I’ve long thought and felt that what the libertarian movement, and the struggle for human freedom more broadly, needs is an artistic and aesthetic movement, to become a force instrumental in creating visions of the human spirit and the human future. So why a libertarian artistic movement? What would a libertarian artistic movement even look like?
The arts are not some frivolity that can be dispensed with as unnecessary; they are the highest and most profound expression of our humanity, a manifestation of the human soul’s most deeply inborn drives. Creativity and beauty are the heart of a life well lived.
Even those who may not be interested in the arts, as either creators or consumers, are at some level aware of this. The arts thus have a large influence over the direction society takes, for good or for ill. For all the good the study of economics does, what is the impact of all that next to something like Ayn Rand’s novels?
Art moves the minds of men in a way that numbers and formal logic do not. Of all the segments of the libertarian movement the Objectivists understand this the best, promoting aesthetics and the arts in a way matched by no other part of the movement. If you look at The Objective Standard a shockingly high amount of its output is devoted to art, aesthetics, and education compared to the average libertarian media outlet or think tank.
Toward an artistic Libertarian
My instinct is that this is the right path both for furthering liberty and bettering society and culture in other ways. This, along with my personal interest in the subjects, is why you see so much art, aesthetics, and education content on the Adamas Nemesis blog, as well as my Mastodon, Twitter, and Instagram feeds.
When you think about it, these areas have been curiously neglected by the libertarian movement, with a few pleasant exceptions. There are good reasons for this; libertarians tend to be a logical, systematizing, and analytical crowd, after all, and such people to some extent are always drawn to movements that promise radical liberation based on principled reason.
Today it’s libertarianism, a century ago it was communism, and a century before that it was classical liberalism. Classical liberalism and communism, interestingly, both had a heavily economic aspect to them, especially before they gained mainstream popularity. This is likely because the sort of people who are ideologically motivated enough to go for such fringe viewpoints don’t also tend to be great artists. You’d have to be exceptional twice over, and such people by definition are rather rare.
Despite these obstacles, libertarians actually do reasonably well in the art world, certainly much better than conservatives. If you ask people in the arts why they don’t vote Republican or are not conservatives, they usually name religion, social authoritarianism, and the dull and uncreative mentality that is endemic to conservative culture as the reasons. None of these objections apply to libertarianism, and indeed libertarians are easier to find in the arts, including sectors such as Hollywood, than they are in the general population, in stark contrast to conservatives.
It is worth noting that conservatism and the Republican Party are a historically middle-class creed and party, and thus reflect the puritanical and censorious middle-class mentality, valuing conformity and security over creativity and flexibility. This mentality has not changed; only the orthodoxy the middle class conforms itself to has changed, shifting over the past century from Christianity and traditional Western values to Wokeness and the inversion of traditional Western values.
The dull conformism remains, though. Similarities between the Christian right and the Woke left in their hysteria, puritanism, hostility to art, and propensity for shaming have been noted, and this is not a coincidence. The arts are often associated with Wokeness, but are they compatible with each other? These fundamentals suggest they are not, which portends a shift away from the arts serving as a pillar of the progressive political coalition. The anti-Woke ideology that would be the most natural fit for the art world would be libertarianism.
Peak Leftism: an Opening for a Libertarian Artistic Movement?
The broader trend for the commanding heights of the culture to shift leftward may well have gone about as far as it can go, as suggested in 2015 by Robert Tracinski in his article “Have We Already Reached Peak Leftism?” . In academia this has been extremely pronounced, with the left wing having attained 95% dominance in many humanities fields. The remaining 5% will take outright force or censorship to remove, and even if they are successfully extirpated the shapes of these fields won’t change much.
The corporate media too have shifted leftward, driven at least in part by the influx of highly-credentialed professional-class people into journalism from the 1970s. Unlike in academia conservatives have balanced this out to a large extent by dominating talk radio; Fox News stands alone as the only large-scale competent television news operation that is right-leaning, which is why it dominates the television news ratings. Libertarians, interestingly, don’t have any such media ecosystem; the biggest libertarian presence on television news is on Fox Business.
Arguably the commanding heights of the culture are academia, the media, and the arts, and of the three the arts stand alone as having largely resisted the leftward trend over the past half century. Yes, the arts are left-wing on the whole, but that’s pretty much always been the case. Hollywood provides an instructive example, being left-wing, but not noticeably more so now than it was 50 years ago.
Why is this? Part of the answer might lie in broader trends relating to social class. In the fascinating 2020 Quillette piece “Slack Wars: Corporate America’s Woke Insurgency”, it was pointed out that a study done by Steven Brint, an organizational sociologist at Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, surveyed the percentage of workers by industry that graduated from a top 39 college.
The results? Prestige academia and prestige media topped the list with over 40 percent of their workers having such a background. Prestige arts has 30 percent, which is lower but still one of the highest figures. Popular media is around 25 percent. The list from top to bottom correlates very closely with the left-to-right lean of the industries. The one glaring exception? Popular arts, with around 10 percent having graduated from such a college. Despite having a lower percentage of such people than the famously right-wing energy industry, it’s still a left-wing field.
Even more peculiar is the fact that successful people in the arts tend to have much less formal education than successful people in other fields. For example, significant numbers of successful actors in Hollywood are high school dropouts. Higher income and less education both predict Republican voting, yet they lean Democrat. There are obviously good reasons why this is the case, but the fundamentals suggest that the artistic and entertainment industries are the most ripe out of the media-academia-art trio to defect from woke orthodoxy.
If the Libertarians were a major party they’d probably already do disproportionately well in settings like Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and that’s without even really trying to make inroads into the artistic and creative industries.
Resisting the Aesthetics of Guilt
As far as promoting libertarian influence in the commanding heights of the culture through a libertarian artistic movement is concerned, the arts are the most promising avenue. The barriers to entry are much lower than they are in academia or the media, and the potential for conversion of existing players in the sector to libertarianism is much greater.
What’s even more important is that there is a hungering for aesthetics that reflect timeless beauty. As part of the cultural elites’ turn away from traditional Western culture, a product of the Crisis of the 20th Century that started with the First World War, they have rejected timeless beauty in favor of its opposite, the Aesthetics of Guilt, a topic I’ve written about previously here and here, and first coined by Heinrich Saint-Germain at the (sadly now inactive) plus-size beauty website The Judgment of Paris.
Very few people actually like it, but they go along with it because it’s fashionable or because high-status people tell them they should like it. As a result they either deceive themselves into following the Aesthetics of Guilt or they reject art altogether, believing it’s not for them.
The Objectivist movement comprehensively rejects these aesthetics, and this is likely a key source of strength for their cause. To the extent there are far-right reactionary artists or aesthetics that are actually popular, it’s because they embrace timeless beauty without apology. Fascism itself succeeded on the basis of aesthetics; Hitler’s regime has been called a “theatrocracy”. Theater, spectacle, staging, role-playing, and propaganda were what the fascist movement was. This was pioneered not by Hitler or Mussolini, but by Gabrielle D’Annunzio. Aesthetics matter.
Along with the Aesthetics of Guilt is the rejection of the soft, sumptuous, curvy beauty we see in women of old paintings and sculptures in favor of a hard, bony, rail-thin figure, the kind of figure any woman or girl can attain if only they torture themselves with enough exercise and deprive their bodies of nourishing food.
This creed is intimately connected to the idea of guilt for merely existing, the idea of original sin that may never be expiated, and the idea that the moral purpose of man is to sacrifice his or her own values for others. This is what Ayn Rand meant by “altruism”, not what even she herself acknowledged as virtuous generosity toward your fellow men, but rather the sinister ethic of self-sacrifice.
What if the libertarian artistic movement spread the word to attractive girls and women that there is a better way than the Aesthetics of Guilt? What if they were converted to a life-affirming aesthetic of timeless beauty? What if they said yes to life, and were ripe for having their consciousnesses raised to saying yes to life in other domains such as their politics?
This is in fact how many people arrive at their ideologies, by getting involved on one pet personal issue and then having their consciousnesses raised by the party they’re in, using analogies to their pet issue to get them to buy in to fighting for other issues as well across the ideology. This is the mechanism that caused German Wisconsinites who wanted their beer gardens and parochial schools to not be closed down to argue forcefully in favor of sound money in the 19th century. Today it is what causes people who want to see immigrants not be pushed around anymore to also fight against racism, sexism, and bigotry more broadly. This year it has caused many who were shocked by the lockdowns to convert to libertarian anarchism.
With magazines such as Teen Vogue promoting Wokeness and leftism, why shouldn’t there be fashion magazines promoting libertarianism? Brands could be built as rallying points for a whole lifestyle with the practice of libertarianism at their political heart. It must be made clear that this is not some attempt at “thick libertarianism”; there is nothing in libertarianism that says one must prefer curvy women over emaciated women. Nevertheless there are an infinitely diverse number of ways to practice libertarianism. Why not promote to the masses visions of life as a libertarian that they’ll actually find attractive?
In particular if a fashion brand could promote timelessly beautiful aesthetics for both men and women, show lifestyles as libertarians young people would actually aspire to emulate, and (ideally subtly) promote Objectivist philosophy and libertarian politics, it could bring in whole masses of people into the movement, or at least make them more receptive.
Breaking the Woke Hegemony
The real value, however, will come by undermining the progressive woke near-monopoly on being high-class, elite, cool, or hip. This monopoly keeps many people in the woke fold who would otherwise be inclined to defect, since they see nowhere else to go that fills their needs for a beautiful and classy aspirational lifestyle and circle of friends.
Given any viable alternative, let alone one that is actually a life-affirming breath of fresh air that tells them they can live freely, the progressive hegemony along with much of their voter base will disappear. It will also help in the struggle against conservatives since a great many of their supporters are only interested in fighting “the left”. An Objectivist movement that looked like it could actually win would probably be much more attractive to these people than the conservative or right-wing populist movements are now.
Think of this libertarian artistic movement project as something like The Objective Standard meets Spiked meets Vogue, in terms of existing media outlets. Mode, the plus-size fashion magazine from 1997 to 2001 that helped to launch the ongoing movement back to timeless beauty and away from the Aesthetics of Guilt, would be a much better example than Vogue.
I name Spiked because the libertarian artistic movement, in order to attract young and creative people and change the world, must be strenuously and exclusively radical in its social and political orientation (not too unlike Spiked), not at all conservative or right-wing. Individualism and liberty must at every turn trump tradition and bigotry.
Traditional lifestyles can and should be promoted heavily, but only as an exercise of individual choice, not an obligation or duty. Their benefits to individual happiness and fulfillment must be at the center of any case made for them. Conservatives usually neglect that a strong case can easily be made for traditional lifestyles without resorting to duty or tradition. The whole reason they became traditional is because most people liked living them.
Libertarian Artistic Movements in all of the Arts
High fashion and beauty is just one of the arts that could use high-quality life-affirming libertarian brands and movements. “High culture” and the classics of Western civilization should receive the same treatment. In particular they should be incorporated into educational efforts within the movement, both for children and otherwise. Cultivating a classical education among those in the movement’s intellectual wing can only do good things for libertarians’ image.
Popular culture should obviously receive the same treatment as well. But since the 20th century ended the entire “pop culture” paradigm seems to be losing its vitality. The days when the masses eagerly consumed artifacts of high culture such as opera, classical music concerts, and high-quality realist representational paintings, long thought to be over, may well return in the future.
A freer and prettier World
Imagine a world where when you looked up many classical composers, choreographers, writers, and actors online their politics were described as libertarian, with their activism employed to promote the cause. Imagine a Libertarian Party where every other candidate was a well-groomed, well-dressed, well-spoken, and attractive ballroom dancer, fashion designer, ballerina, model, classical concert pianist, novelist, poet, opera singer, or some such.
Imagine a world where libertarians define what is classy. That’s the potential of taking the arts seriously, and it begins by cultivating libertarians into becoming artists, and artists into becoming libertarians.
3 Replies to “Toward a Libertarian Artistic Movement”
This is from last year, but you linked to it today as I’m writing this, so I’ll offer some thoughts.
Objectivism gets deeper into the arts than generic libertarianism because it’s a full philosophy. Rand regarded aesthetics as one of the main branches of philosophy and published a book on it. Serious art requires more than just a view on politics. This isn’t to say there can’t be libertarian art, but it has to be more than just political to have any depth.
There’s been a steady stream of libertarian-oriented science fiction ever since Heinlein. It’s always colored by the author’s overall philosophy. With _The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress_, that includes the idea that people can and must adapt to different conditions, and new kinds of social organization are a necessary part of it. There are new kinds of marriage, customs for trade and for handling emergencies, and so on.
Songs can serve all kinds of purposes. They can call for action and point out grievances. They can applaud, mourn, or curse people. They can recount important events, keeping them in the popular memory. The best songs are more than propaganda; they get people to think and create a feeling that lasts. The music and the words contribute to the total effect. Their full intent may not be obvious at first. A song that is well written and well performed can have a lasting impact.
Excellent point. The artistry must come first; mere propaganda is dull.