It is no secret that art, sacred art, and beauty more generally, are under assault. New “multicultural” guidelines are dictating how art is to be constructed and rewarded. Artistic talent is shunned in favor of diversity quotas. The way to be an artist and art critic, nowadays, is to cry racism or sexism.
Theogonis of Megara divided mankind into two classes of people, the base and the noble. As he said, living through a revolutionary period in ancient Greek society during the rise of democracy, “The deckhands are in control, and the base have the upper hand over the noble.” The outlook of Theogonis is inherently conflictual and violent, not to mention truly classist.
While it is true that much of Theogonis’ poetry reflects his own concerns about Greek societal transformation, his general attitude is often attacked by critics of high culture for its supposed “whiteness,” inegalitarianism, and gendered supremacism. Such assaults on high culture fail to appreciate the real defense of high culture—the belief that all should strive for excellence, nobility, and beauty (even if not all will come to imitate and inculcate that excellence, nobility, and beauty in their own lives).
This emphasis on excellence, indeed, perfection, is what Matthew Arnold understood as the defining characteristic of high culture in “Culture and Anarchy.” Arnold even stated that the emphasis and promotion of high culture was something universal: high culture “seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.” The point of high culture is to lift everyone to the good things the heavens hold.
The constant attack on high culture, however, is part of the broader rejection of tradition, hierarchy, and heritage that necessarily accompanies high culture. High culture is the product of tradition as much as it is individual genius, one cannot marvel at Michelangelo’s “David” and be so blind to its blending of classical humanist and biblical traditions some two millennia after the fact. The genius of Michelangelo, likewise, would be impossible if not for the Catholic and Platonic traditions which informed his spirit. But one need not be Catholic or Platonic to look in awe and wonder at Michelangelo’s handiwork.
Likewise, high culture necessarily entails a hierarchy over and against low culture—the “base” and vulgar reality which Theogonis does speak of. Heritage, too, plays a part in high culture. High culture does not spring into existence ex nihilo; it is something rooted, grown over time, and blossoms to greater and greater perfection as time goes on. One can see the progression of artistic creativity over the eras. High culture unites past, present, and future together in a seamless waltz of true, genuine, progression.
But the left-wing criticism of high culture on hierarchal grounds also misses the point. We all intuitively know, as Plato knew, that some things are less beautiful, less good, and less noble than others; a blossoming tree in a river valley is undeniably more beautiful, good, and noble than a dying and shriveled tree alone in an empty and barren plain. One gives us an ideal of perfection, harmony, and the good life. The other is instructive in avoidance, the base, and the bad. So, too, do most people intuitively know this until they are instructed and brainwashed to think otherwise.
The attack on high culture is the result of the avant-garde’s nihilistic rejection of the pillars from which high culture rests: tradition, hierarchy, and heritage. But it also stems from a deep-seated totalitarianism of command and control, cultural Bolshevism and revolutionary vanguardism. They serve as its guiding spirit.
The enemies of high culture believe the masses to be lumpenproletariat, incapable of seeing the good or acting in accord with their own interests. Thus, as was the case with Walter Benjamin, the task of the avant-garde revolutionary is to bring art and culture down to the masses, politicize it to the point of denying transcendence, then subsequently weaponize art for mere political ends. The avant-garde revolutionary fancies himself the noble and good soul who rules over the base and deckhand but does so, of course, with supposed good intentions.
By contrast, the defender of high culture believes that once people are exposed to beauty, goodness, and nobility, they will naturally gravitate to the higher and finer things in life. The high culturalist gives the masses a foretaste of heaven and joins them in the pilgrimage upward to the stars, side by side and hand-in-hand. Lest we forget the high culturalist is just as much participating in the same journey as everyone else even if he guides from the front.
Thus it is perhaps inappropriate to view the defense of high culture as a defense. For defense implies something that is threatened. Defense is something static rather than energetic and moving.
Yet this is the predicament we find ourselves. The high culturalist is like St. John of Damascus, peering over the horizon to see the iconoclasts storming the monasteries and redoubts of kalon, noble goodness and beauty, and needing to defend that from destruction before beginning once more the journey to heavenly things which the noble and good products of art, architecture, literature, and music direct us to.
This returns us to Arnold’s definition of high culture as wanting “all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.” Arnold’s very language is simultaneously Platonic and culturally Christian. The pilgrimage to high culture seeks to bring beatitude and felicity to the world. But if this is what high culture seeks, then what does its dialectical antithesis entail?
High culture is apolitical. It is, at its heart, transcendent in aim and scope. True, one cannot overlook the political realities and impacts of high culture onto the political—for some of the greatest works of art had political intention, but high culture is not anti-political or pro-political. Whatever political impact it may have is secondary to the more interior and transcendental heart to it—the communicative power of the good, true, and beautiful.
Listening to Mozart, Beethoven, or Wagner, gazing upward at the ceiling of the Sistine chapel or being directed upward by church spires and cathedral towers, even hanging a small picture frame with a painting of birds in a bush, liberates one from the constricting chains of the political and brings atonement to the individual—atonement meaning, as it does in English, to be at peace and harmony with oneself and the world in one moment: the moment of the present.
To be lost in the splendor of the present is the closest reality to eternal bliss in this world; it is a prefiguration of the beauty and goodness of the world to come. For these reasons when we gaze upon a magnificent work of art—of high art and culture—we experience something akin to a spiritual and transcendent rapture. That belongs to all people and not to a just privileged few. Conservatives, most especially, should be engaged in the defense of all things good, true, and beautiful—especially in the high arts. It is, after all, part of our patrimony.