It seemed like a good idea at the time.
That’s been my reaction to the tsunami of rage, abuse, derision and invective that blew through my life after the publication of “Right-Wingtips,” my piece at Spectator.org. You may recall that the piece was a condemnation of the tacky, cheesy, and feckless things that pass for culture and wardrobe in red state America: NASCAR, country music, pro wrestling, and T-shirts.
I’ve been a journalist since high school. I’ve written about abortion, war, rock and roll as a conservative art form, black culture, swing dancing, alcoholism and baseball, among other topics. I’ve never gotten a reaction like the one that followed “Right-Wingtips.” While many of the emails, articles, and commentaries on the piece were funny and informed, most of them were trapped in a simple contradiction: as conservatives, we supposedly believe in objective truth. Certain things are right, and certain things are wrong. In the arts, we believe that some works are objectively great — Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Mozart’s works. Matisse, Van Gogh, Hopper. Dostoevsky. And in dress, we acknowledge — or at least I hope — that someone who presents himself in church — and to the rest of the world for that matter — as clean, groomed, neat and well dressed is making a point and a statement, however subtle: he respects himself. Objectively, he looks better than someone in sandals and a bathing suit.
Yet while conservatives insist on these standards — and here is the contradiction — they seem ready to abolish all standards when doing so will bring a “snob” low. Bach? Hey pal, what’s wrong with Gretchen Wilson and 50 Cent? Faulkner, Hemingway, Richard Price? I’ll read Jackie Collins and like it, and don’t you dare tell me it’s lesser than your bookshelf, you dandy. Furthermore, I’ll wear a fanny pack, sweatshirt and old sneakers, even to church. Who died and made you Ralph Lauren?
Yet I believe that there are objective standards of beauty. Furthermore, the man who respects them respects God. This was the central point of my piece, or rather should have been if I had explained it more clearly. As theologians from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Pope Benedict XVI have explored, there is a correlation between beauty — objective beauty — and the divine. Beauty causes in us a certain reaction, a quickening of the soul and senses, that make us believe that we are in the presence — or near the presence — of the eternal and unchanging. Halle Berry in a red dress causes a different reaction than Ernest Borgnine in his underwear. Mozart swells our spirits more than the Sex Pistols. Cezanne lifts the heart higher than Dada’s hanging toilets. Beauty is a kind of window, or rather a hint, of the hereafter. I believe that as our culture has become more secular, we have forgotten God as the inspiration to do anything. Either that, or we have so fully bought into the idea of Christ as a downtrodden, beaten, squishy soft liberal who ate with whores and beggars that we have forsaken the idea that he may have also looked, well, beautiful. Objectively beautiful.
Pope Benedict examines this in his new book On the Way to Jesus Christ. In the wonderful essay “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty,” Benedict explains that there are two antiphons that introduce psalms and that Catholics pray on the same day in Lent. The antiphons seem to contradict each other. The first refers to Christ as “the fairest of men.” The second interprets the psalm in light of Isaiah 53:2: “He had neither beauty nor majesty, nothing to attract our eyes.”
So which is it? Benedict says both. He notes that Aristotle believed that people were so smitten by beauty because it reminds us of a perfection that we originally had but that we lost. This Greek idea of object aesthetic beauty and how its presence wounds us with the truth of our fallen condition is still valid, even if changed by Christ — in Benedict’s phrase, the Greek idea “was not abolished but transcended.” He goes on to write that “the encounter with beauty can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the soul and thus makes it see clearly, so that henceforth it has criteria, based on what it has experienced, and can now weigh arguments correctly.” Benedict had such an experience listening to a Mozart concert, after which he turned to a friend and said that “anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.” He explains: “Such an extraordinary force of present reality had become audible in this music that the audience knew, no longer through deduction, but by the impact that it could not have come from nothing; it could only have been born through the power of the truth that makes itself present in the composure’s inspiration.” Benedict claims that the same effect is caused by viewing the art of great Christian icons.
But of course, Christ transcended the traditional idea of beauty — even as he can also embody it. Beauty was now not only an objective aesthetic standard but is represented in the love that goes “to the very end” — through derision, humiliation, hatred and torture. This beauty, as Benedict writes, “proves to be mightier than falsehood and violence.” It is the how the beautiful “received a new depth and a new realism.”
Yet this did not mean that objective standards of beauty were abolished. This, sadly, is a fact that has been forgotten in our culture, and in much of conservatism. Among the dissenters to my piece was the website The American Thinker, which offered this:
What this country has taught the world is that there’s no single pattern. There are a thousand ways to live, as long as one abides by the principles acknowledged by all free men. They don’t do things in Alaska the same as they do in Florida, or among the Mennonites as among the Hopi. A fighter pilot doesn’t dress or behave the same as a bond trader, an artist like a techie, an athlete like a teacher. We don’t expect them to and it would be foolish to force them to try. To undercut this state of affairs is to undercut any serious notion of a living conservatism, and renders you of one mind with the social engineers.
This is the kind of thing one usually hears on MTV or in the halls of the ACLU. Everyone is different, man, so what’s the big deal? Brahms, Mahler, Matisse — what’s the dif between that and the WWF? At The American Thinker, apparently nothing. On the First Things website, my mentor Richard John Neuhaus gently tweaked my piece, noting the irony that a true gentleman doesn’t write a piece like mine calling others morons. He also defended the virtue of everyday ordinary grace. Both good points. Furthermore, Benedict makes clear the danger and sinfulness of flashy and empty beauty that winds up diminishing us — the beauty that triggers possessiveness and greed rather than the desire to glorify God and His creation. It is the beauty of drugs and empty sex and would-be omnipotence — the beauty that drove Eve to the apple.
Yet certainly that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as objective beauty, of good taste, of nice manners and proper dress, and that conservatives should not embrace these things and thus embrace God’s truth. Yes, Christ wore simple clothes — but I’d be willing to wager that he was the most physically beautiful human who ever lived, and that He can be found more in Mozart than in rap. We on the right should not be so blinded by reverse snobbery or false ACLU populism that we shrink from being the best. Again, Benedict:
So it is that Christian art stands between two fires today (and perhaps this has always been the case): it must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything else, anything beautiful, is a deception and that only the depiction of what is cruel, base, and vulgar is the truth and true enlightenment. And it must withstand the deceptive beauty that diminishes man instead of making him great and that, for that very reason, is false.
I mean, what do you prefer, Cary Grant or Hulk Hogan?