncratic at times. Sam Peckinpah, nicknamed “Bloody Sam,” rose to prominence in the 1960s as the old studio system was yielding to the “New Hollywood” movement that would dominate the 1970s with the works of George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, et al bringing a new sensibility to American screens, one that bore the influence of the aforementioned French New Wave, and one over which the filmmakers exerted greater control over their projects. Peckinpah, though, was older than most of those directors (as was Altman; both were born in the 1920s, whereas the others were Baby Boomers) and had gotten a taste of studio interference while working on Major Dundee, which was taken out of his hands. His films are generally typified by men who adhere to outmoded value systems struggling to make their way in a changing world—the washed-up titular gang in the 1969 classic The Wild Bunch, the titular friends-cum-enemies Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, two cowboys played by aging stars Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott looking for a payday in the award-winning Ride the High Country—that’s at best indifferent and often outright hostile to them; he views masculinity under threat and, in films like the controversial Straw Dogs, gives us a protagonist who experiences what Richard Slotkin described in his book on the American frontier as “regeneration through violence.”

The legendary actor Dennis Hopper, another key figure in the New Hollywood era, was also a fantastic director, helming the iconic 1969 feature that was almost a manifesto for this new age in movie-making Easy Rider, as well as the arthouse mind-fuck The Last Movie, the shattering 1980 coming-of-age drama Out of the Blueand a number of others; he was also an avowed conservative who voted Republican. Sam Raimi, who revolutionized horror filmmaking in 1981 with The Evil Dead, his no-budget splatter classic, and later found mainstream success with his trilogy of Spider-Man movies (back when superhero movies were occasional rather than constant… never-ending), is a Republican who made contributions to both of George W. Bush’s presidential election bids. Teen comedy/dramedy maestro John Hughes was a self-professed “pants-down Republican.” S. Craig Zahler, a novelist turned filmmaker who has made a trio of the best action-oriented movies of the past decade in his first three outings in the director’s chair (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Dragged Across Concrete), has rejected the idea that his work serves a deliberate political agenda, but all three of the pictures he’s made to date deal heavily in conservative ideas of masculinity and reject rather explicitly political correctness.

There’s also no shortage of painters throughout history on the right—Dali (who abandoned his youthful communism in favor of supporting Franco’s regime and would self-identify as a monarchist), Degas, Francis Bacon—but as this is already long and I’ve not touched the main focus of Fantano’s tweet yet, the lack of great right-wing music, I’ll finish up with that. If we go back to the late-19th and early-20th centuries, there are plenty of great composers who were on the right in their time and would be considered so now: Wagner of course, Respighi, Charles Ives.

Some of the key figures in 20th-century music have been conservative and right-leaning: German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was a pioneer in the realm of electronic music and established a number of boundary-pushing ideas in the field of musical theory, was a politically conservative figure at a time when the dissident left was gaining in strength in Western Germany; French composer Olivier Messiaen, under whom the aforementioned Stockhausen studied as a young man, was a staunch Catholic, much of whose music contained unequivocal Christian themes that made clear his belief that the only path to salvation passed through the church in Rome, to the point where some of the many contributions he made to new modes of musical expression are at times ignored or diminished by those who view him as having been anti-Semitic and propagandistic; the great Igor Stravinsky, whose experimental ballet The Rite of Spring at its premiere caused the sort of stir we now more commonly associate with soccer riots ate massive stadiums holding tens and tens of thousands of people worked into a violent lather by the outcome of a contest, perhaps with national or regional implications. But at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29th, 1913, Stravinsky’s grand new opus inspired huge swathes of the men and women in attendance to rip chairs out of the floor and hurl them at the stage, to pummel one another viciously with fists and hand-held bludgeons, to laugh derisively and scream vicious obscenities at Stravinsky, his musicians and his dancers—in short, a chaotic nightmare scene the likes of which few people had then seen outside of a war zone.

Stravinsky had been a supporter of liberal democracy early in his life, but following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, his politics took a sharp turn for the hard right and mostly remained there throughout the balance of his life, with a few forays into something like classical liberalism.

What about current and more recent music? Fantano and his toadies can easily scoff at these thousands of words I’ve put to paper: “Yeah, we already know all that, fuckface. We just finished reading Dostoevsky’s collected works—every one of us, individually; actually, most of us read it in the original Russian. There’s nothing you can tell us that we don’t already know about literature—and we already knew D.H. Lawrence was a scumfucker. Guy was proto-fash. What can you tell us that’s new? Where’s all this good right-wing music?” Well, clearly Fantano thinks Morrissey, who was the frontman and one of the two primary creative forces in that most well-regarded of all the post-punk bands, The Smiths, is beneath contempt. Eric Clapton is “overrated.” Let’s try to determine how the multitudinous others would be greeted: Van Morrison sucks ass, Hank Williams sucks shit, Iggy Pop sucks shit from someone’s ass. John Lydon was always shit and it was actually Sid Vicious who made the few Sex Pistols songs that were worth listening to that way despite not playing on the record. Ray Davies and The Kinks? “LOL.” Nick Cave sucks and has always sucked, or either it was the heroin that made him good.

King Buzzo of the Melvins, who has written all of their songs in their almost 40 year history… trash. Prince was rancid diaper shit. Frank Zappa? A larger volume of rancid diaper shit. Alice Cooper? “LOL.” James Brown, who revered Strom Thurmond and endorsed Richard Nixon in 1972? Worthless! Johnny Ramone certainly never contributed anything to the world of, say, punk rock. The Who sucked. “Overrated.” It was drumming god Kenney Jones who, once the dead weight of Keith Moon had been unloaded, let them make such great records as Face Dances and It’s Hard; he alone was able to give worthwhile shape to the otherwise trash compositions of Pete Townshend, who was a talentless neocon. Basically the entirety of metal and its various subgenres—especially black metal, wherein virtually every band and artist is on the extreme right—can piss off, because I’ve got The Black Keys and their dinky, pansy-ass twerp-rock for when I want to “rock out” quietly with a can of White Claw in my Dockers slacks.

Let me close by stating the obvious: there is and always has been and always will be good art being made by people from every corner of the political arena, and being hyper-vigilant about the position on the political compass of artists, most of whose politics make precious little apparent impression on what they create—especially when it’s fucking pop music, and most especially when it’s the type of garbage Fantano reviews (man, I wonder what Yo Gotti will have to say regarding the prospect of Roe v. Wade being undone by the Supreme Court! What’s that? Oh. Nothing. He’s just muttering groggily about the “juice” that he has in abundance. Cool. Good thing we can nominally place him within the meaningless box of “the left” since his class interests, which align far more comfortably with those of the wealthy of all races than those of the working class of any, are irrelevant to this deformed version of politics that’s completely divorced from material interests—is childish shit, and nicely encapsulates the worthless, performative nature of modern politics.


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