So let’s talk about conservative art

I try not to let twitter spill over but sometimes things just happen

Hey, There,

So, this morning I fired up twitter and saw a baffling sight. To wit, I saw this:

I don’t know a ton about Michael Ian Black; I think my only direct experience with his work was (good god) 18ish years ago when I spent a hungover New Years Day binge-watching a bunch of I Love the 80s shows on VH-1. In that context, he was the guy who was kind of funny but really smarmy. As far as I can tell, his career is just an endless series of variations on that.

But here’s the deal: I was honestly kind of flabbergasted that someone who works in the entertainment industry, and seems to consistently try to position himself as someone who thinks about said industry, wouldn’t be aware that he’s absolutely, positively surrounded by conservative art and culture.

One of the most maddening things about American political discourse is that so many people are unwilling to take even a second to look past the surface of things.* So art is only liberal or conservative if it announces itself as such with Limbaugh levels of subtlety. And working within this (really wrong) framework, sure, Black’s right. There’s not much explicitly-labeled conservative art, and what there is tends to be absolute dogshit.

*The worst manifestation of this is the popular conception that racism only exists when you have people in hoods saying “I am racist!!!” and that anything less than that cannot be racist. This blindness is the core of the Republican stance that it’s not fair to call them racist when they’re never out there in hoods, they just want to uphold the status quo where it’s an accepted thing that cops can kill Black citizens with absolute impunity.

But that’s absolutely not the way the world works. Chest-pounders who build their identities around being movement conservatives dominate our perception, because being loud is their whole thing; but there’s a much more quiet, more common strain of conservatism: the basic feeling that the status quo is fine, the structural norms in place are fine, and it’s wrong to push against any of them. And boy howdy is there a lot of art and culture that works that way.

As a friend pointed out when I was fulminating about this on Twitter: consider the entire line of CBS scripted drama, which is all some variation of Cops, Troops, or Lawyers (or, often, Troops Who Are Cops or Troops Who Are Lawyers) Fight to Protect Us From a World of Crime. Whatever the specifics of a given story might be, the aggregate effect of this wall of programming is to reinforce the small-c conservative worldview. And this matters! Stories are how humans make sense of the world. We absorb them, we internalize them, and we use them to understand our experiences and guide our actions. And if you spend a few hours every week watching the NCIS team stop terrorists, you’re going to have a hard time not walking away from that thinking that terrorist stoppage is a major thing that society needs to focus on.

Center: the emotionally distant Gruff Dad figure whose superpower is always being right. Sounds familiar.

To be clear: I’m not saying that being small-c conservative makes a piece of culture bad (you cannot love traditional country music as much as I do and think that)! Rebecca and I recently binged our way through Friday Night Lights, and it was a great show that we enjoyed a lot (except for some rough patches) but it was absolutely a piece of art arguing for the conservative point of view. Folks in the small town are the best folks; the angry, aggressive, emotionally reserved coach is always right and if the youth just listen to him they’ll turn out ok; it doesn’t matter if teachers at the high school on the bad side of town aren’t getting enough resources, their students would succeed if the teachers just had as much moxie as Tami Taylor; and so on.* This absolutely doesn’t disqualify the show as good (it took a nutso murder plot to do that, for stretches), but it does mean that it’s worth thinking about what lessons the show is teaching you as it tells its stories.

*For the inverse view, it’s worth checking out the still-pretty-new Ted Lasso, which is a comedy about an American football coach who switches to soccer, but also feels like a direct response to Friday Night Lights in that Coach Lasso is the anti-Taylor; he’s openly emotional, he visibly cares about his players, and his coaching philosophy is about helping everyone on the team be the best, healthiest version of themselves, whether or not the team wins. Part of my argument that this is an intentional response: in the one episode where Lasso gets gruff, barky, and emotionally distant, he’s drunk and has his hair disheveled down into the exact look Kyle Chandler wore as Coach Taylor.

This conversation is mostly about narrative art; non-narrative forms can certainly have political implications (look at Goya or that fucking bootlicker Jacques-Louis David, for instance). But the prevalence of story in human cognition means that it’s mostly a thing when narratives are involved. And for what it’s worth, I think vanishingly few artists are really making conscious decisions about this stuff as they work. They’re just working, and it resonates or doesn’t resonate, and the chips fall. And that’s fine! Consciously political art, pushing in any direction, is usually pretty subpar.

Really, I think it usually comes down to a specific question: does this work reinforce the status quo, or does it question it? And if it’s reinforcing a norm, is it a bad one? Again, that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the work, but it means that you should maybe stay conscious that you can’t take its lessons in wholesale. I love reading Hemingway, but holy shit would I hate to live in a world that operated on the norms he champions.

So yeah. There’s conservative art all around. And that’s fine! Just think about it as you consume it. But that goes for any art.

Right on. Stay safe.

APPENDIX 1: Videogames are absolutely art, and part of culture (just not always very good art or culture). And a prime example of conservative art on this front would be the flood of Call of Duty type games where you’re having a virtual experience shooting as many people as you can in service to America.

APPENDIX 2: You know what’s a weird case study here? Star Wars as a phenomenon. I think the first few movies generally pushed against status quo (all the advice Yoda gives Luke in the first two movies runs pretty counter to American norms; and I still think George Lucas deserves a place in the Shit-Stirrer Hall of Fame for releasing a movie less than 10 years after the fall of Saigon where the last act largely consists of teddy bears who are very thinly-veiled Viet Cong kicking the shit out of an imperialistic power in a jungle), but as the culture absorbed the franchise, things changed. The brouhaha over (norm-challenging) The Last Jedi, where manbabies threw a fit over what they saw as a progressive takeover of a space they saw as theirs, was pretty revealing, as was Disney’s apparent acquiescence with The Rise of Skywalker. And it’s worth noting that in the 2020 election cycle, it was Republicans who leaned on “Death Star” metaphors to describe their campaign operation.


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

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