The Two Faces of Art - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Two Faces of Art

There is a probably apocryphal anecdote about the two greatest authors of French literature, who just happened to be close friends. Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas were strolling by the Seine River one day in 1865, when the bells of Notre Dame rang. Their chimes reminded Dumas of his bon ami’s early classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). “You bastard,” he said. “I wish I could write books like you.” “You bastard,” Hugo replied. “I wish I could sell books like you.”

It is pleasant to believe this charming exchange really occurred, both for how it humanizes the two literary titans and crystalizes the dichotomy between popular and instructive art. Everyone acknowledges Les Misérables (1862) as a more significant work of fiction than The Three Musketeers (1844). Yet the latter, my favorite book, remains one of the most widely read and universally beloved novels of all time — and most frequently adapted for the screen, with an epic new French version due out this year. Boys still imagine being Musketeers, while none aspire to be Jean Valjean, the unfortunate protagonist of Hugo’s masterpiece.

The modern Left has practically neutralized popular art along with conservative — read, real — instructive art. This would be condemnable enough even if its minions could tell a compelling story or reveal a basic truth. But the progressives who control the art world can do neither, only clone their impotent false gods through dull, dark, incoherent, inconsumable drama. Great art, on the other hand, can balance entertainment and enlightenment while choosing which to weigh over the other.

For instance, although Valjean’s long persecution is a depressing slog for most readers, pre-challenging the future national motto of France, Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), it’s also a compelling odyssey. Irish “social justice” (when the phrase meant something) champion Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels (1726) as a political allegory featuring five separate metaphorical societies — the diminutive Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians, the scientifically obsessed Laputans, the virtuous horse-like Houyhnhnms, and the bestial Yahoos. But the only group non-purists bought into was the first — turning Gulliver’s encounter with the Lilliputians into a juvenile fantasy. The Fleischer brothers’ Disneyesque 1939 animated feature Gulliver’s Travels depicted only that first leg of the hero’s journey.

Deep inside Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather (1969) — a Harold Robbins–style pastiche of semi-pornographic sex and violence — lay the skeleton of a fascinating saga about the corruption of the American dream. Screenwriter-director Francis Ford Coppola, with Puzo’s help, cut away the excess fat to convert that skeleton into arguably the greatest film ever made. He found and revealed the story’s soul.

To a much lesser extent, Steven Spielberg did the same with the book Jaws (1974). The author, Peter Benchley, had little idea of how to write good fiction. He stuffed his short novel with awkward nonsense, like the heroic sheriff’s wife having an out-of-nowhere affair with the young shark expert. But nothing Benchley added or confused could revoke his golden ticket to the big show — his original concept of a great white shark terrorizing a northeast beach community at the height of its tourist season. My Cuban shark-familiar dad kept lamenting, “I should have written that book,” until the end of his life.

Spielberg, though a subpar writer himself, knew enough about film construction from the classic movies he loves to devise a lean, exciting, manly, and ultimately eternal adventure. Unfortunately, as a childish liberal, he has since done much to diminish the masculine spirit of this early triumph. His angst-ridden Israeli terrorist hunters in the morally equivalent Munich (2005) prompted the real-life avengers of the 1972 Olympic massacre to declare their eagerness for the mission. “Anyone who sees our fight with those who want to destroy us as balanced does not know what he is talking about,” wrote event historian Michael Bar-Zohar.

Conversely, an artist who understands truth, comprehends great literature, and possesses genuine skill will create superior art — in any genre. No decent tough-guy fiction writer, for example, would attempt the form without an appreciation for its past masters: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming. They would contemplate Chandler’s invaluable essay, The Simple Art of Murder, and its most famous quote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.… He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

But then tough guy writers are no longer welcome in “acceptable” literature and cinema. Mainstream literati and producers would rather castrate James Bond than be influenced by him, or Philip Marlowe, or Sam Spade, despite their own junk being unreadable or unwatchable. Their view of the world — where men are toxic and women are a social construct — is so false and foolish, they’re making new room for traditionalist, art-appreciative fiction writers like Andrew Klavan, Nelson DeMille, and myself.

Recently, I got hired by a rare anti-woke producer to write a television pilot. If I were on the Left, I would make the protagonist a tough, unfeminine feminist woman aided by a racial minority or homosexual male, and conservative white men slimy villains. And my work would be as putrid as everything made by Hollywoke today, and deservedly fail. But as a, I like to believe, good writer, I try to reflect the real world, in which people I agree with have their flaws, and those I disagree with, even disdain, have their own internal if warped logic. It’s what makes both Jean Valjean and his persecutor, Javert, so memorable, and most Hollywoke fare so miserable.

Sign up to receive our latest updates! Register

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: The American Spectator, 122 S Royal Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314, You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!