“The coarsening of culture” is a common complaint lodged by conservative writers against their enemies. Yet more often than not, “the traditional fabric of manners and morals,” “the inherited values” that conservatives like Roger Kimball, whose words we quote here, would have us believe “constitute our society,” are not put forward as a source of cultural refinement. Rather, the conservative’s preference for “traditional values,” and for the works of art and forms of expression he believes preserve them, simply betrays a desire for self-interested petrifaction, a “crony cultural capitalism” that denies the real nature of historical lives and the art and language those lives require.
Kimball is in himself a rather insignificant figure, but he is a great example of my concern, particularly in his attitudes toward art and in his own uses of language. Art and language are novel expressions of feelings, beliefs, or thoughts original to experience—those we might call “earned,” in the sense of having arisen in the course of real life, for real individuals. By nature, such expressions are non-prescriptive; they take whatever forms are adequate to the unique experiences they express. By contrast, the ambition of most contemporary conservatives, including Kimball, is (to quote their paragon, William F. Buckley) to “stand athwart history” in defense of prepackaged “values.” At bottom, this anti-historical stance is based in a “love” for one thing as an excuse to resent something else—a love, that is, for oneself and what one has now, and a resentment of everyone else who would like some, too. Their defense of “values” is in truth the defense of a sort of club, the preservation of an insider/outsider status roughly equivalent to “haves” and “have nots.” In short, the conservative’s alleged defense of his “cultural patrimony” (Kimball’s phrase) is little more than an attempt to preserve economic values—to maintain the historical institutions that have marginalized large sections of the population, and to reinforce the disparities that allow for crony capitalism—by upholding a corresponding set of cultural values.
Kimball’s list of such unearned “values” includes “erudition, clarity, [and] high culture”; and when he discusses the arts, he calls for a return to “form” and “beauty.” However, any set of “values” that can be listed ahead of time aren’t real, earned values, and any “form” or “beauty” that can be isolated, described, “upheld,” and repeated is no such thing. They are merely preferences selected from a pre-sorted reality. Beauty is not a prepackaged value to be “stood for”; it is the result of novel creation, and may include the ugly and hateful if those are subjects a real artist finds fit for expression (leaving aside the broader and more obvious fact that there is nothing unbeautiful about race, gender, or sexuality—all subjects that are anathema, according to Kimball’s barren criticism).
The art and poetry championed by Kimball avoids any difficult topics and is usually a prettified, vaguely contemporary version of something old and dull. The “craft” of new academic painters—the simulacrum of exactly the sort of work characteristic of the fin de siècle painters Kimball’s former associate Hilton Kramer once decried—is celebrated. The ease of appreciating Richard Diebenkorn’s wallpaper marks him for approval. Kimball’s taste in poetry, promoted through the New Criterion, is especially telling—he prefers (of course) rigid meter and verse.
An appeal might be made for this preference of what the conservative critic calls “poetic form” on the grounds that it vaguely resembles the formalism of the Augustans, who were in fact great poets. But the influence of French formalism on eighteenth century English poetry (endless couplets, strictly iambic meter, the denigration of blank verse) was live, present, and felt, not an empty box waiting to be filled. We can forgive Johnson’s insult to Milton because he was a poet who made his own form—a form that fit his material—out of the historical materials of his day. The formalism of the poetry Kimball prefers, on the other hand, is a deliberate and reactionary use of forms created centuries ago and applied in the name of something else entirely, to subjects that the “poets” have decided long in advance are the only fit ones for poetry. Real form comes from the intrication of subject and manner, which in real art are inextricable; attempts to jam sentimental pap into meter are no such thing. Kimball’s own writing is itself a prime example of the failure of conservative “values” in artistic practice, a vapid rehash of (and an attempt to hypostatize) a century-old English prosody, written in the name of resentment.
The sole virtue of the “values” Kimball promotes is that, because they’re prepackaged, they are easy to hold in mind. In this sense conservative values always function as a brand. They provide the conservative with a style of expression, and a basis for his preferences, prior to any real experience in which he might be called upon to exercise them. Anyone able to tolerate having their preferences dictated by a brand is able to do so only because he hasn’t properly articulated his own feelings—in the conservative’s case, his anger—about the real objects of his emotions as they arise in his own lived experience. Of course, since conservatism of this kind deals in prejudices, the anger is by definition inarticulable. All one can do is reinforce it, style it, and mangle language—and thereby culture—in doing so.
To be fair, by its own account conservatism is a responsive movement. It does not claim to create the values it upholds; the values are ostensibly created by an unconscious process of social development. Any attempt to tinker with them, they believe, dooms us to some sort of horrible failure (usually figured by Stalin massacring dissidents rather than, say, a Swedish social democrat enjoying the benefits of a decent national health care system). Conservatism defends these values by the means available at the moment, and thus is largely a rhetoric—as Albert O. Hirschman had it, a reactionary rhetoric. This is why its major historical proponents, from Burke to Buckley, and now to Kimball, were all stylists more than anything else.
The passage from Burke to Buckley to Kimball is, of course, quite a downward slide. Burke’s talents were the product of genius, Buckley’s a matter of opportunity, and Kimball’s a matter of flattering the tastes of the wealthy—papering the walls of their club, while pretending to buttress them—in order to get their money for his journal. Without the medium of television, Buckley would hardly have been able to put forward the image he did, which seems to have impressed a lot of people. Most of his adoring fans wouldn’t admit that his books, if they’ve even read them, were not the reason they approved of him. What they appreciated were his performances on television, a medium that could capture the perfect pitch of his “my good mans” and “indeeds” and mute the bluntness of interjections like “you queer” (to Vidal) and “I’d smash you in the goddamn face” (to Chomsky), all spoken through his trademark clenched teeth. And contemporary conservatism has fallen even further: Buckley’s mannerisms don’t translate to Internet discourse, where you’re most likely to encounter Kimball’s writing (since the New Criterion does not survive on its sales but through the shrewd investments of its wealthy patrons).
To be sure, other authors in the conservative pantheon have aimed at the defense of much more harmful things than the “art” Roger Kimball “stands for,” and have done so with much less pretention. At bottom, they have stood for authoritarianism in an age whose democratic leanings make that difficult, and so lead to disingenuous attempts to promote one or another form of domination as freedom; and they’ve used talk radio—i.e., propaganda—to do it. Even so, Kimball can be taken as representative, as his preferred means seems to be something of a routine among conservatives—more of an act (or a bit) than a real method of cultural diagnosis, and one that ignores the basic fact about expression we began with: that it is malleable and will change whether we try to slow it down or not.
This is the root of the conservative’s impossible and misguided attempt to “save” language from its own inherent processes, and “culture” from itself. Because their philosophy is uncreative by design, conservatives have to rely on received ideas, and demonstrate their intelligence through their manner in conveying them. They don’t make arguments, but opportune statements—at best, if they can manage it, through witty ripostes. It’s an interjectional rhetoric, which is at once why the speech is so deliberately old-fashioned (full of “I daresays,” “you, Sirs,” and “indeeds”), and more importantly, why it betrays language and form in precisely the way it does. The actual creation of a linguistic or artistic form—one that is adequate to the novel expression of an earned feeling, belief, or thought—is impossible for them to achieve or appreciate, because they have never earned one for themselves.