the vibe shift is real and has been a long time coming
There are few subjects as fascinating as art and the right-wing. How long have we been talking about this? A long time certainly.
More than a decade before Andrew Breitbart made his proclamation that “politics is downstream from culture” conservatives were tying themselves in knots over why the “Western Culture” they so idolized was firmly in the hands of their enemies. A Republican family man in the 1960s, my grandfather for instance, might have decried urban depravity as much as he liked. Nevertheless anytime he wanted to show the kids “culture” he’d pack up the family for a day trip to San Francisco to pay said urbanites to perform Bizet or Mozart or to look at art in one of their prestige art galleries.
Not a good situation and things progressively got worse.
Now, not only has the culmination of the modern art movements of the early 20th century separated Western high culture from its more “Faustian” origins, the idea of art itself has been transformed into a no-holds-barred political tool for the cultural left. Under these conditions, it’s not hard to see how this perennial sore-point for conservatives obtained its prominence in right-wing thought.
But for all the decades we have discussed this issue, have we learned anything? Can there be right-wing modern art? Can right-wing ideas interface with modernity? Is modern art itself just worthless? And does the left still own the future of high culture?
If Twitter has any utility it is its ability to capture the state of a long-standing controversy in a few paragraphs of text. Certainly, right-wing and left-wing attitudes towards art are no more succinctly captured than in the recent exchange between the conservative pundit Michael Knowles and progressive personality Anthony Fantano. Here, the former repeats the tired conservative cliche about the decrepit state of modern art, while the latter retorts with a snide rejoinder about conservatives being constitutionally incapable of appreciating “abstract” culture.
Big Anthony (Awoogah Thighs) @theneedledropRemember when I said conservatives / conservatism can’t make great art? How is an ideological movement supposed to generate any such thing if it can’t even conceptualize the purpose or need for more abstract modes of expression?
This exchange captures both sides of the debate: an orthodox conservative belly-ache, which could have been copy-pasta’d from 1975, followed by a more newfangled (and much less emotionally secure) progressive response. We should examine each side in turn.
Starting with Knowles’ original tweet, one can see that conservatives (following the house of Bourboun) have forgotten nothing and learned nothing from their past failures. I know some righties have tried to steel-man Knowles’ sentiment, saying the author really wanted to express a preference for realistic art over abstract alternatives. However, this is certainly NOT what his tweet communicated. What Knowles’ tweet communicated was that conservatives possess zero ability to appreciate non-representational beauty beyond bleating the tired canard that “modern art sucks!”.
Maybe we are too quick to dismiss this sentiment. After all, modern art does suck. But still, that’s hardly the most relevant point at present.
As Knowles should be the first to know, the complaint that “modern art sucks” is beyond cliche at this point. We heard this line from the moral majority in the 1980s, from talk radio in the 1990s, and from the fading neo-cons of the 2000s. My previously mentioned grandfather was complaining about this phenomenon in the late 1960s. The sentiment never changes anything. It doesn’t create interesting or insightful conversations among the culturally disaffected and it certainly doesn’t change the progressive art world. So why do younger conservatives like Knowles keep making these same impotent noises?
I imagine there are two phenomena that contemporary anti-progressives are clumsily trying to tap into with their complaints about art.
The first, of course, is the endless conservative grift of cultural nostalgia. It’s depressing, but nevertheless a persistent element of our political discourse. There is a market for pretending that we don’t live in the current decade, there’s an audience who wants to believe we all haven’t seen the things we all have seen and that there is some pathway back to the old world we used to love. Repeating perennial complaints, like sitcom reruns, allows a more complacent conservative audience to temporarily believe that progressive social developments can be banished with a snide dismissal, or worse, that some critical rejection of the 20th century’s cultural output might in itself restore a comfortable Western social order. Comforting illusions always sell well, and I suppose I can’t get too angry at the cons for making hay whilst the sun shines.
But there is another, more basic, culture shift afoot. Conservatives like Knowles intuit something is different now. Entering the third decade of the millennium, something is changing. The 20th century is over. The banal pseudo-transgression on display in the last 100 years of art is revealing something dated both with the texts themselves and with the contemporary cultural elite who produced them. A “vibe shift” is afoot.
I speculate this fundamental cultural “vibe shift” will represent a certain “limit point” for the conservative movement as we know it. The conservatives understand they are on the verge of something profound, they are reaching an endpoint which they themselves prophesied, but also a boundary past which their ideas no longer make sense. The prospect of some fundamentally different cultural dynamic coming into existence is both enthralling and terrifying to the normie-con. Nevertheless, they can’t help themselves from pushing at the boundary, and so the crack in the damn grows ever wider.
But making predictions is hard. Our instincts concerning what is happening within Western Culture are vague and not well-articulated because very few people, including myself, understand what is going on. Still, we all can smell the blood in the air, the race is on to expose the fraud of 20th-century cultural aesthetics, and so conservatives will take up their tired mantra about “modern art” as the closest weapon to hurl at the crumbling edifice.
We cringe at the repetition, but somehow (for once) this line of attack is having an effect. And you can see it no more distinctly than in the mewling replies of progressives. This brings us neatly back to Anthony Fantano’s response in the original Twitter exchange, and his assertion that conservatives cannot, and never will, be able to properly create art.
Like most things in a century-long debate, there is nothing new about Fantano’s sentiment. However, it would seem that modern progressives have taken to saying the quiet part loud. In previous eras, denouncements like this simply would have never been spoken. Of course, lefties believed conservatives couldn’t make art. But they wouldn’t have said it in so many words. Why would you need to tell conservatives they couldn’t make art? Were they trying to? Had they made something deigned to be considered “art”? And if so, could they even be properly called “conservative”? After all, art wasn’t something real conservatives did. Just as prohibiting certain groups from making art wasn’t something that progressives did.
Generally speaking, explicit prohibitions are anathema to any healthy aristocratic class. Even if that class is based on the exclusion of peasants and their ideas, to say the words is to reveal something essentially UN-aristocratic about the process. Just as no true king needs to say “I am King”, no true aristocracy needs to say “peasants can’t make art”. Peasants may not be able to make art, but if some upstart asserts otherwise his attempts don’t need shrill denunciations, a slight scoff will suffice to dismiss the work as a provincial distraction to higher and more sublime callings.
But herein lies the loose thread unraveling the progressive order of our times. There is no higher and more sublime calling that our progressive elite believes in. Their vision of the world is dying. Its ideals are anachronistic, its ideological materialist theories are in tatters, and its political objectives are in stark opposition to the reality of human political existence. As a result the liberal-progressivism which dominated the 20th century West is slowly devolving into two, radically unstable, successor ideologies: first, a strange LARPY Utopian Gnosticism where the priority of emotive expressions vetoes all real political concerns, the second, a nihilist technological death cult where the worship of intelligence (under the guise of AI) thinly veils its practitioners’ raw misanthropy. Really, for all the power these successor ideologies have accrued in the last decade, they are notably wanting in their ability to inspire any sincere and ardent belief.
Here I am reminded of an odd linguistic mystery that has baffled me, speaking to progressives for the last decade. How is it that the accusation “you’re a hypocrite!” proves to be the weakest accusation brought against leftists, while “you don’t believe what you are saying” remains the strongest? On the surface, these accusations seem like mirror images of each other, each born out of observing that modern progressives gloss over gross moral inconsistencies without care. However, the distinction between these two modes of attack belies the left’s central weakness.
The phrase “you’re a hypocrite!” is always weak because it appeals to a neutral arbiter that (in the early 21st century West) does not exist. But at a deeper level, “you’re a hypocrite!” is weak because it grants, in premise, the central issue that progressives hope to obscure above all: the question of belief. The leftist does not want to let on the fact that, behind all of their increasingly aggressive activism and shrill pronouncements, they possess a distinct lack of conviction. Progressives don’t want to admit that, once the layers of para-social status-seeking and clout are removed, there is simply a void where progressive idealism should be, a hollowed-out belief system that no longer makes sense by its own logic.
At the end of the day, no one actually believes they can “abolish racism”, no one believes there is some “equitable” way of managing relations between the sexes or that the transgender revolution is going to liberate humanity into a halcyon future of polymorphous perversity. Most Global Warming activists don’t actually think the world is ending, and those few lucid minds who do, don’t think that global climate talks are going to discover a solution. Progressives don’t think that equality is actually possible, or that a better world is coming post-socialist revolution. Hell, contrary to the assertions of hundreds of thousands of billboards and bumper-stickers, most progressives don’t even believe in “SCIENCE!”.
It’s all fake; a pantomime; a ghost dance; a dirge to mourn the passing of 20 century’s futile dream of a godless human utopia. Once real, perhaps? Now it remains only as a relic sought by magicians hungry for the power it had once as a living faith
In reality, modern leftism remains little more than a veil for the powerful and the power-hungry to cloak their vindictiveness behind a shroud of piety. The game works well on social media, even better in institutionally controlled spaces with HR departments and DEI committees. It works less well in the world of human emotion and beauty. On-the-nose political platitudes don’t sound noble in verse, saccharine morality plays don’t look picturesque in tableau. And every time one of these simulacrum is wheeled out in front of a discerning audience it appears transparently hollow in comparison to that which came before.
I suppose it’s an open question the degree to which progressives themselves are aware of the hollowness in their worldview. I am sure the mileage varies, but in most, there is a dawning realization that their creed is a dead letter. And nothing hastens this revelation faster than exposure to art. Whatever validity there is in the study of “physiognomy”, a deep truth remains that aesthetics reveal what ordinary discourse often obscures. And the lackluster state of leftist culture in the early 21st provides an ominous portent.
It’s hard to discern from the filter bubble of the online right, but my real-world observations bear this out. Even among dyed-in-the-wool progressives, no one thinks the movies are as good as they used to be. No one thinks the music is as meaningful. No one can remember the last time they picked up a new book that challenged their view of the world. No one, not even progressives, looks at the soulless cal-arts animations, the flat “Alegria-style” corporate art, and the un-subtle primary-color political messaging on display everywhere and thinks that they are living through a cultural golden age. No one sees the same bland inclusive motifs and tired woke platitudes repeat over and over again without feeling their spirit drain away. And slowly, though many resist the conclusion, we all suspect that this emptiness traces its origin back to the falseness of the progressive religion itself.
Our age is posing a question, and no one (on the left, anyway) has an answer. The question that remains before us presently, is what worldview can provide a spiritual vision for humanity’s future worthy to wield power and constrain human desire.
Here, the question of aesthetics exposes the deficiencies of the parties who presently vie for power in the West. We know deep in our bones that conservatives are weak and separated from any willingness to grapple with the harsh lessons of modernity. At their best, they are slowly improving, but still, they remain what they always have been: the whimpering moan of a dying order. That’s not necessarily a terrible state of affairs, but as pure and tragic as the conservative cause remains, there is nothing vigorous about their existence. In fact, most conservatives don’t even seem like people who properly understand the old world as it existed with all of its violence, complexity, and weird non-representational art forms. I can’t help but feel sympathy, but conservatives will always be backward.
I suppose that’s better than the left? That’s a stupid question. Anything is better than the left. It used to be that being a progressive meant that you had no brain, now it means that you have no soul. There are few people who can look into the roiling pit of self-gratifying narcissism that is the modern Millennial left, and not become stricken with a sense of despair. Was this the final undoing of Mark Fisher? Maybe Kurt Cobain saw this problem earlier? Either way, whatever north star the left was once following they have well and truly lost it. And this is no more visible than in their artistic vision which can’t even deign to examine the human form directly. Certain abstract modes have their place, but what does it say about an imagination that must always turn away from the world as it stands? From the human experience? From the tragedy of human degeneration? Two poles trap the progressive imagination in art. The first is a type of bubble gum political propaganda for a secular multi-cultural promise of personal liberation that never materialized, the other is a radical pit of bitterness and anger that can’t even be honest about the nature of its own existence. Not a pleasing state of affairs.
Sometime around this point in the article, the audience is probably expecting a certain ending, a conclusion that “both sides are lost” and we are just “waiting for a new answer”. However, breaking with form I am going to here say the exact opposite. I think that we do know what comes next, it’s the only thing that CAN come next: a reset.
Here I am not talking about that brainchild of Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum, “The Great Reset”, or the truly desperate notion that the collapse of the technocratic liberal order can be solved simply by purging everything that isn’t collapsing. Instead, I am referring to an actual reset, an actual restoration of the “Lindy” systems and the mode of existence with a long track record of procuring survival in times of chaos. After all, that’s how real resets work in an engineering context. A system becomes too complicated and is deadlocked by its own myriad processes? Simply start stripping away the layers until you hit something solid, until you get to the base of things, the primal energy which allowed the thing to function vigorously in the first place. Afterwards, you have something you can trust again, a solid foundation for new works.
This is the reality behind all serious right-wing thought (and all serious thought that is modern is right-wing). This is the conclusion that we have all come to. This is what is meant by “Clear them out!”, by the “RETVRN” memes. We all know things are wrong. And we also know things have gotten too complicated to fix in any meaningful sense. The system has doubled back in on itself with corruption. Even if it wasn’t hard-wired to disallow any reformation in a more healthy and human direction, the mere size of the problem (institutionally and ideologically) is too twisted to be put back together. And so we are forced to eliminate the problem at a basic level. History has presented us with the ultimate Gordian knot and the only choice we have is to cut through it.
Does this mean the end of Western Civilization? Perhaps. But it certainly means the death of the Western conservative project.
For right-wingers, this means change; more spiritual than physical, more artistic than political. I am not saying that we should immanentize the eschaton (the eschaton is happening with or without us), instead, I am alluding to the fact that we need a new way to think of ourselves within our world. We can’t be the preservers of a cultural order dead set on dispossessing us. Neither can we understand ourselves as some movement from a dead civilization. This was the fascination of the conservatives, it is even the fascination of many more nationalist types in the dissident right. Is there something here that is solid? Not from what I can see.
I feel a deep sinking feeling in my own soul whenever I hear a normie-con talking about the “majesty of Western Civilization” or whenever I hear a nationalist type refer to Europeans generally as “my people”. These are cultural traditions and ethnic groups that, in the main, have elected to pursue their own self-destruction and to purge healthy and life-giving ideas from their mainstream. What are we really going to build using this as a foundation? What edifice or flag can be planted here that will not simply be shaken loose the next time the ground quakes? We have to start over, at a place that is more basic. Maybe then, those ancient modes of the old European order, now dying, can regrow. Still, we have no way of knowing when this can happen or whether this is possible.
Real things, true things, have a solid yet subtle flavor. It’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it, when you live inside of it. You know when you touch something that isn’t crumbling away beneath your grasp: a friend who will never betray you, a belief that you can always hold as true, a family that will follow you until the end. All of these things are basic, all of these things are real, and, most importantly, all of these things: forward-looking.
I think this is how we find ourselves in the early 21st century, with arguably the most important aesthetic figure being Bronze Age Pervert (or “BAP” as he is colloquially known on the internet). As deeply as it pains me to admit this as a Christian, BAP publicly recognized this epochal shift in our culture while far too many of the classically religious thinkers were stuck in the past, afraid to confront the crisis openly.
You cannot trust ideology or abstruse modern principles like “rights” or allusions to some past point of high culture or civilization. “Consent of the Governed”, “Workers of the World Unite!”, “Equality and Liberty for All!”, and even “Western Civilization” are ideological artifacts of a different age. If any of these things were real at one point, they have now been poisoned by the demonic Gnostic idealism of the left wing. Things have to start at a more basic level.
In the end, you have what you have, you are what you fight for, and you believe what you believe. Any attempt to twist this reality into something more comforting or amenable to the modern mindset condemns us again to the byzantine conduit that has trapped the imagination of the modern world. BAP may have been the first in recent times to recognize this trap, he will certainly not be the last. Take off the goggles of ideology, experience the world, find what resonates with your own spirit. That’s the only place to start.
Already I think you can see this trend emerging. People trust their most basic instincts on political matters; men admitting that their loyalty is drawn to strength and resilience, women returning to the notion that a safe and beautiful life is the core metric of success. Is it crude? Lacking a more deep philosophical rigor? Almost certainly. But this is the direction we need to go because it’s the only thing we can trust. The operating system of civilization has failed, time to re-boot from basic animal instinct and more fundamental religious experience.
Just as the first world is the past and the third world is the future, the grug-brain will inherit the earth. Falling back to basic truths is the only way to maintain something that is solid against the forces of chaos. Once you touch grass, breathe deeply, and stare our 21st-century reality in the face, meaning and purpose begin to return.
It’s not that I don’t find the trend a little irritating, sometimes very stupid. As the new cultural-luditism emerges, those more intellectually inclined will have to recognize people who reject both the intellectual life and intellectual political approaches will likely be more grounded in reality. The real force of the next cultural moment will be written by those who scoff at complex theoretical speculations hidden behind credentialism and education.
Will this mean a certain amount of de-culturalization? I would say this has already occurred. Will this mean a technological backslide? That might be on the horizon. Does this mean a new generation of humans who will have to learn everything -once known as traditional wisdom- the hard way? Very likely. And as tragic as that is, it is probably a necessary step in the historical process.
But here I believe there is a new role for the right-wing. To date, the hallmark of the right-wing has been the explanation of social order and social decay, along with the prediction that progressive reforms would not (and could not) achieve their desired end. So far, these predictions have proved robust, and stronger than anyone expected. But what fruit have they bestowed upon the civilization right-wingers cherished? It’s hard to say. And, as Homer’s Casandra learned before us, how does it really benefit one to foresee an eventual doom, if said doom cannot be forestalled? Or in the words of Anton Chigurh, “If the rule you followed led you here, of what good was the rule?”. Arriving at a truth in advance of the age provides some clarity, but alas, not the cathartic spiritual renewal we had dreamed of. That must come from a different, more primal place.
Insofar as right-wing ideas have utility, it is less in predicting decline and more in carrying forward what wisdom can be preserved from the previous age so that new generations might be spared the hardship of experience.
There are limits to this. Decline is a natural process that occurs because the culture is poisoned at its root. A completely successful process of conservation would simply copy the old corruption into a new age and counteract the healing energy of the cycle itself.
Still, for whatever its worth, some wisdom can be taken forward. As students of history and seekers of truth, I think, in our hearts, we know the good from the bad, the living tissue from the cultural rot. Instinct has a role to play in this process. We are right to prefer the old to the new. But sentimentalism needs to be discarded. The more we can be honest about what is strong and what is weak, the more we can be a service to those future generations looking for guidance. The humble way is the correct path forward.
Whatever truth remains in right-wing ideas, to be useful, they need to speak to those living in the world as it is, the grounded reality of our lives as they are lived. An honest spiritual vision needs to side-step the ephemeral, the virtual, the narcissistic, and the para-social. It needs to embrace the organic, the human, and the tragic nature of our present state. We are creatures of the civilizational winter. These are the times when all good things, all constant things, must recognize their own and remain close to the ground. If we can find the humility and truth that lies there, we can unlock something far more profound than the false promises of yester-year