Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What is "conservatism"?

Classicism as a Liberal Art
David Mayernik

Being countercultural unfortunately can often mean being contrary.

Classical art and architecture today, so counter to the prevailing tenets of modern and most post-modern cultures, naturally gravitate to some form of conservatism as an antidote to the dominant Weltanschauung, which is rooted in the ideal of the avant-garde--the notion that true art is always at the head of the pack, charting new territory, breaking new ground. Within the history of the classical tradition, however, there has typically been a tension between what we might call conservatives and progressives, between those who want to hold onto, even return to, the past, and those who want to use the tools of the past to invent solutions to new problems.

I don't believe it is a bias of mine that the latter group was, at least during the Renaissance, the dominant group, indeed the one that gave us the vast majority of the literary and artistic works cherished ever since. In this they were not radical, but in fact quite mainstream within the broader current of what we now call humanism. Indeed, it was only with the beginning of neo-Classicism in the eighteenth century, and with all of its consequences in the nineteenth century, that real artistic conservatism became a dominant cultural force.

And it was in part that conservatism that engendered the radical reaction of the early modernists (from the Impressionists and Art Nouveau to De Stijl and beyond). The case for a kind of natural conservatism, the inherent dependence on the past of all traditional cultures, never really had to be made before the nineteenth century: indeed, anything else would have been unthinkable, since the only artistic criteria that mattered was being as good--not as different--as possible.

It would seem, then, that to truly be countercultural, to fully recover the dominant, healthy, optimistic character of pre-modern classical architecture, we again need to tap into its liberal side. This would mark a true rejection of modernism, which thrives on the false polarities of the modern/liberal vs. the classical/conservative. In this the culture of humanism provides the firmest foundation.


Anonymous said...


And faith, too, of course.


Anonymous said...


get your own blog, if you think I'm doing it wrong. Shee...