Fighting Totalitarianism with Beauty

"If we are to withstand the coming totalitarian regime, we will need resources that are not just political but beautiful. We must become reattuned to our past and look to a standard outside ourselves. Reclaiming beauty means acknowledging that there are good things that have come before us. . ."

Originally appeared at: The Imaginative Conservative

When the stock market becomes volatile, people begin to invest in gold and other stable options. Likewise, when the culture is tempted by totalitarianism, it’s time to invest in beautiful things—things like art, music, literature, and tradition. These need to be collected—not streamed. They must be tangible and, if possible, something we can participate in.

Totalitarianism seeks to capture the total populace by way of conquering the total person. By total person I mean everything that makes a person a person: laughing, fighting, singing, marrying, parenting, solving, creating, and worshiping. Totalitarianism conquers a person by limiting his experience of the world and thereby leading him to sneer, backstab, chant, divorce, propagandize, destroy, and mock.

The key method of totalitarianism in its conquest of people is conformity through centralization. It does this in several ways, but generally it does so by narrowing in on one idea such as the means of production or racism or eugenics, and extending that one idea into every area of life. Every act becomes, for example, an act of racism: adopting a black child, owning property, or even learning arithmetic. Or every act is a political act signifying the never-ending struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. This includes anything from buying China-made products from Wal-Mart to writing a novel to traveling for vacation.

Totalitarianism, like cancer, which is the uncontrolled growth of cells in one area of the body, is simple and total. Once the idea reaches the top of major institutions, it becomes only a matter of time before everything that does not fit into the narrative is either censored or destroyed. As I said in the beginning of this essay, we are being tempted by different totalitarianisms on every side, and it won’t be long before one of them is king of the hill. In totalitarian regimes there is no art for art’s sake, only propaganda for the regime’s sake.

The response to COVID-19 has given way to increased centralization in two areas. First, in the government through unprecedented economic relief packages and one-party control of the three branches; second, in major corporations that remained open during the lockdowns as small businesses permanently closed down. Though power is being centralized in these two groups, it is unclear whether they oppose one another or are working toward the same cause. It is undeniable, however, that technologies such as social media and Big Data will be used to push whatever ideology (perhaps closely related ideologies) onto the public. In either case, a radical shifting of values and way of life is in process this very moment.

The key feature of any totalitarian regime is drab sameness—a relentless, monotone orthodoxy that is parroted by its subjects. Therefore, the best defense against such a regime is to recover the arts and widen our experience of the world. Again, these must be things we can find, restore, and create. While our society might boast of a limitless variety of music, T.V. shows, art galleries, and educational programs, all accessible through our fingertips, this variety is nullified by the limited means of access. These varieties of genres and mediums are now largely accessed by digital streaming, making the encounter of beauty one-dimensional. It is like only going out to eat and never having a homemade meal, or never cooking a meal for someone else. People cannot just feast on finished products; they must create products and live through processes. Otherwise, we limit our experience and will be unable to argue against what George Orwell called “NewSpeak” in his novel 1984. Remember? WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Orwell said the goal is not to get people to believe in these contradictions, but to limit people’s experience so much that they will not be able to tell the difference between opposite ideas.

The problem of finding beautiful art is twofold. The first problem is the means of searching. If we seek out beautiful things but our experience of them is funneled through one medium (the computer or smartphone), then we are entering a race with only one leg. The second problem is judging between good art and bad art. Of all the books in the world, which are worth reading? Of all the songs that have been sung, which are worth learning? Personal taste might be the first measure but is by no means the final. There are other criteria for judging art such as technical excellence, truthfulness, respect for the discipline’s traditions, and the artist’s integrity.

There are some art forms where the goal is simple and therefore provides its own criteria for judgement. For example, the goal of comedy is to make an audience laugh. If a comedian can accomplish this goal with regularity, then we can conclude, at the very least, that his jokes are funny. An element of bad art, which can be seen in so many genres today from music to the fine art in museums, is pure self-expression. I meet this most frequently when teaching English. The most common complaint professors at universities have is that students cannot write. They cannot write because they do not write to express ideas but to express themselves. They describe without defining; they shape without form. Pure self-expression is bankrupt when it is not grounded in a form that imitates nature. An artist must not simply paint himself onto the canvas, but capture something outside himself, something of the world or of humanity, and raise it to new life for his viewers.

Given the oppression of totalitarianism and the problems of finding good art, it is more important than ever to reclaim beautiful things. Attending traditional worship services is a good place to start. People have a need for community that not only exists in the present, but is connected with the past—in other words, with something that is generational in scope. Therefore, dust off your parents’ old hymnals, look at the sheet music, and sing. Sit down during the moments of silence and examine your heart according to the law of God and let your conscience search you. For the first step in the search for beauty is to look to a standard outside yourself. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, for there are beautiful things that our eyes are unworthy to behold. Our eyes must be trained to see beautiful things. Reclaiming beauty means acknowledging that there are good things that have come before us.

Now is the time to find beautiful things and preserve them. C.S. Lewis once said that art has no survival value, but rather gives value to surviving. If we are to withstand the coming totalitarian regime, we will need resources that are not just political but beautiful.

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