Art of the Possible
Surprising lessons to be learned in popular culture.
Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By BRUCE EDWARD WALKER
Instead of disparaging all popular culture as a “vast wasteland” of cultural and moral decay, conservative critics should tease out those elements that reinforce conservative values in the arts. Russell Kirk used to lament the falling-off in depictions of normative behavior; but whereas Kirk focused his derision on literary and other public figures (the Beatles, Ayn Rand, etc.), he avoided most popular culture by refusing to watch television altogether. Kirk was not entirely wrong in his conclusions, but he died before he could catch a glimpse of light at the end of the tube.
Visiting Martian, President Jack Nicholson, ‘Mars Attacks!’ (1996)
Warner bros. / everett collection
Television, radio, and film, however, continue their encroachment into the public consciousness. The firebrand Ben Shapiro recently published a book entitled Primetime Propaganda, with the ominous subtitle, “The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.” Shapiro cites programs such as All in the Family as evidence of liberal indoctrination—and indeed, Norman Lear is an unabashed Hollywood liberal. But Shapiro also ignores the fact that Archie Bunker might have done more to promote civil rights by his personification of the absurdities of bigotry than any amount of public service announcements, or legislation. What could be more conservative, after all, than the concept that all men are created equal, regardless of race, creed, or color?
Cultural scolds increasingly run the risk of audiences tuning them out, with their mantra that the culture has plummeted to hell in a handcart. Not long ago, this writer had the opportunity to explain the uplifting elements of such Judd Apatow comedies as The 40-Year-Old Virgin andKnocked Up to another conservative writer: Whereas, on their surfaces, these films run rampant with promiscuous hookups, drug consumption, and potty talk, they also display the advantages of normative behavior—such as chastity before marriage (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and the importance of two committed, mature adults for the parenting of children (Knocked Up).
Yes, it sometimes requires a bit of digging through the detritus to find the redeeming qualities in popular culture, but it is works such as Paul Cantor’s The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture that offer ready, rewarding, and invaluable assistance. This is an exceptional romp through television and film from the past several decades, and serves to entertain as much as to instruct us that the world of entertainment contains many valuable lessons in economics, liberty, and morality.
As coeditor (with Stephen Cox) of and contributor to Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture (2010), Paul Cantor revealed his predilection for Austrian economics. But whereas that work delved into high art by way of essays on Cervantes, Willa Cather, H. G. Wells, and others, The Invisible Hand is solely Cantor’s work, following along the path he began carving in Gilligan Unbound(2001) in its celebration of the free market. He is able to find small-government victories in even the most seemingly shallow entertainments, including the HBO series Deadwood, Comedy Central’s South Park, the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator, and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!
Cantor establishes his aims in the preface by dispelling the myth that the commercial intentions of movies and television programs require artists to cater to capitalist ideology. He notes that the Frankfurt School of cultural criticism inaugurated the misperception that Hollywood reflects only mass culture, which perpetuates “debased entertainment” for the purposes of the almighty dollar. Cantor acknowledges that Hollywood’s committee-based decisions often result in mediocre art, but he argues that artistic freedom shines through in the finished product more often than the Frankfurt Marxists would concede: “Hollywood’s track record demonstrates that there is nothing inherent in pop culture that precludes creative freedom in film and television.”
While it may be difficult for creative people in Hollywood to express radical conservative themes, it’s not impossible. This, writes Cantor, is what separates the critics from artists. “Where the critic sees only imprisonment,” he writes, “the artist struggles creatively to find a path to freedom.” In many instances, this creativity finds an outlet in appealing to both studios and financiers, to whom the artist is beholden, and to the artist’s personal integrity.
Cantor identifies Friedrich Hayek’s concept of spontaneous order as a unifying theme. Spontaneous order in popular culture, he writes, “often celebrates its power in American society and is itself an example of that power.”
He identifies directors Burton, Scorsese, John Ford, and Edgar G. Ulmer, as well as television auteurs Chris Carter (The X-Files) and David Milch (Deadwood), as artists who have left an indelible mark on popular culture after successfully bucking the Hollywood system. “If, as the Marxists claim, Hollywood directors are subject to the demands of the American bourgeoisie,” he notes, “Rembrandt was no less dependent on the whims of Dutch burghers for the commissions that kept him in business.”
What follows is a morale-booster for those who think pop culture has reached its nadir of late. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Cantor explains. For every Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek), who promoted centralized solutions provided by an intellectual elite, there exist innumerable artists who champion creative freedom, and promote spontaneous order in our culture.
Bruce Edward Walker is a regular contributor to the American Culture blog.