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WHAT IS CONSERVATIVE ART?

12:00 AM, Sep 23, 1996 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Several months ago, in an article for THE WEEKLY STANDARD called "The Radware: A Not-All-That-Modest Proposal," I suggested that conservatives should stop complaining about culture and do something about it: should create new institutions, starting with a museum. The museum's curators would dazzle all comers with their verve and fresh thinking and sheer energy, and promise to give up the culture world's number-one favorite hobby -- rubbing the public's nose in leftist platitudes -- in exchange for something a little more constructive, like macrame. (We'd even provide the staff with self-help books on request. Stop Being a Leftist Ninny: Ten Easy Steps, etc.)


Of the many readers I heard from, most liked the idea (a few invited themselves to the opening). An actual new museum remains remote, but some discussion is taking place about a heterodox artand-history exhibit to be staged in New York. Even a single show is dauntingly expensive and complex to arrange, but stranger things have happened.


Some readers, however, objected, not only to that article but to other related ones. A number raised a point that is too important to ignore; that goes right to the heart of modern culture. THE WEEKLY STANDARD is a conservative magazine and I am supposedly a conservative critic. Where do I get the nerve to like abstract art? To celebrate a slash-and-burn abstractionist like de Kooning or a reformed Pop artist like Jasper Johns? There is such a thing as conservative art, these readers point out, and de Kooning, Johns, et al. are not it.


They are right. Conservative American art has been a welldefined proposition for most of this century; you see it in the thoughtful, often moody realism of a Bellows or Sloan, a Hopper or Burchfield or Wyeth. A bunch of realist painters are represented on the gallery scene today: Philip Pearlstine and Alex Katz are prominent examples. If you stop by the Marlborough Gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan you can see two recent paintings by the superb urban realist Richard Estes. They are warm and spacious and, at their best, give you the poignant sensation of seeing your own time and space from far away.


I have no intention of denigrating or "delegitimating" genuinely conservative art. It deserves to be defended. And the last thing we conservatives ought to pull is the "come off it, everyone knows abstract painting is good" maneuver. We are the movement that challenges orthodoxy. Look at classical music: The anti-melodic twelve-tone writing of Schonberg and his followers had immense prestige for much of the century and is widely admired still. And yet it is no good; is capable only of expressing violence (which is why the famous "Blut" scene in Berg's Wozzeck is the only twelve-tone passage that is worth anything) and boring audiences to tears. The public was bound to come round and love it in the end -- to the extent that, as they grow in wisdom and sophistication, migraine sufferers come to enjoy their headaches. Everyone knows abstract art is good, which proves nothing.


But for myself, the best abstract painting is so powerful and beautiful it commands attention. And my problems with "true conservative art" don't end there. I have no principled objection, either, to the Establishment's infatuation with "installations" as opposed to painting. An installation can be profound and sublime -- look at the tense-and-perfect poise, the endless whispering depth of the best Zen gardens; the breathtaking silence of Luis Barragan's Mexican courtyards. Nor can I object in principle to the fad for untraditional media. "Appropriation, much of it from the lowliest of sources, continues to inform much of this art, as does a heavy presence of words, printed or handwritten or scavenged" -- so we were told at the legendarily awful 1993 Whitney Biennial. But Joseph Cornell glued together some of the century's greatest art out of junk he picked up at dime stores, and his art is full of words. I can't even complain about most artists' being leftists; most artists have always been leftists. And my own paintings, for the record, would strike no serious person as "conservative" either. What are renegades like me doing in the conservative movement?


But we must be conservatives, because today's liberal Establishment is no mere defender of freewheeling "anything goes" art versus conservative realism. "The art world, especially the segment of it corresponding to middle management in industry," Arthur Danto wrote in 1992 -- in the Nation! -- " is today a politicized, indeed an angrily politicized, group of persons."