In the Holy book it is written: “Thus it was and thus it shall ever be….”
You can always understand why people want to preserve the things that matter to them. Its not unreasonable to want stability and a continuation of values. Change can be upsetting. It often represents a threat to what you consider important. Its a challenge to what you think matters. In the world of the conservative mind its almost always either/or and hardly ever both at once. Purity at the cost of isolation. Separate but ‘equal’ (wink wink). Its the attitude that builds walls to keep out the undesirables. It faces forwards by looking back. It leans into the future by embracing the past. But real change is coming. And some minds are incapable of dealing with it…..
Take, for instance, that spark of conservative wit, Ann Coulter. In a recent opinion piece she vents something she’s been holding back for literally ten whole years. She’s kept it inside for that long but has finally had enough. She’s watched the growing fascination of her fellow Americans with this foreign ‘soccer’ clap trap and she’s fed up. Here’s what she has to say:
“If more “Americans” are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.
I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade — or about the length of the average soccer game — so as not to offend anyone. But enough is enough. Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”
Well, that about sums it up, right? Unless, of course, you remember that ‘soccer’ was supposedly invented in jolly olde England in the mid 19th century, perhaps a bit after Coulter’s stalwart kilt wearing forebear himself made that fateful trip to these distant shores as an unwashed and hapless immigrant, though certainly before the many noble grandfathers she speaks of. But don’t let facts get in the way of opinions. She, like many others, feels strongly about the perceived threat to her American ideals and won’t let simple truth stand in the way of something so important.
It doesn’t matter that the fathers and mothers of these venerable grandfathers were probably kicking balls on the decks of ships as they made their tortured journey to the Land of Freedom and Dignity For All. Except that immigration now isn’t exactly what it once was. Freedom these days is for those as have it and dignity stops well short of those as have not. A handy convenience of the conservative mind: Keep things nice and tidy. Preserve the status quo (as long as it favors ‘us’). Keep the rabble out. Close the gates in their faces…….
And the deliciously ignored irony is that the Glorious Heritage so obtusely offered up as worth conserving actually makes immigrants of us all. How delightful! But how understandable too…..
‘Cultural purity’ is an ideal that prioritizes the rights and privileges of the haves more often than it endorses (or even endures) the equality of the have nots. If it ever does. That’s its single priority, when you get down to brass tacks: Keep the right people in charge. And it takes on institutional urgency as those in power are inevitably reluctant to relinquish their grip on control. Certain accepted values get pushed to the forefront with the conviction of celestial authority and others are indiscriminately discriminated against. And as Coulter points out, in the system of values that puts itself as the only ‘right way’ of doing things, any slippage to unsanctioned priorities is a sure sign of moral decay.
So what does this have to do with art? Our actions reflect the belief that these are the things worth saving. Sometimes this means that competing values in art come under scrutiny, and if some things don’t ‘measure up, well that’s surely also evidence of moral decay. Save what’s worth saving. Burn all the rest…..
Queue the film The Monument Men. The historically accurate plot points to just how motivated both the Nazis and the Allies were in preserving ‘high culture’. I’m sure most of us are aware of the savage theft of art from occupied territories and the looting and confiscations from an entire generation of holocaust and war victims.
“At the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, surrounding European governments began to recognize a cultural threat and scrambled to safeguard their national collections. Almost all modern art of the early to mid-twentieth century was labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime and banned; most notoriously, the Nazis put on a degenerate art exhibition in Munich in 1937 to showcase the art they found so offensively “un-German.” Any degenerate art seized by the Nazis was either sold at auction or destroyed. The next course of action for Hitler’s government was to identify all major works of art existing in Europe that were deemed to be of German origin, and move progressively to capture them so that they might be restored to their rightful homeland. They were also after classical masterpieces for Hitler’s fantasy museum in Linz, Austria, which was to be home to what he deemed the world’s finest art. Interestingly, a large part of the artworks looted from museum and larger private collections were taken under the premise of “protecting” them; the Nazis wanted to bring these timeless works under the wing of their self-proclaimed “superior” culture.” Kate Haveles from her essay ‘The greatest heist of all time’
The Nazis pretended to know a thing or two about cultural purity. The ideals of preserving a specific value in culture are a form of certainty. Its a certainty which divides the world between good and bad, extraordinary and common. It also plays out along the lines of power and resources, ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The entitled almost always label the things falling outside its criteria as ‘degenerate’, ‘immoral’, ‘shallow’, ‘impure’, ‘heathen’, ‘poor’, and a host of other derogatory labels that are easy to imagine. A culturally conservative mindset will always classify its own values as superior to what it doesn’t understand or appreciate. Museums, where these relics are often housed, become mausoleums of cultural purity, artifacts of ‘The Best mankind has to offer’.
And there is nothing wrong with these high watermarks of culture themselves. The traditional cannons of art have an important historical role that continues to this day. They can act as signposts for a society. In some cases its not merely hold over, but a vibrant continuing tradition. Its not always dead relics the public makes pilgrimages to see, but often also thriving unfolding practices. Opera may have little in common with Hip Hop today, but that’s not a slight on either. Graffiti may have little in common with Renaissance painting but that isn’t stopping enlightened and progressive museums from giving it a proper place in their show schedules. The democratization of art and culture has lent itself to the idea of the niche rather than a cultural good that stands for all.
No, there is nothing wrong with the specific values that conservatism in art promotes. In a multicultural pluralistic world there should be room for most everything. Only, the bigotry that denies importance to values that are in conflict seems both unnecessary and suspiciously self interested. Rather than the harmony of upstairs and downstairs working to common ends we get champions of one at the expense of the other. The feeling that it has to be either/or and not both is the problem. There is nothing humble about advocating superiority, and there is nothing remotely empathetic. Denying other people’s values is an affront as well as a form of psychic violence.
The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.” Simon Critchley from ‘The dangers of certainty‘
That’s something to chew on, at least……
And if you aren’t watching the World Cup you are missing something really special! I’ve been glued to the TV and computer seemingly for days and have only missed a few games. And, believe it or not, one of my great great great great….. grandfathers was even on the the Mayflower, to hear the family history told. Put that in your pipe, Ann Coulter, and smoke it.
Make beauty real!