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?
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