An earlier version of this piece was published in The Epoch Times

By Evan Mantyk

When Jon McNaughton released his new painting, “Crossing the Swamp,” on July 31, he probably wasn’t expecting to get as much attention as he did, including over 14,000 Twitter comments, 20,000 likes, and news coverage from major outlets like Fox News, USA Today, and ABC News. What the incident reveals is a new awakening in the arts world.

McNaughton’s painting is conservative art. It depicts the Trump administration in a positive light: the president and his cabinet navigate the swampy waters of Washington DC’s bureaucratic corruption. In classical fashion, it is realistic and is directly modeled on the 1851 painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” by Emmanuel Leutze.

Today, news on fine art is usually reserved for the extra weird art that tears down boundaries and disrupts traditional aesthetics, like a giant bamboo art installation at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston that you can climb and robot-made art that is judged by public voting. Such art does make for an interesting news story and public spectacle, but it also falls short when judged based on the aesthetic standards people around the world have held for thousands of years.

Instead of disrupting traditional aesthetics, McNaughton’s “Crossing the Swamp” literally crosses a new boundary into uncharted territory: contemporary conservative art. Generally speaking, these two words “conservative” and “art” do not go together—not if you want to be taken seriously or receive any kind of funding anyway. As dance artist Shawn Lent wrote earlier this year, while at Art Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, “As I look around in my artist circles I wonder, are all artists liberal?” Writing in the Clyde Fitch Report, she warns against the growing echo chamber that left-leaning arts is finding itself in and outlined four reasons that conservative arts need more consideration.

The rise of conservative art is also seen right now in a battle that is being waged in Washington DC over the future of the long-delayed Eisenhower Memorial. One side, led by the likes of classical sculptors Sabin Howard and Michael Curtis, favors classicism that builds on past traditions such as the accurate and ennobling depiction of the human form. The other side favors a gigantic and weird sort of geometric playground designed by contemporary architect Frank Gehry. The new conservative art trend usually favors tradition while the entrenched liberal establishment usually favor progressiveness.

The debate over the Eisenhower Memorial is exceptional because it is a debate that simply wouldn’t have happened in the past few decades and highlights the rise of conservative art.

“In the giddy days of the Progressive era, America’s progressive architects and theorists wished to replace the eternal classical with a presumed zeitgeist, ‘spirit of the times,’” writes Curtis in his newly released book on DC architecture. The giddiness of the post-World War II era, peaking in the 1970s, has turned to artistic languor and is now being uprooted by conservative art, said Curtis.

Moving to the realm of poetry, the state of conservative art in the shadows was expressed perhaps best when New York Times poetry editor David Orr wrote in his 2012 book: “Almost all poets, including myself, lean left. There are maybe five conservative American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.”

Within the poetry establishment, Orr’s words are true enough but they beg the question: are conservative poets being (ironically) oppressed and persecuted? Replace the word “left” with “white” and the word “conservative” with “black” and you get a statement most would denounce as unfair: “Almost all poets, including myself, lean white. There are maybe five black American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.” The takeaway here is that no one should be treated this way and the establishment is oppressive and due for a change. People love an underdog and conservative art is the underdog of today.

As president and editor of the Society of Classical Poets, I have published poetry from different political leanings and, most often, poetry that is about beauty and isn’t political all. However, in terms of sheer reactions from the public, I have seen a huge yearning for conservative poets who cherish tradition and do not agree with the angry left-leaning establishment described by Orr.

When we published an inaugural poem by acclaimed poet Joseph Charles MacKenzie on the occasion of President Trump’s inauguration, it spread like wild fire, like McNaughton’s painting, it received an unusual outpouring of comments and was reported on by major media in the United States and the United Kingdom. Most recently, a poem by MacKenzie we published last month on the jailing of conservative journalist Tommy Robinson in the United Kingdom received an outpouring of positive comments from across the world. And, perhaps a result of the positive momentum, shortly after the poem was published, Robinson was indeed released!

Whether its art, poetry, dance, or any other art form, the newest and freshest perspective is a rediscovery of the traditional and conservative, and the general public is starting to realize it. Sound strange? It shouldn’t. It was the Renaissance, or literally Rebirth, in Europe that also reached into the past and reshaped the establishment. In conservative art, we look now upon nothing less than a second Rebirth.

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12 Responses

  1. Amy Foreman

    It’s been a long time since I read something so encouraging about the arts. Thanks, Evan!

    Reply
  2. James Sale

    This is a very accurate and illuminating description of what is going on in the Western world as it seeks its own demise – its art reflects its own death wish. But one further point to make is, of course, the hijacking of language, which Orwell so accurately predicted so long ago. Just to take my favourite in Evan’s article: ‘progressive’. We all know that this means and what it refers to, but it is exactly the opposite of the meaning of the word: the so-called ‘progressives’ are in fact not reactionaries but ‘regressives’ – they take us back to art forms that are less than art, and invariably formless. So how do they ‘progress’? Answer – naturally – in the virtue-signalling that they are possessed of a superior, non-bourgeoise morality. How smug most of them are: they are all saving the world with their superior perceptions and ‘skills’, but not many help the beggar stranded down their very own street. Huge and proud possessors of intellectual ethics; but mostly on the make, pitching rubbish as if it had value.

    Reply
    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      It’s even worse, Mr. Sale, in the sense that American conservatism, the flip-side of a coin that liberalism minted in the 18th century, is reduced to a kind of reactionary status, because it, too, has discarded those intellectual traditions in the name of “constitutionalism” and other false substitutes for genuine moral theology.

      Reply
  3. J. Simon Harris

    The art world is certainly in a self-contained bubble. The problem is, much of the art being produced today isn’t appreciated by the general public, but only by members of the community producing the art. It makes artists and poets seem like this elitist group of privileged experts, producing material which only they can comprehend. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if it were confined to specific communities (avant garde art can be hit or miss, but it often drives innovations in popular art), but it seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

    Nowadays, your average person seems to have a distaste for art and poetry, because the popular perception is that most artists are painting abstract squares and triangles, and most poets are writing incomprehensible free verse (and the popular perception isn’t that far off from the truth).

    I don’t think this necessarily has to be tied to politics, but it makes some sense that it is. Even so, I consider myself to be a moderate politically, not a conservative, but I agree that there is a popular yearning for a return to old forms. I also agree that there should be room for both liberals and conservatives in mainstream art: diversity, rather than self-reinforcing egotism. For instance, I don’t share the unbridled enthusiasm for Donald Trump implied by the McNaughton painting, but I can still appreciate it as a great piece of art with a strong message (and I reject the model of politics enshrined by the 24-hour news media outlets that you must religiously endorse one side and vehemently object to the other, or even that there are “two sides” to every issue and every person).

    So I don’t necessarily share the politics of everyone on this site, but I think we nonetheless share a common vision of where the world of art and poetry ought to be going. Thanks for this well written and illuminating essay. I hope a new Renaissance really is at hand: a return to realism in art, and a return to form in poetry.

    Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    Thank you, Mr. Harris, for expressing my thoughts more succinctly than I could have done myself. As for sharing the politics of everyone on this site, I must confess that there are days when I am not convinced that I even agree with my own political point of view!

    Also, re Mr. Sale, a well-made point concerning the Left’s self-descriptive term, “Progressive.” I suppose the shift to this new, somewhat disingenuous, term was necessary given that the traditional understanding of the word, “Liberal,” was no longer applicable.

    And, Evan, thank you for the thoughtful, insightful article.

    Reply
  5. David Paul Behrens

    I enjoyed this essay. Whenever I have gone to art museums or galleries, I have always been much more impressed by the masters of classical art, depicting reality. Sometimes modern and abstract art can be somewhat interesting, but not at all on the same level as the great masters of long ago.

    Reply
  6. Sharmon Gazaway

    Excellent and encouraging article! It’s a shame that what used be thought of as taste now has to be referred to as “conservative”. As an aside, I reject the term “politically correct” and refer to it as “liberally correct”. Here in the South it’s simply known as manners, and the Golden Rule. Hard to be prejudiced when you treat everyone the way you would like to be treated.
    Thanks for all your hard work.

    Reply
  7. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    The world owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Mantyk for having sustained not only the vibrant online forum, but also the gorgeous, annual Journal of the Society of Classical Poets (which I recommend to all and sundry as an excellent series to collect, as its literary value will only increase over time).

    https://www.amazon.com/Society-Classical-Poets-Journal-Vol/dp/1986040380

    I am greatly honored that the President of the SCP had shown the courage to publish both the Inaugural Poem and the Letter to England—this latter continuing to draw attention on social media in Britain.

    As I write not as a conservative, but as a Catholic whose sole ideology is the Cross, the Society of Classical Poets has proven all the more brave in allowing some of the Sonnets for Christ the King to appear in its pages at a time of ferocious anti-Catholic persecution both here in the United States and Britain.

    For, the first condition of excellence in a nation’s poetry is a sense of literary honor in its editors—a quality Evan Mantyk possesses in abundance.

    Reply
  8. James Sale

    Yes, I agree with Mr Mackenzie here in that the editor does have wide-ranging, catholic and empathic tastes which really do support the quite amazingly diverse types of poets that appear on these pages. I think the concept of ‘classical’ has been extremely helpful in this respect: the link in the word seems to be the respect for tradition, forms, and what can only be called, if the word spiritual is avoided, then transcendental must be invoked.

    Reply
  9. Evan Mantyk

    Thank you all for your kind remarks! A special thank you to Mr. MacKenzie and Mr. Michael Curtis, two visionaries who have written part of this article with the sweat, ink, and blood of their lives. Everyone participating in the Society has in fact contributed. Like the relatively better poems and parts of poems that I think I have written, the words, ideas, and connections on the piece above were almost effortlessly written, as if the words were there already, hanging in the air, and only needed me to transcribe them. These are truths that are self-evident and are becoming more evident to more people every day that passes.

    Reply
  10. David Watt

    Thank you Evan for continuing to provide a positive impetus to traditional poetry and art. The rediscovery of traditional poetry, in particular, has a long way to go in Australia. At present, traditional poetry is almost a taboo subject, except for within small groups of older enthusiasts. There is light at the end of the ‘left-leaning’ tunnel.

    Reply

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