Do creative people usually accept the official beliefs of their society?


Before the mid-eighteenth century, most notable Europeans claimed to be Christian and claimed that their art was consistent with their putative faith.  Today, these claims are not taken seriously.  After all, geniuses in the Middle Ages and Early Modern times had to pretend to accept the established faith, because there would have been big consequences if they had publicly denied it, and who needs that kind of grief?  What’s more, modern admirers of their works often find that the Christian veneer is rather thin, while the author or artist’s enthusiasm for pagan nobility, romantic adultery, or whatever seems deep and heartfelt.  Geniuses of every age were actually modern American atheists born in the wrong time.

On the other hand, we are not these people’s contemporaries, and we may not have a good sense for what was socially imaginable in the elite circles of their times.  It can be dangerous to assume that the thought patterns we have been conditioned to accept came naturally to them.  Let us instead start with our own time.  Nearly everybody of note says that they support social justice and democracy, that they oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like.  Then again, they would have to say that, wouldn’t they?  One invites quite a bit of grief publicly denying the official faith.  What do we find in their art?  I don’t watch too much television or movies, but I tend to assume that it’s all Leftist propaganda, so when I do watch something, I’m often pleasantly surprised.  I’ve written about this before regarding Disney movies (see here, here, here, and here), My Little Pony, and Batman.  The affirmation of official pieties, when present at all, seems perfunctory, while monarchist sentiments and premodern archetypes drive the story at the deeper levels.  Should we suspect that Christopher Nolan, Lauren Faust, and whoever’s running Disney these days are secretly plotting to soften up the American public for monarchy?  No, that would be absurd, absurd because socially unimaginable.  We live in this time, and we know what kind of beliefs it is possible for people to hold, even people of exceptional intelligence and creativity.  We’ve been under the hood.  We’ve talked to modern people in private, shared their school and media experiences, and we know the bounds of what is thinkable.

How do we explain the persistence of non-Leftist themes in the art of an era of Leftist cultural hegemony?  Most likely it’s a case of the best artists being non-ideological, of choosing whatever seems to pack the biggest dramatic punch, of whatever makes the characters feel most alive and real, rather than what fits with their sincerely held worldview.  Naturally, and without any conscious understanding of what they are doing, they will often be attracted to premodern and universal archetypes.

It is not likely that the Walt Disney company is run by a band of utterly ruthless cynics who combine a perfect understanding of real human nature with a perfect understanding of how to manipulate social justice signaling, even though I can’t think of how the company’s actions would be different if it were run by such super-intelligent cynics.  Modern people cannot allow themselves to understand their social world that clearly.  Such clarity would be dangerous to them.

Given what we know of our own times, it is natural to assume that artists in the age of Christendom really were, or really thought themselves to be, Christians.  Their enthusiasm for non-Christian themes and their clumsiness handling Christian themes are consistent with this.

Liberals would no doubt object that the two cases are entirely dissimilar.  They will say that Christianity is wrong and irrational so smart people would have always seen through it, while today’s beliefs are true, humane, and coterminous with reason itself, so all intelligent and independent-minded people naturally converge on them.  That is, they would say it’s not that smart and creative people tended to accept whatever the beliefs of their time were, but that they tended to accept the beliefs of our time, because ours are best.  Both theories explain the uniformity of today’s elite, and our claims about past elite’s private beliefs are admittedly speculation.  Liberals may also point to the liberalism of intellectual elites in the non-Western world, but this would not be a good counter-example, because most of these foreign elites were indoctrinated in Western universities.

What would help would be if we had examples where the smart set was wrong, and not only wrong but more wrong than the common people.  It would be particularly telling if elite opinion switched back and forth.  Such examples would prove that the smart and creative do not uniformly lead the way toward greater and greater liberal truth, that the uniformity of their beliefs has more to do with social mechanisms of consensus-establishment than evident rightness.  Are there such cases?  Perhaps eugenics and communism?

25 Responses

  1. I admire your clearheadedness.

    It makes me think about another (impossible) question: were the ‘nominal’ Catholics of back-in-the-day more, or less. nominal than we are?

    I do sometimes wonder if, lese majeste, Mozart was more or less Catholic than I — or Haydn; or Josquin des Pres; or Cesar Frank, whose musical achievements seem to me to tower over his theological ones; or (possibly homosexual) Poulenc.

    Anyway, Thomas Sowell is one place to start, but remember that evidence don’t matter:

    The Vision of the Anointed
    Sowell asserts that these thinkers, writers, and activists continue to be revered even in the face of evidence disproving their positions. He argues that they are promoters of a worldview concocted out of fantasy impervious to any real-world considerations

    Also Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions is helpful.
    Sowell’s opening chapter attempts to answer the question of why the same people tend to be political adversaries in issue after issue, when the issues vary enormously in subject matter and sometimes hardly seem connected to one another. The root of these conflicts, Sowell claims, are the “visions”, or the intuitive feelings that people have about human nature; different visions imply radically different consequences for how they think about everything from war to justice.

  2. Some random comments:

    Quite a few of the best writers today actually are rather conservative in a fairly explicit way: Houellebecq, Knausgaard, Geoffrey Hill. Their beliefs are actually quite explicitly outside the liberal mainstream. It is all the hordes of minor writers that have liberal politics.

    Art works best with a heavily personalized, teleological view of the world. You can see this in the power of symbolism and personification. This also probably explains why contemporary artists, as good as they can be, are lesser than art from the religious past.

    The insincerity of artists doing religious art in the premodern era is greatly exaggerated.

    Some liberal things from Hollywood are less liberal than they appear. A show like Transparent isn’t really about tolerance and acceptance of transgendered people. It’s about putting Jeffrey Tambor in a dress and laughing at him.

  3. I think Jonathan Haidt is more helpful here than Thomas Sowell. The best art is frequently animated by themes of loyalty to your in-group, respect for authority, and adoration of the pure, holy and ideal. Liberals who cut themselves off from such themes tend to produce a more superficial art.

  4. Most likely the best artists alive today are liberals who bracket their beliefs when making their art.

  5. Didn’t mean to hijack the post, which is excellent, or the thread.

    My comment a) wondered what the purpose might be of documenting some of the various, evident, and well-known stupidities of the Smart Set, when they, and their ilk, won’t listen or learn a thing anyhow, nor will they, of their very nature as it were, ever revere the common sense above their own expertise, no matter what the evidence — and for all that, Sowell, surely not Haidt, is more apt.

    And b) the comment wondered, in the vein of the of the original post, about the Catholicism or no of famous ((( Catholic ))) composers. Catholic, or child of his times? etc.

    The comment certainly did not wonder about the supposed ‘bracketing’ of C-sharp, or A natural, from ‘beliefs’. That sort of talk about ‘art’, superficial in the best of circumstances, is unmasked as a blank surd with reference to music, and by extension, to all art qua art. That is, trying to talk in that vein about music makes it obvious that you’re not really talking about art at all when somebody talks like that. You’re virtue signaling, status seeking, justifying a prejudice, refining one’s bile, joining the in-crowd, fretting about the state of the world, even urging holiness, maybe; but not talking sensibly about ‘art’.

    I think it’s quite difficult to talk sensibly about ‘art’. A mid-period Beethoven string quartet has a definite barbaric tinge, a deliberate crudity of effect and affect, an obviously rude breaking of the laws of good taste, compared to historical predecessors: yay, or nay? And, if yay, does that make that string quartet immoral? Destructive of the common weal? Is it immoral to listen to it?

    Charlie (Byrd) Parker was said to have had absolutely no ability to ‘swing’, and was despised by some swing men because of this; he had no ‘music’ as they understood it. On the other hand, Picasso could draw like an angel. Does that make Guernica good, or true, or beautiful?

    And what do all these questions reveal about the ‘natural’ beauty some say underlies all ‘art’? Can we reliably predict in advance (the only kind of prediction worth anything) what sort of ‘art’ will express such ‘beauty’? And are portrayals of the Crucifixion, or of the Crowning with Thorns, or of the Scourging, ‘beautiful’? Then what could ‘beauty’ mean? And could a pagan, or an atheist, ever really appreciate such beauty? If yes, why weren’t there ‘beautiful’ pagan depictions of crucifixions? And so forth.

    Neither sanctity, nor learning, nor intelligence, nor theological genius, nor being an artist yourself, necessarily call forth profundity regarding art. A very learned, intelligent, and saintly man, a Father and Doctor of the Church, the man most frequently quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, once said, “Qui cantat, bis orat”. He who sings, prays twice. (St. Augustine: Sermons 336, 1 PL 38, 1472). Of course that has to mean also that he who prays, sings 0.5 times.

    A sin is a sin is a sin; and calling for sin, or portraying sin as good, in an artful way, is also a sin. Certainly, a lot of opinions about what you, or an audience, might like, or tolerate, or pay for, forms part of the artist’s inevitable mindset as choices are made. But C-sharp as some sort of (Pythagorean? Aristotelian? Platonic?) ‘natural’ good or no??? As the old musician’s joke goes: “Never B-sharp, never B-flat; always B-natural,” indeed.

    The original post’s amazing, penetrating discussion about the (inevitable?) Sitz-im-Leben of ‘creatives’ remains.

    In general, ‘creatives’, in the 19th century and now, are much more like ballplayers than heroes. They are what they do. And that’s pretty much it.

  6. This is interesting:

    “In some cases, pop culture producers play very directly to the ‘second screen’ and the social and political concerns and values of a connected audience. Doctor Who—a science fiction series aimed predominantly at children, but with an extensive and obsessive adult audience—is an example of a TV show whose writers are frequently winking through the window of the fourth wall. Episodes of Doctor Who over the last few years have contained numerous pointed and typically gratuitous references to contemporary socially progressive concerns such as same-sex marriage, queer sexuality, transsexualism, and various feminist themes. These references usually serve no ostensive plot purpose: They are incongruous and odd, violating Chekov’s gun principle. They draw attention to themselves in a way that often seems intentional and preachy, seemingly calling for us to attend, while simultaneously chiding us for paying attention to that which should be treated as entirely natural and unexceptional. However inauthentic they may appear on the ‘first screen’, though, they play very well on the second. The intensification of the messages of such media has much to do with the development of the spectacle they offer into a means of self-signalling in the age of the internet, as audiences become more visible to themselves within a spectacle of their own.”

    Very well observed, I think.

    Now, the question is – are the writers of (generally) high quality TV and other mass media such as Dr Who and Sherlock motivated primarily by the artistic demands (which are conservative) – or do they fulfil the artistic demands as a means to the end of inserting these ‘subversive’ moments of winking through the fourth wall? Is *that* what primarily and strategically motivates them as writers, and everything else is just tactics to get people to watch and be influenced by these moments?

    (Like TV executives for whom ‘good’ programming is merely a way of getting lots of people to watch the adverts.)

  7. We really did not need Timur Kuran to tell us that where, in any society or institution, social pressure to conform is strong, people are reluctant to voice any doubts or misgivings they may have and outward conformity will often mask private dissent and that this reticence, in turn, contributes to and reinforces the social pressure to conform.

    How writers deal with this varies. Thus, no one can fail to be struck by the change that came over French literature in the aftermath of the June Days of 1848. Then, you will recall, the Liberals secured a victory over the Radical Republicans, but at the cost of 1,500 dead in the streets and thousands of summary executions of prisoners. The Assembly welcomed the surrender of the last barricade with cries of “Long Live the Republic!” What they got, inevitably, was Napoleon III. There is a credible theory that modern literature was born with Baudelaire, Heine, and Flaubert as a repercussion of this state massacre. It is in the blood of the Parisian insurgents, against the silence surrounding the slaughter, that modern literary forms were born – spleen, ambivalence, morbid detachment and fetishism of form.

    Of course, as Kuran explains, when circumstances combine to relax that pressure, it can initiate a “preference cascade,” as dissenters realise they are not singular in their views and more and more people feel free to express their pent-up dissent. Now, fear changes sides. Not only are opponents of the status quo emboldened to speak out, but genuine supporters of it start pretending that they support the change, too. The bourgeoisie who had filled the churches under the Second Empire deserted them en masse under the Third Republic.

  8. You guys are all so fucking smart.
    Off the record, is it really that complicated, or are you just pleased with yourselves?

  9. There’s a near-classic history book by Lucien Febvre, _The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais_ which basically argues that modern French historians who project their own atheism back into history are just fooling themselves. I think your genuine professional historians have been pretty much persuaded: you *can* find a few atheists in history, but they’re extremely thin on the ground before the Enlightenment.

  10. Craig N

    Pascal’s Pensées contain abundant internal evidence of being written in a society where scepticism or Pyrrhonisme, as it was called, was widespread.

  11. Michael,

    On the one hand, atheism is much narrower than scepticism: both in ancient times (Pyrrhonian scepticism strictly) and in the early modern period, it’s not that hard to find sceptics who weren’t atheists. I recall being surprised to discover that Hobbes himself wasn’t an atheist, for instance, even if he was a very weird sort of theist.

    On the other hand, widespread scepticism *does* rather call into question whether pretty much everyone accepted the official beliefs of society, which is the original topic. Still, if the question is about the idea that “Geniuses of every age were actually modern American atheists born in the wrong time” — which is how the OP unpacks that — I’m going to stand with Febvre. Accusations of atheism were a heck of a lot of more common than real atheism.

  12. We really did not need Timur Kuran to tell us . . .

    Kuran’s insight was that you can get an equilibrium where everyone is ostensibly holding to an old set of beliefs merely because they are afraid to stick their nose out and be the first to abandon it, but where most people actually prefer a different set of beliefs. That sets up a situation where all of a sudden an apparently widely held set of beliefs can be abandoned almost overnight. His theory is about how sets of beliefs can change, rather than about establishing the importance of social conformity per se.

  13. One also has to consider the difference between belief and alief. Belief is what you consciously affirm, while alief is what your gut tells you. When you step out on a glass floor overhanging the Grand Canyon, your conscious belief is that you are safe, while your alief is telling you that you are about to plummet to your death.

    A lot of being an artist is about tapping into your aliefs, which are not necessarily the same as your conscious beliefs. Thus the ostensibly atheistic artist may tap into a well of religious feeling. But I suspect this is more likely when the atheist is living in a traditional, religious society.

  14. Most likely the best artists alive today are liberals who bracket their beliefs when making their art.

    This is true for some writers, like Marilynne Robinson, but not true for a lot of others, like Houellebecq, Knausgaard, and Hill, who are explicitly conservative, though they resist being boxed in by partisan politics.

  15. Thank you for giving me this new word “aliefs”. It’s what I’m thinking when I say that I don’t consciously dissent from the doctrine of life after death, but I can’t make my gut believe it.

  16. @Bonald ” I don’t consciously dissent from the doctrine of life after death, but I can’t make my gut believe it.”

    Charles Williams felt the same. It must be very difficult.

  17. The Man Who Was

    “I suspect this is more likely when the atheist is living in a traditional, religious society…”

    Our picture of the world largely depends on what some philosophers call “the unity of indirect reference” that is, things that are alluded to in conversation &c, rather than directly asserted.

    One rarely hears anyone say, “Britain is an island,” but there are all sorts of things they do say that assumes it and we unconsciously acquire a good deal of our knowledge of history, geography, law and politics in that way. They are part of our common consciousness and shared experience.

    Thus, Emma’s reflection, “Was it new for any thing in this world to be unequal, inconsistent, incongruous — or for chance and circumstance (as second causes) to direct the human fate?” would have seemed natural to Jane Austen and her readers, but is unintelligible to not a few of our contemporaries, for whom the concept of “second causes” is a novel one.

  18. “What would help would be if we had examples where the smart set was wrong, and not only wrong but more wrong than the common people.”

    The surrealists were communists and they were wrong but they made some great art. So, the muse doesn’t care.

    Dadaists were right but they made/make crummy art. Their work, starting around 1916 was based on emptiness and irony. Duchamp is the god. The new Whitney is like a factory on Mars that makes nothing at all.

    The Greeks tried to unify Dionysus and Apollo. Eventually, at Delphi, the two gods did actually inhabit the same temple.

  19. Should we suspect that Christopher Nolan, Lauren Faust, and whoever’s running Disney these days are secretly plotting to soften up the American public for monarchy? No, that would be absurd, absurd because socially unimaginable. We live in this time, and we know what kind of beliefs it is possible for people to hold, even people of exceptional intelligence and creativity. We’ve been under the hood. We’ve talked to modern people in private, shared their school and media experiences, and we know the bounds of what is thinkable.

    I’m confused by this. You gesture at what we are all supposed to know from our time under the hood without actually coming out and saying what it is. I think, from context, you are implying that we all know that, for the most part, highly intelligent modern people are not, between their ears, racist and sexist.

    I don’t know this. I know the opposite of this. Outside the frankly mentally ill, I don’t believe that there are any highly intelligent non-sexists. It’s interesting to ask why Larry Summers let the mask slip that day at Harvard, but it isn’t at all interesting to ask whether there were any highly intelligent people who genuinely disagreed with him. There were not.

    With race, one has to be a little more circumspect, owing to the racially segregated yet tokenized structure of American social interaction. There are a fair number of highly intelligent whites who, through simple lack of experience, don’t have any idea what blacks are actually like. I believe there are at least a few smart people who believe that this essay, for example, is some kind of hateful racist screed rather than a simple documentary description of reality. So, there are some highly intelligent non-racists (or at least non-racist-against blacks). On the other hand, those people (the specific ones with no experience with real blacks) generally do have experience with east and south asians. So, they are racist against them. Highly intelligent whites who are racist against nobody seem thin on the ground to me. People from the rural Midwest, maybe?

    Once you move away from concrete up-is-downism like anti-racism and anti-sexism to abstract up-is-downism like liberalism or materialism, then what you are saying seems right. Over at Takis magazine one time, I was trying to explain that Breaking Bad was a meditation on sin hardening into vice hardening into wickedness all under the control of the master sin, pride. My interlocutors were not especially impressed, writing this all off to the demands of dramatic tension or whatever. Whether Vince Gilligan was trying to soften us up I don’t know. He is cagey in the few interviews I have read. He was raised Catholic, but gives off an “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the Devil” kind of vibe.

  20. […] Do creative people usually accept the official beliefs of their society? Creative people, like everyone else, generally accept the official “truth” of their […]

  21. @DrBill: I’m somewhat confused with your post.

    Regarding, Sumner, I’m not sure what exactly he said that “let the mask slip” since I read a couple of articles trying to explain his word saying he was sexist.

  22. @GRA Sorry to be opaque. Summers said that one possible explanation for the continued and stubborn underrepresentation of women in science is that there are biological differences between men and women which make women less interested or able in this area. That’s pretty clearly sexist.

  23. I expect most intelligent people do disagree with Summers, because intelligent people have been more thoroughly indoctrinated. I don’t know how smart people make sense of their beliefs. I mean, they believe in natural selection and are familiar with the idea of a division of labor. They know that hormones affect personality, at least that testosterone negatively affects it.

    I get the sense that those who accept today’s beliefs are mentally very constricted–the more intelligent they are, the tighter the constriction. When thinking about sex, apply only political categories: Who is the oppressor? What interests are served by a given claim? Does the claim have a disreputable history? Could women be naturally less interested in science? Of course not, that idea is a tool of the patriarchy!

    You imagine that smart people are secretly not respecting those limits, but I think they are. At least, they’re only conscious enough of thoughts outside the liberal universe to sense when they’re approaching a dangerous question so that they can steer clear of it.

    I would hate to live that way. As a Catholic, there are some propositions I’m obliged to believe, but nothing keeps me from investigating them any way I like. I’m always free to ask how one piece of my mental universe relates to another or how a given fact is described by any of the categories I know. Then again, I must admit that I’m a Catholic of rather weak faith, while smart liberals seem to be very, very certain of their creed. It helps when one can’t imagine any alternatives.

  24. My own suspicion, by the way, is that difference in interests really is the main reason women aren’t a majority in science programs like they are in most other academic fields, that this is a larger effect than differences in intelligence, social expectations, discrimination, and the demands of motherhood.

  25. @DrBill: Okay, now I see where you’re getting. Thanks.

    @Bolland: But wouldn’t the truly intelligent see what’s going on, be suspicious of it and not necessarily agree with “today’s beliefs”? They would question the narrative and probably investigate themselves.

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