Art is the artillery in the culture war. In the struggle for what matters—saving a country and civilization—conservatives have been very good at writing political tracts and polemics. But we need more than that. One Nobel Prize-winning writer from the past and two current writers, one a filmmaker and one a critic, can teach us about how to win over minds by first touching the heart.
In his 1970 Nobel Prize Lecture, the famed Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn proposed that in a world that more and more lacks “a common scale of values,” art can help us again see not only our differences but what is universal in human experience. Art can help us see the truth about our own country and the human condition at large. Art can show others what is ugly and destructive. It can also show them what is beautiful and will build us up. Best of all, it can motivate others to act on that knowledge.
Some well-meaning people might be offended at such a description. But they shouldn’t. Nothing is more irritating and more illogical than the objection on the part of good-hearted people that we shouldn’t think in terms of culture war. If you call yourself conservative, that means you want to conserve what is truly good, true, and beautiful in our culture. If that is being attacked—and it certainly is—then you should be ready to fight for its survival. Why would you not?
“Better jaw jaw than war war” is the line attributed to Winston Churchill. He actually said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” But the meaning is the same. Conflict is usually better settled without physical violence if possible. In our own civilizational struggle, it is infinitely better that we engage our opponents on the field of battle for hearts and minds than that of blood and guts. After all, our goal is not mere victory for the sake of victory over our political enemies. We want victory so that our fellow countrymen can experience spiritual, political, cultural, and economic health.
Conservatives are often very good at philosophical accounts, aggressive journalism, and policy papers. But these all rely on intellectual means, the machinery of the head. That’s all well and good for those on our side already. But art—painting, sculpture, music, novels, films, plays, television—is the weapon of choice because it appeals to the eyes, the ears, the heart. These all bring our philosophical positions from abstraction into living color, melody, and what is most important: story.
And story was the art form that Solzhenitsyn knew best. His literary works, from the short One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the very long Gulag Archipelago, were filled with details, facts, figures, and images. But above all they were told as stories—the story of his beloved Russia under Soviet domination and stories of ordinary people, including himself, who had suffered. Solzhenitsyn says that “a true work of art carries its verification within itself.” “Artificial and forced concepts,” he writes, “do not survive their trial by images; both image and concept crumble and turn out feeble, pale, and unconvincing. However, works which have drawn on the truth and which have presented it to us in concentrated and vibrant form seize us, attract us to themselves powerfully, and no one ever—even centuries later—will step forth to deny them.”
Conservatives do have the resources to engage in this combat. And yet the left still dominates our culture. Why? Two recent articles give a snapshot of the problem.
In filmmaker Michael Pack’s RealClearPolitics essay, “You Can’t Fight the Culture War Without Making Movies,” the maker of “Created Equal,” the celebrated documentary about Justice Clarence Thomas, writes about a couple of problems with conservative films that actually go beyond movies themselves.
The first problem is that too few conservatives actually know how to tell a story. “Preaching at the audience isn’t telling a story,” Pack says. “A series of anecdotes is not a story. A story is something that happens to a protagonist, or a group of protagonists, with a beginning, middle, and end. It has a story arc. Characters change and develop. Ideas emerge from the action.” Pack gives examples from his own documentaries (including “Created Equal”) of how it is that great stories with great ideas can be told and filmed.
The second problem Pack identifies, however, is that the left has a definite advantage in that they have created an ecosystem that supports younger artists. Pack estimates that over the last fifty years, the left has spent tens of billions of dollars on film annually while the right has spent tens of millions of dollars annually. This money on the left has funded film schools, production companies, film festivals, and plenty of promotion of their products. And these institutions have kept right-leaning filmmakers out of the circle.
Pack details how his new production company is going to make the creation of both short- and long-form documentaries a reality. But Christian Toto identifies another aching need in an article at his website titled “Conservatives Can’t Fight Culture Wars Without Doing THIS First.” The all-capped “this” Toto mentions is one aspect of the entertainment ecosystem Pack mentions but does not go into detail about: promotion.
Toto, who has an eye on films, television, literature, and music coming from all over the spectrum, discusses several great conservative films and books that have come out in the last year. In almost every case, from John Nolte’s new novel, Borrowed Time, to Robert Davi’s “My Son Hunter,” a stinging comic take on the Bidens, what Toto detects is a conservative journalism and media world that is often unwilling to or uninterested in covering, much less promoting, the people making the books and movies. The breakout success “Sound of Freedom,” about child sex trafficking, is an exception. Its producers, Angel Studios, put some money and effort into publicity and got it. Studios need to invest, but conservative media need to do what the left does with their own work. True art, Toto says, “needs a cheering section. Without it, the conservative culture offensive may end before it begins.”
Pack is optimistic because conservatives have the better hand to play. While the left must turn truth “on its head, with anti-heroes, nihilistic postmodern Westerns, dystopian anti-free market fantasies, and the rest,” the right’s “stories, especially about America, have heroes and villains, and great world-changing adventures. These are stories past generations of Americans have loved hearing. Moreover, they are actually true and reflect even deeper truths.”
“The persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart,” Solzhenitsyn said. Let’s win over those hearts. Let’s fund and promote the beautiful so that others can see and hear the good and the true.
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.
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