Speaking of (visual) art: I mentioned that there are some painters whose work I like. At the risk of marking myself as a clod, I will say that Andrew Wyeth is one of them. I can certainly understand that the contemporary art establishment would disparage him. That's all right; I consider it pretty much a certainty that one day in the future that establishment will be the target of vast ridicule for the idiocies it has embraced, idiocies which make those people who admired the emperor's nonexistent clothing look wise.
But I was surprised a few months ago when a piece in The New Criterion, a conservative magazine which gives a lot of attention to the arts, seemed to more or less go along with the despisers. The views of the author, James Panero, seem somewhat ambivalent, but he ends by saying that Wyeth's "compelling images still offer up a voyeuristic escape, all with the timeless stamp of inauthenticity." And in the beginning he quotes the magazine's founder, Hilton Kramer--well, let me just give you the whole passage, which quotes not only Kramer but other critics.
“An image of American life—pastoral, innocent, and homespun—which bears about as much relation to reality as a Neiman Marcus boutique bears to the life of the old frontier,” is how my late colleague Hilton Kramer saw Wyeth in 1970.... Remarking on Wyeth’s “monochrome vision of the world,” here Hilton wondered “if there is not in this art a hidden scatological obsession. How else can one account for the excremental quality of this palette, which censors out anything that might complicate its ‘earthy’ view of nature and human experience?”
Beyond false realism, a near unanimity of critics has accused Wyeth of trafficking, it might be said, in a false consciousness of American life. Wyeth’s images of “frugal, bare-bones rectitude” may be “incarnated in real objects” wrote Robert Hughes in the New York Review of Books, but they have been “glazed by nostalgia . . . which millions of people look back upon as the lost marrow of American history.” A “kitsch-meister” of “dreary vignettes” that “celebrate . . . cultural and social immobility” (Robert Storr), Wyeth painted “formulaic stuff not very effective even as illustrational ‘realism’ ” (Peter Schjeldahl) in a palette of “mud and baby poop” (Dave Hickey). “Not a great artist.” “The press noted when he voted for Nixon and Reagan” (Michael Kimmelman).
A lot of that suggests, or more than suggests, precisely the self-inflicted semi-political stupidity that the magazine normally deplores. Worse, it strikes me as somewhat ignorant. I say that with some hesitation: who am I to claim that these celebrated critics are ignorant? They certainly know vastly more about art than I do. But it reminds me of those naive readers acquainted with only a handful of Robert Frost's more pleasant works who see him only as a painter of quaint New England scenes.
A little internet searchng shows me that Wyeth was the subject of a Time cover story in the December 27, 1963 issue. This, then, was almost certainly my first acquaintance with Wyeth. I would have been fifteen years old. My grandfather, who lived with us, subscribed to Time, and I frequently read it, which makes me think now of a Garrison Keillor bit about the intellectuals of a small town being the ones who read Time. It certainly was a window onto a different world for me.
I remember very clearly looking at the Wyeth paintings reproduced in the story. I had no idea who Wyeth was. I don't know that I had ever given a moment's thought to painting as an art. But I was instantly captivated by the images. And what captivated me was more or less the opposite of what the critics quoted above seem to see as his appeal. Yes, the paintings were realistic in execution. But it was precisely not their picture of rural America, nostalgic or otherwise, that appealed to me. I was a teenager on a farm in Alabama. I was perfectly well acquainted with rural America as it actually was. What spoke to me in those images was not their depiction of that world, but their mysterious suggestion of another. There was something numinous in them (though of course I didn't have that word.) I think especially of Christina's World and Wind from the Sea. Both of them captured a deep and mysterious yearning, and made me feel it. In spite of, or because of, their carefully rendered detail, they were for me the opposite of a portrait, idealized or not, of the very ordinary world around me.
For all I know most of Wyeth's admirers see his work as being the same basic sort of thing as the antique advertisements and farm implements on the wall of a Cracker Barrel. All I can say is that it is not that for me. Is the fact that I recall so vividly that experience of 55 years ago evidence of my naiveté or of Wyeth's power? Unlike, for instance, the science fiction I read at that age, Wyeth's work still strikes me more or less as it did then.
Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed and other Catholic-and-or-conservative critiques of the classical liberal project are getting some responses from people on the right who aren't convinced that the current problems of said project are intrinsic to it. (Please note standard distinction between classical liberalism as philosophy and contemporary political liberalism as philosophy and practice.)
Here is one, a somewhat lengthy one, from Vincent Phillip Muñoz, a Notre Dame colleague of Deneen's, at National Review. He attributes the critique of liberalism in large part to "radical Catholics." Or rather "'radical' Catholics", suggesting that he doesn't consider them radical in fact. I don't know whether that's an accurate description of Deneen or not. I certainly don't think it's an accurate description of me, except in what ought to be an almost tautological sense that I consider the Catholic faith to be at the root of my views about most things. (I'm one of those people who often insist, rather tiresomely, that they just claim to be or want to be Catholic, no preceding adjective needed. But of course the reality is that the adjective often is needed, or at least very useful, in talking about the actual-world-as-it-is. )
Radical or not, I'm more or less in agreement with Deneen about the current condition and likely future trajectory of liberalism. (See this post from last month.) A good part of Muñoz's piece is an argument that Deneen is wrong about the nature of liberalism as it was understood by the American founders. I'm not qualified to judge that. What I can judge is the present state of things, and it certainly seems plausible to me that liberalism, as attractive as it is in many ways, and as successful as it has been in many ways, contains the seed of its own destruction. The absence of a solid metaphysical center may have made it inevitable that eventually liberal man would take that absence to heart--"internalize" it, as they say--and become a law unto himself, with the only seemingly paradoxical result that he must rely ever more on the power of the state.
Muñoz believes that the process is reversible:
If we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous, the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles. Our political and economic institutions have never been perfect, but (aside from slavery and its legacies, perhaps) they have never been so corrupt that they have made virtuous living impossible. Original sin may make corruption probable, and political liberty may make it possible; but the causes of America’s problems lie primarily in the poor choices we have made.
That means the solution to our problem lies, to a large extent, in our choices. To choose well, we must regain both political wisdom and the character that befits a constitutional people. Reacquaintance with our actual liberal principles and a return to belief in the existence of an obligatory moral law are essential.
The latter may require a reemergence of religious belief, especially among the cultural elite where it has precipitously declined. The necessity of morality for liberal democracy, and of religion for morality, cannot be understated.
I'm sorry, but when I look around at the actual-world-as-it-is, this seems to amount to little more than saying "If things were otherwise, they would not be as they are." The first sentence may well be true. But I see absolutely no reason to hope that the American people at large, and especially its culturally dominant and deracinated class, will regain anything that the founders would recognize as wisdom and character, unless perhaps if forced by some kind of catastrophe to face reality. I don't want this to be true. As I noted in that blog post I linked to above, I would on the whole like to see the liberal order preserved, because I don't think I'd care for most of the likely alternatives. But it seems very improbable.
Please raise your hand if you have tried to use the search function on this blog and given it up as hopeless. I'm thinking about removing it. I just tried to use it to find that recent SNJ in which I discussed Deneen's book and it failed. DuckDuckGo returned it as the top result. Having a search function that's seriously unreliable is worse than not having one at all.
We had several thunderstorms during the past week.
And some peaceful sunsets.