Oh, we already had a clear commitment to what often pass for "liberal" causes -- for example, our hometown attempted to pass a gay-rights ordinance, which would have prevented housing discrimination and so forth, and we were there for the debate, even if we had little to say. (So was our boyhood pastor, who had more to say, and who was then as now a profound influence upon us). We read a lot of Shaw in those days, and were pretty much sold on socialism and Wagner, and very nearly on atheism. We frequently spent our lunch hours arguing matters of politics and morality with a devout Mormon, who would later join the Air Force and commit adultery, thus in one heady post-collegiate weekend teaching us everything we have ever needed to know about the the religious right.
But at the same time, we were making a discovery: we liked John Keats more than Dylan Thomas. Both were doomed prodigies, both had enormous (and, in retrospect, somewhat inflated) reputations among the teachers who influenced us. But we liked Keats more. No big deal by itself, except so far as it revealed a pattern. Aristophanes cracked us up, and Sophocles made us really think about the world, while Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett left us cold and unhappy. The Renaissance paintings reproduced in our old Time-Life "Museums of the World" volumes were brilliant and witty and inspiring; occasional glimpses of, say, Jackson Pollock were (and remain) intensely annoying. As for the world of what passed for "music" after Richard Strauss -- seriously, do people listen to Schonberg? On purpose?
So here was out discovery, made somewhere between the ages of 15 and 17: We liked old stuff better than new stuff. And, as we discovered somewhat more slowly, we found the people who liked old stuff a little easier to get on with than the people who liked new stuff. Not that they were more fun to be with -- they generally weren't -- but rather that they seemed a little less likely to be talking nonsense, at least about art. The people who liked old stuff -- aesthetic conservatives -- seemed to have a clearer sense of what was good or bad, and why. In other words, they had values.
This all became much clearer in college. We studied English during the rise of Deconstructionism, and it wasn't pretty. Our English department resisted the worst of it, but still. The idea of the author, much less an historical context, much less a meaning, was in serious danger. (And yes, we fell for all of this; the truth is that we are still a bit edgy about authorial identity). And you might as well forget beauty. So what breath of air could have ben fresher than Charles Pierce (pronounced "Purse"), who ended one class by saying, "I have assigned you two poems on a single subject, written only decades apart -- Goldsmith's Deserted Village, and Tintern Abbey. One of them is a good poem, and the other is not. Go home, read them, and then please explain in writing which one is good, and -- especially -- why."
Now, the sort of conservatism that Mr. Pierce represented -- as did the classmate who spent years analyzing Ingres' oil technique and who has remained our closest college friend -- should not be mistaken for political conservatism. It certainly hasn't worked out that way in practice, although we will argue, given a chance, that this is essentially a problem of semantics, and that our politics are conservative, even traditionalist, in a way that those of the economic neoliberals and foreign policy neoimperialists are not. But it did manifest, especially in our early adulthood, in a certain (if -- ahem -- relative) seriousness about matters of morality and personal accountability. There was a connection of some sort between our aesthetic values and our moral ones.
And we believe, although this is hard to work out in detail, that this same connection extends to our liturgical and ecclesiological vision, what in Lutheran terms is quaintly called "evangelical catholicism" (as though there were any other kind). One doesn't want to overstate the case; Pietism takes its morality seriously as a rule, despite the numerous exceptions which we bite our tongue charitably rather than describe. It is certainly not true, or not entirely true, that good art makes people good, nor that good people make good art. One wishes it were, but it isn't. Nor is "good art" necessarily backward-looking, whatever one's own preference. Nor, again, is good worship -- define it as you like, but we side with "traditional" -- a necessary indicator of good morals, or of spiritual health in a community. And yet these things are not unrelated.
All of which is why, despite our usual misgivings about City Journal, which never seems quite as serious as it means to be, we can't help but nod along with Roger Scruton's essay, linked above. The first half, at least, as he reminds us of why Clement Greenberg was an agent of Satan. In the second half, as he warms to his theme -- "art since 1750 seeks to desecrate the sacred, and target life rather than celebrate it" -- his brush strokes grow far too wide. In particular, he fails to take seriously the attempt of Anglo-European writers to grapple seriously with the Enlightenment as a challenge to traditional values, and to find at least some of those values in nature, and in the nature of human society, even if they had trouble finding them in God. Matthew Arnold, anybody?