Cultured Conservatism: Why Aesthetics Is at Least as Important as Politics

The American Conservative, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Cultured Conservatism: Why Aesthetics Is at Least as Important as Politics


In the literary journal Image: Art, Faith, Mystery, Gregory Wolfe presents the essays, poems, criticism, paintings, and photographs of a wide variety of religiously informed writers and artists--too wide a variety, for many conservatives. Annie Dillard, Denis Donoghue, Ron Hansen, Mark Helprin, Kathleen Norris, Richard Rodriguez, and Larry Woiwode all sit on the journal's editorial advisory board. Many of his critics, Wolfe admits, would prefer that Image be a "highbrow outpost of the culture wars." But he has determinedly charted an independent course.

Before he started Image with his wife, Suzanne, Wolfe was a child of the conservative movement. He attended Hillsdale College, where he studied under Russell Kirk, and later served as one of Kirk's assistants at Piety Hill. He then migrated to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, where he edited the Intercollegiate Review. He left ISI in 1989 to found Image. But he never turned against the brand of conservatism he imbibed from Kirk; rather, he acted on what he took to be its most important cultural insights.

Jeremy Beer: Image celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. Has its course surprised you?

Gregory Wolfe: The major surprise is that we're still around. When we started, I imagined we might only last a few issues--enough to make footnote 279 on page 400 of some scholar's cultural history of the late 20th century. ("This short-lived literary journal attempted to show that art and faith could still interact powerfully a la Dante and Milton.") At the time of starting Image, I wasn't entirely sure this was still happening. My own education was profoundly influenced by 20th-century writers who grappled with faith, particularly T.S. Eliot and Flannery O'Connor, and I posited that people like that should be continuing to produce material, even in the postmodern era, but I wasn't sure. As it happens, we're sending issue 65 to the printer this week.

Beer: To what extent do you think Image helped create those kinds of writers, if nothing else by providing space?

Wolfe: Part of what we do is to make certain things believable. I came across a throwaway line from a book review by one of the great critics of the 1930s that said, "This book is worthy. It adds to the stock of available reality." The minute that phrase entered my brain, I knew what it was all about. How much reality is available to a culture at any given time? What are the blinders? What is considered possible and not possible? One of the missions of Image is to enlarge the stock of available reality in a way that enables people to say, "Oh! I can do that?" Some people have been willing to come out, to borrow some language, thanks to what Image has done. These things build on each other, and one organization becomes part of a larger movement.

Beer: I like that phrase, "enlarge the stock of available reality." It's related to another phrase--"openness to mystery"--that you've used to describe what you're trying to create. You've talked about how reason, imagination, and faith have to be integrated for us to achieve that kind of openness. What are the main factors that you see in American life today that keep that from occurring?

Wolfe: My education in this area was profoundly influenced by my mentor at Hillsdale College, Russell Kirk. He argued that two forces were diametrically opposed: ideology and imagination. The ideologue is somebody who has a closed system of abstract certainties about the world that results in pride and a loss of connection to reality. So the ideologue has to impose his vision on the world more by violence than by persuasion.

Imagination is an awareness of reality outside of ourselves and our limited natures, the difficulty of being able to comprehend not only the mysteries of the universe, but even the full ramifications of political and social action. Imagination cultivates a sense of our contingent nature as human beings and seeks humility before that mystery--that is what I understood Kirk to be saying was the conservative virtue. …

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