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June 28, 2007

Creativity and Personal Politics

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

[Kicks self mercilessly]

A few weeks ago during my daily tour of favorite web sites I followed a link to an item that proclaimed that major creative people historically have been "liberal." Names of artists, writers, scientists, etc. were named.

I should have bookmarked the piece, but [Sob] didn't.

Today I played with search features on some of sites, but couldn't locate the link. Which means you'll have to take my word that it existed.

I don't doubt that the majority of "creatives" in the USA nowadays are in the liberal end of the political spectrum -- publicly, at least. Part of this might have to do with life-cycle stage. Much of the rest might simply be because of a desire to go along with the herd or to conform with what they heard as children at the dinner table or in college or art school from faculty. And of course there are some who have given political matters a good deal of thought and are ideologically committed based on their studies.

But you can only push the "liberalism" concept a limited distance back in history. Most readers should know that "liberal" meant something quite different in the 19th century than is does in 21st century America. So let me substitute "leftist" for "liberal" to clarify matters. Even so, leftism as we understand it emerged in the 19 century, which suggests that claims about the modern-sense politics of Da Vinci or Velázquez don't carry much meaning.

(I realize I'm trodding on Friedrich's turf at this point. So please comment, Herr von Blowhard, to clarify and error-correct my ramblings.)

The thrust of the "missing link" [Har, har] was that conservatives were and are uncreative boobs who have done nothing to advance science, art, literature and such. I can contend that this idea is nonsense by simply citing the fact that most people aren't consistent when dealing with the world. For example, it's not hard to find folks who vote left, yet are quite traditional in their approach to family life, their profession, personal finances and so forth.

Not convinced? Consider the original Impressionist painters. I just finished reading a biography of Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer who promoted and subsidized the Impressionists written by Pierre Assouline.

Assouline makes it clear that Durand was a monarchist, a strong Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-Dreyfusard. Yet he championed a radical art movement and supported artists with quite different political views including Camille Pissarro, a quasi-anarchist Jew from the Caribbean colonies.

In the last chapter of the book, pages 253-54, Assouline characterizes the politics of the artists in reference to the l'Affaire Dreyfus. "Pissarro and Monet were supporters of Dreyfus ... as were Signac and Mary Cassatt. But that was all." "On the opposite side were those whose latent or declared anti-Semitism had been radicalized, notably Renoir, Puvis de Chavannes, Rodin, Forain, Cézanne, and above all Degas."

Presumably none of the latter group were "creative."



posted by Donald at June 28, 2007


Oooo, this promises to be an interesting thread! I'm keeping my lips sealed on it however.

Posted by: susan on June 28, 2007 4:17 PM

Frankly, the prejudice (for that's all it is) that there's some sort of link between leftists and creativity and conversely some sort of wall between rightists and creativity is too silly to be worthy of serious consideration (either that, or I don't have anything worth saying on the subject).

I will say that I'm kind of surprised that Monet - who in every other way was a representative solid citoyen bourgeoise Frenchman - was a Dreyfusard.

Posted by: ricpic on June 28, 2007 5:20 PM

Was it this post?

I saw it linked in this post at GNXP.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on June 28, 2007 5:37 PM

The irritating truth is that "liberals" have been doing this for several generations now.

It works this way: redefine the concept of liberalism so that it includes anyone who has ever given a thought to the poor, to the rights of women, or to social injustice. Redefine conservatism so that it excludes anyone who has ever shown the slightest creativity, imagination, or interest in the arts.

And there you have it! Every artist is a liberal, or might as well be a liberal. And if even that doesn't quite fit the label to the artist, you prove that any artist who has ever shown illiberal tendencies is not worthy of the name of artist.

That, BTW, has happened to Degas, who has been vilified by feminist art theory for his "peeping Tom" mentality. That was one of the deciding factors in driving me away from feminism at last.

And please forgive me for observing that the habit is peculiarly American. I don't find it nearly so deeply entrenched among the European left, although like all other American fads, it's catching.

Posted by: alias clio on June 28, 2007 5:42 PM

The notion that politics, particularly left wing politics, corresponds in a neat one-to-one manner with artistic creativity, particularly of "advanced" or "avant-garde" creativity, is pretty silly, despite being widely believed. This is NOT to say that politics and art haven't been widely entangled for...well, for as long as we have any detailed understanding of the politics of various civilizations. ("Classical" Greek Art, to take only one example, clearly arose in a context of specific political developments, particularly the rise of Athens to imperial power.)

But the connections are often quite complex and twisted by local conditions, so to speak. The English Romantics were "left wing" and inspired by the French Revolution (at least until they got a good look at its militaristic side, when several of them, including Wordsworth, made an abrupt right-hand turn); but the German Romantics were fiercely nationalistic and "right-wing" because they hated the occupying French and French Neoclassicism. So is Romanticism "right" or "left"?

As for the French cultural scene in the latter 19th century and early 20th century, I won't try to rehearse the complexities of the art-political relationship here, but I've blogged on this topic several times. You might look at:

This one, or

This one.

I believe the tendency to equate creativity with left-wing politics is traceable mostly to what has been described as The Modernist Project, in which modern art is considered a sort of integral part of the march to a new, socialist economic order. This was pretty much dogma during Michael Blowhard's and my years at our Lousy Ivy University...but was still pretty silly.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 28, 2007 6:01 PM

Reed -- No, it was a polemical, not scientific, piece that mostly had a lot of names from over the centuries. Though there are plenty of other articles that claim to attach mental attributes of one kind or another to groups holding different political views. (My impression is that, since academicians are the ones who tend to do such "research," it's their side that usually comes off as most sympathetic.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 28, 2007 6:14 PM

Don, it's probably too late now, but here's how you can try to find it. Try to Google particular turns of phrase from the article that stick in your mind--even random sentences that aren't that important. Enclose those in quotes, like "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain", and stick them into Google.

The reason is that search engines look for verbatim text (recall that text is stored as numbers, so the computer will have an easy time finding the '192' in '45265192656' just as it'll probably bring up the song's lyrics if you type the suggested line into the search engine). Looking for common words like 'liberal', 'creative', and 'politics' in Google is a waste of time because many, many web articles will have these words in them in some combination. But, to give a literary example, while doing a search on 'annoying wife' will get you lots of articles on marital counseling, trying to find "is the jay more precious than the lark" will get you The Taming of the Shrew, because that particular combination of words isn't found outside the play very much.

Posted by: SFG on June 28, 2007 6:50 PM

Presumably some conservative will come along soon and object to the use of anti-Semitism as an index for conservativism. There were plenty of left anti-Semites.

What Orwell said was "Not all Conservatives are stupid, but all stupid people are Conservatives".

Posted by: John Emerson on June 28, 2007 9:05 PM

Me and Steve Sailer came up with the following lists of conservative writers:
It goes back further than the time limits you've set, but I think its still mostly valid.

Posted by: Thursday on June 28, 2007 9:31 PM

A generality: Conservatives seek to conserve tradition. Liberals are less beholden to it. A creative artist, when he has mastered the techniques passed down to him by tradition, challenges it -- along with the authoritarianism that guards it. This is as it must be.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on June 28, 2007 9:36 PM

when you mix art and politics you get propaganda. the true artist creates for himself, not some collective. also, leftism and creativity are by definition mutually exclusive.

Posted by: cjm on June 28, 2007 11:04 PM

orwell never met rosie o'donell

Posted by: cjm on June 28, 2007 11:05 PM

We're so in the habit of thinking of art as being necessarily innovative that our brains are scrambled. Two examples to shake that up a bit: classicism, which is all about taking pre-existing, passed-down forms and reaffirming them and embodying them convincingly. The creative achievement where classicism is concerned isn't challenging any kind of authority, it's re-connecting with the authority of tradition.

My other example is the blues, certainly one of the most important of all American art forms, and about as "conservative" in the non-political sense as can be. It's certainly true that there are performers who push the blues boundaries, and who become known and influential for it. But there are tons of blues musicians who are loved and influential because they seem to connect so directly with the traditional blues spirit.

We've done ourselves a terrible injustice by letting ourselves be persuaded that the story of art history is the story of one innovator after another. It blinds us to much great and enjoyable art, as well as to how the arts really work.

Interesting to hear Clio say that Americans are especially vulnerable to the dumb politicizing of art. One of my hunches is that a lot that's characteristic about American culture can be traced to our cultural insecurity. We yearn, we strive, we fall on our faces, we blush furiously, we want transformation -- so we're vulnerable to all kinds of silliness.

And, FWIW, I've known tons of stupid leftists. As well as, come to think of it, that character special to the left, the person-who's-smart -in-such-stupid-ways-he/she-might-as- well-be-dumb. Such as, for example, the twits who taught FvB and me all kinds of lies back in college.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 28, 2007 11:39 PM

Mr, er, Wickham (is that really your name?), your comment is a good illustration of the point I tried to make in my previous comment, above, which was that "liberals" today will insist on defining liberalism to ensure that the good guys and the smart ones always fall within the boundaries of liberalism. It doesn't always work, though, as in this case.

A talent for artistic innovation does not always coincide with a taste for political innovation. The innovators Pound and T.S. Eliot were both conservatives; so (some say) was James Joyce, though I'm not quite sure about this myself. Evelyn Waugh was among the first writers to draw on the techniques of the cinema, with his rapid-fire dialogue and swift transitions between scenes, and you could scarcely find a more conservative thinker.

Michael 2B, I thank you for citing my comment, but your interpretation takes it in a direction I hadn't intended. I don't know that Americans are that culturally insecure these days. I do think that there is something in your national character which encourages you to see good guys and bad guys in everything - even the arts.

The train of thought appears to run something like this: If a man is a great writer, he must also be a great person; if he is a great person, he must also be politically sympathetic. If he's not a great person, then it's probably because he has the wrong political beliefs; if he has the wrong political beliefs, then perhaps he really isn't a great writer after all. The tendency, as I said, is apparent among both liberal and conservative American thinkers, though probably rather more common in the former.

Posted by: alias clio on June 29, 2007 12:35 AM

Yes, Wickham's the name.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on June 29, 2007 12:40 AM

Once upon a time...

Its real easy. Creative people are used to dreaming up ideas and making them real. The big left-wing idea is that human nature is malleable, changeable, and that people are basically all the same. Creative people latch onto this because it is more beautiful than the ugly reality of human nature. Of course, the project is doomed to failure. Some creative people learn the limits of creativity, while some don't.

The End.

Posted by: Home Run! on June 29, 2007 1:15 AM

In the 19th century, an awful lot of the artists seem to be quite conservative, in their way. We even have a novelist (Disraeli) end up as Conservative leader and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But the boundaries between Conservative and Liberal seem to have been somewhat different, and people seem not to have considered "Conservative" or "Liberal" as being as much of their character as they do now. Wilde, for example, was a flaming homosexual and extremely liberal in many ways, but he also seems to have moved through some of the same social circles as such eminent conservatives as the future Viceroy, Lord Curzon.

In the 20th century, the trend grows less pronounced, though of course we have examples like Evelyn Waugh -- one of finest novelists of the 20th century, and a staunch reactionary, if not quite a "conservative" -- Saki -- a humorist who usually makes fun of liberal do-gooders and humanitarian sensibilities in general -- and even Philip K. Dick.

Dick is not a "conservative" strictly speaking -- he's deeply involved in the drug culture, after all. But he seems to have been solidly anti-abortion (wrote a pretty blatant anti-abortion short story and stood behind the position in letters), and, for all that his novels typically involve family dysfunction, also seems to have been quite strongly anti-divorce. As far as drugs go, he used them himself all the time, but in his novels, people using drugs typically end up in extremely bad situations, getting taken over by eldritch powers from the spaces between the stars and so forth. The more I read him, the more it seems to me that in many of the issues in the "culture wars," Dick was actually a conservative.

And many other creative people have been or can be "conservative" in that same way, I think. That is, not conservative in their appearance or demeanour and so forth. Just conservative in this principles and positions.

Posted by: Taeyoung on June 29, 2007 7:08 AM

Fred W: "A creative artist, when he has mastered the techniques passed down to him by tradition, challenges it -- along with the authoritarianism that guards it. This is as it must be."

I vehemently disagree with this way of putting things. Art is about producing something in a given medium; it isn't about "challenging tradition". You've misidentified the purpose of art and then also placed a purely negative inflection on what tradition does for art.

I'll stick to the field where I have the most knowledge: ask JS Bach whether his job revolved around "challenging tradition." Ask Mozart whether tradition was some sort of restrictive force that prevented him from producing high quality art (in fact, just the opposite). Then ask someone like Webern whether an absence of tradition or common musical practice didn't present big issues that were difficult to surmount and sharply reduced the quantity of his output.

Posted by: jult52 on June 29, 2007 9:49 AM

And now I see Michael put it better and more broadly than I did.

Posted by: jult52 on June 29, 2007 9:52 AM

As well as, come to think of it, that character special to the left, the person-who's-smart -in-such-stupid-ways-he/she-might-as- well-be-dumb. Such as, for example, the twits who taught FvB and me all kinds of lies back in college.

Don't hold back, Michael!! Let it out! But...I think you could point to a number of people who today be classified as "righties"---any number in the original Bush pentagon---who would also fall into that category. I don't think that is exclusive to the "left". I think that is exclusive to arrogant idiots.

Posted by: annette on June 29, 2007 10:07 AM

Ah come one, most artists are liberals and everyone knows it. That's not to say EVERY artist is liberal, or that there haven't been great conservative artists, but the vast majority of artists tend to have a leftist bent. So what? Most of the great work they do is not political in nature anyway.

As a test, someone please list some contemporary artists, in any medium, that can be identified as conservative. Again, I realize there are some, but I think it you'll find it much easier to come up with a list of liberal artists and that list would be much longer.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 29, 2007 11:06 AM

Another thought. Many people confuse a hedonistic lifestyle with liberal politics. Those two don't necessarily go together. Mozart, for instance, was a big time partier, but was he a liberal? Hell, I don't know. Maybe, maybe not.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 29, 2007 11:09 AM

Also, pop culture in general is fairly conservative, or at least materialistic. I know many people around these parts would not consider hip-hop to be art, but taking it for what it is, it's incredibly conservative.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 29, 2007 11:12 AM

In the realm of literature, it's said that the greatest poets are radicals and greatest novelists are reactionaries.

Intuitively, that makes sense to me.

Posted by: PA on June 29, 2007 12:19 PM

What has always interested me, perplexed me and often infuriated me is the love affair that most creative people have for the State. You would think that creative people, with their vaunted free-spiritedness and alleged individualism, would drift toward anarchism; but quite the reverse. (I've known a few creatives who like to call themselves "anarchists" because it sounds kind of hip and free-spirited, but you have only to ask a few questions about what socioeconomic policies they'd like to institute and it becomes quickly evident that they're not really anarchists but State-socialists.) In any political contest they invariably back the more collectivistic candidate. What infuriates me about this is that I'm a crative type myself, and like attracting like as it does, I generally find myself in the company of other creatives. It's annoying how much of a lockstep orthodoxy there is, with everyone just assuming that everyone else--at least all the "enlightened" people in their little artsy cocoon--is, say, going to support Obama or Hillary for president. Once I wore a REASON t-shirt to an outdoor arts festival and you'd think that the t-shirt read, "Death to puppies."

Posted by: Bilwick on June 29, 2007 12:39 PM

Some politically conservative 20th Century writers:

Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Tom Stoppard, Tom Wolfe, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Burgess, P.G. Wodehouse, V.S. Naipaul, Jack Kerouac, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and John Updike.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 29, 2007 4:16 PM

And here are some more, drawn from the ranks of Nobel Laureates: Saul Bellow, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Winston Churchill, William Butler Yeats, and Rudyard Kipling.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 29, 2007 4:20 PM

One question would be whether there is a correlation between aesthetic and political traditionalism.

T.S. Eliot, for example, would suggest there is not. Rudyard Kipling would suggest there is.

Anyone care to take a crack at the overall correlation?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 29, 2007 4:25 PM

"What has always interested me, perplexed me and often infuriated me is the love affair that most creative people have for the State. You would think that creative people, with their vaunted free-spiritedness and alleged individualism, would drift toward anarchism; but quite the reverse."

Liberalism is all for social freedom, which artists love as they like to sleep around. Economic freedom doesn't mean much to an artist unless they're heavily involved in the business side.

I'm pretty weird myself, but I know I don't have the interpersonal skills to do business, so I see no reason to give the schmoozers more ability to make more money than me, and vote Democrat. ;)

Posted by: SFG on June 29, 2007 4:47 PM

Yes, but some of the people you name, Mr Sailer, were/are in fact "classical" liberals: Mario Vargas Lhosa, for example, who says he can never understand why he is called a "conservative". The same perhaps is true of Saul Bellow. Yeats was "liberal" enough (in spite of a brief flirtation with Mussolini's version of fascism) to argue in favour of legal divorce in Ireland, on the grounds that to reject it would lead to an insurmountable division between the North and the South. And there's also V.S. Naipaul, who is more a liberal than a conservative in economic terms, although he has a conservative view of art. I don't know about the Americans you name, but I imagine that they too were/are liberals in the original sense of the term.

There really is a difference, even now.

Evelyn Waugh was by nature an anarchist, by belief a conservative who said he did not like to vote on the grounds that he would not presume to advise his sovereign on her choice of ministers. Solzhenitsyn is closer to Waugh than to the others you name.

My own belief is that the form of leftwingery that prevails in North America and Europe is itself a kind of conservatism, and that's why some artists are drawn to it. They sense that it is more stable than liberalism, and that it will provide them with financial support that will spare them from having to face the populism of the market.

Posted by: alias clio on June 29, 2007 5:59 PM

You would think that creative people, with their vaunted free-spiritedness and alleged individualism, would drift toward anarchism...

Actually, I'm not so sure I find creative people (or at least those that use their creativity in "the arts") to be free spirits, exactly. Their biggest anxiety is usually to find a supportive environment where they can give birth to their art. In many instances, in fact, they can be blindly conformist about following what appear to be successful recipes about how to get to that special place. At least based on people I knew trying to make it in the art scene in L.A., if expressing certain political opinions is part of that "recipe", then those opinions will get expressed. This isn't hypocrisy. It's more an animal need to do whatever it takes to get what they crave most.

When I was in art school, I would occasionally explore the political opinions of my fellow art students, and it became instantly obvious that politics was essentially just another gesture to them, even if it was expressed vehemently. There was very little there, there, so to speak.

Of course, in some cases politics may form part of the emotional context of their lives, and thus inescapably be a part of the raw material of their art; but in any case, expecting a rationally thought-out stance on politics from the point of view of "what's really good for society in the larger sense" is expecting rather too objective a point of view for most artists.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 29, 2007 6:10 PM

"I'll stick to the field where I have the most knowledge: ask JS Bach whether his job revolved around "challenging tradition." Ask Mozart whether tradition was some sort of restrictive force that prevented him from producing high quality art (in fact, just the opposite). Then ask someone like Webern whether an absence of tradition or common musical practice didn't present big issues that were difficult to surmount and sharply reduced the quantity of his output."

It's true Bach and Mozart were among the greatest composers. And they, for the most part, worked within traditions handed down to them. Beethoven broke with them. Late Beethoven -- the Grosse Fuge, just to name one of many radically different works, both in organization and sound -- show the composer as a rulebreaker.

Brahms, even more than Bach and Mozart, was a musical conservative. But he was unquestionably a social liberal. He was one of the few men of his time, musical or otherwise, to stand up to the institutionalized anti-semitism of his era.

I think too much effort is spent by both liberals and conservatives trying to claim as artists those who conform to their own gut biases. To say that great art requires rule breakers is not to say all great artists must be rule breakers. But a given art form goes dead at a certain point unless a rule breaker comes along.

Yes, Webern's production was indeed small. Schoenberg's was quite large (and he, not Webern, was the father of serial composition). To suggest breaking the rules results in a limited output simply doesn't follow. You want to see limited output from a wonderful traditional composer, look to Duparc. When talking about output, size doesn't matter.

As for art having a purpose. It has no more purpose than evolution. It is a result. Something that is driven by inherent forces within the artist -- either conservative or radical.

As an example, liturgical music is a tradition, and it has a purpose -- to accompany religious services. But liturgical music is not art because of its intent or aspirations. It is art if it proves to have been created by an artist. It often takes a while. It took Mendelssohn to recognize that Bach was an artist.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on June 29, 2007 6:12 PM

The irony in all this is that a real artist, that is an artist who works, doesn't just talk about it like 90% of 'em, a real artist is best off in a well ordered society in which he can get his work done and get the necessities taken care of with the least bother, i.e. a conservative society.

Posted by: ricpic on June 29, 2007 7:56 PM

Both Stalin and Hitler imposed great order in their societies. The art they allowed did not break rules. It was shit.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on June 29, 2007 9:35 PM

What an excellent discussion! I feel as if I'm over my head getting involved in it, even though we engaged in a four-part roundtable discussion of this very topic earlier this year at our blog.

But I would offer a point that came up in our discussion, the idea of substituting self-satisfaction for actual accomplishment. As one of our participants said, liberals are drawn to political statements within their art because "deep down they suspect they aren't doing anything that's really all that important," and they compensate for that feeling by trying to infuse their art with social and political relevance.

"And so they have this liberal guilt about being successful, about having boatloads of money, and they think they have to justify it somehow, they have to validate themselves because deep down they suspect they aren’t doing anything that’s really all that important. I don’t think conservatives have that same sense of guilt, and that might be why they don’t feel they have to assuage their consciences."

That's just a thought (we had a lot of them in a four-part discussion), but I think there is something to that in discussing why the liberal bent in the arts exists.

Posted by: Mitchell on June 29, 2007 11:14 PM

Fred W: Thanks for the response. I think we can all agree that art involves both conventional patterns and new innovative variations on those conventional patterns. All art is a mixture of both (although I'm open to exceptions - John Cage? - but those exceptions prove the rule as they are highly unusual). I was reacting to the elevation of one part of the creative effort over another because I thought it has a distorting effect. That distorting effect has had an absolutely devestating effect on art music, which lies in shambles because it has derided traditionalism and its benefits so completely.

BTW, both Webern and Stravinsky were extremely right wing politically but were obviously preoccupied with artistic "progressivism."

Posted by: jult52 on June 30, 2007 8:47 AM

FW - Hitler and Stalin were radicals, not conservatives. Conservatives do not impose draconian restraints. As long as the horses aren't frightened artists can do pretty much as they please.

Posted by: ricpic on June 30, 2007 9:18 AM

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