Conservatism and the Conservatory

Future Symphony Institute

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted with gracious permission from National Review, who commissioned the piece through us and originally published it in January 2016.

The observation is often made that political conservatives do not have anything much to say about the arts, either believing, with the libertarians, that in this matter people should be free to do as they please, or else fearing, like the traditionalists, that a policy for the arts will always be captured by the Left and turned into an assault on our inherited values. Of course, there is truth in both those responses; but they are not the whole truth, and in my view one reason for the precarious state of the arts in our public culture today is that conservatives – who often come out near the top in fair elections – have failed to develop a clear cultural policy and to understand why, philosophically, such a policy matters.

There is a kind of conservatism that sees all political questions as reducible to economics, with the free market as the ruling principle and the expansion of consumer choice as the only coherent political program. This way of looking at things can be taken a lot farther than at first sight appears. There is an economic justification, after all, for the traditional two-parent family, which produces well-adjusted children who are able to fend for themselves and make a positive contribution to the economy, and who are unlikely to be lifelong dependents on the welfare state. But is that all, or even the most important thing, to be said in favor of the traditional family? Surely its nature as an arena of peace, well-being, and love is far more important, and if it were ever proved that single-parent families and child labor were economically more productive, this would not be a conclusive argument, or any argument at all, against the old arrangement. The traditional family has an intrinsic as well as an instrumental value, and that is the real reason so many conservatives defend it. They defend it because they have a vision of human fulfillment that goes well beyond the economic, to embrace all those values – moral, spiritual, and personal – that shape human beings as higher than the animals and especially worthy of our protection.

Still, let’s stay with economics for a moment. If a hard-nosed free-marketer asks you what the economic benefit of a symphony orchestra is, how would you answer him? Orchestras depend on donations – but that is okay, he will say, since donations are part of the market economy. But private donations are seldom, if ever, enough. Even if it receives no direct subsidy from the government, the symphony hall will be granted charitable privileges and planning exemptions that violate what Hayek once called the “harsh discipline of the market.” Then, we must look at the long-term economic benefit, and here again matters are not so simple. A city with a symphony hall attracts upwardly mobile new residents. It sets a standard in entertainment and leisure that others might try to live up to; it contributes to a flourishing downtown life of a kind that will attract the middle classes; and so on. Its long-term economic benefit probably vastly outweighs the short-term economic cost, even if no one is in a position to measure it.

But again, all that is irrelevant to the true question, which concerns intrinsic and not instrumental values. The real reason people are conservatives has little or nothing to do with economics, even if they are aware that economic prosperity is a good thing, and necessary for the support of other things that they value. The real reason people are conservatives is that they are attached to the things that they love, and want to preserve them from abuse and decay. They are attached to their family, their friends, their religion, and their immediate environment. They have made a lifelong distinction between the things that nourish and the things that threaten their security and peace of mind.

In my writings I have made a point of emphasizing this. Conservatism, for me, is the philosophy and the politics of attachment. Its starting point is a loved way of life, and the institutions and settlements that have grown from it. Standing against conservatism has been another state of mind altogether, which sometimes masks itself as love, but always love for the ideal, the nonexistent, the “yet to be,” in the cause of which we are invited to pull down and destroy the things that are. Radical politics is merciless toward the actual, especially when the actual enshrines the old way of life, the old institutions, and the old hierarchies that have arisen from our attachments.

Conservatives hold on to things not only because they are attached to them, but also because they do not see the sense in radical change, until someone has told them what it will lead to. You criticize the traditional family? Then tell us about the alternative, and please give us the details: Tell us how children grow up in this new arrangement, how they find security, love, and satisfaction, how they acquire the sense of responsibility, how they live with others, how they reproduce and how they die.

One of the things to which we are attached is our culture: not the everyday culture only, of which the family is, or has been, an integral part, but the high culture, in which the intellectual and artistic treasures of our civilization are enshrined. When you are truly attached to something, it is no longer of merely instrumental value for you. It is not a means but an end, which does not mean that it has no consequences – of course it has – but rather that you are interested in the thing itself, for its own sake, finding fulfilment and joy in it.

To find things to which you can be attached in this way is to find a meaning in life, and the real cause of the destructiveness of radical causes is, I believe, a certain lack of meaning in the lives of those who promote them.

At this point someone will respond that it is scarcely democratic to devote resources to conserving something that is a minority taste, or to teaching things that promote minority interests. As soon as you defend intrinsic values you are exposed to the charge of elitism, and conservatives shy away from attracting this charge, since they know that all the things they most value are unequally distributed, and that it is therefore probably best to shut up about them and just hope that they will be reproduced nevertheless.

This, in my view, is a mistake. We should make the case for the things we love, even if we think that people will misunderstand them. That is why people defend the U.S. Constitution, even though so few really understand the subtle thinking embodied in that document. People defend the Constitution because they love it, and the sight of someone defending what he loves has a softening effect on those who might otherwise oppose him. Opposition retreats a little in the face of sincere conviction.

So here is what I would say about classical music and the institutions that sustain it. For many people music is simply a matter of enjoyment, irrelevant to the greater things in life, and a matter of personal taste with which we cannot argue. John likes hard rock, Mary likes bluegrass, Fred likes hip-hop, Judith likes modern jazz, and so on. Once you enter the realm of classical music, however, you realize that such simple views no longer apply. You are in the presence of a highly learned, highly structured art form, in which human thought, feeling, and posture are explored in elaborate tonal arguments. In learning to play the music of Bach or Beethoven, for example, you are acutely aware that you are being put to the test by the music that you are playing. There is a right and a wrong way to proceed, and the right way involves learning to express, to control, to respond in mature and persuasive ways. You are undergoing an education in emotion, and the skills you learn do not remain confined to your fingers: They penetrate the whole body and brain, to become part of your world.

Moreover, this kind of education is inseparable from the art of judgment. In learning classical music, you are learning to discriminate, to recognize the authentic examples, to distinguish real from fake emotion, and to glimpse both the depths of suffering and the heights of joy of which human beings are capable. Not everyone can excel in this form of education, just as not everyone can be a mathematician, a motor mechanic, or a basketball star.

But the existence of people who are real practitioners of classical music, who can perpetuate this precious repository of emotional knowledge, is just as important to the rest of us as it is to them. They set a standard of dedication and refinement. They create around themselves an aura of seriousness and peace, and the art that they learn is one on which we all depend when it comes to expressing our most solemn and committed emotions.

Also, it is probably a prejudice to think that it is only a minority who are capable of learning and appreciating classical music. Not only are the harmonic achievements of classical music fundamental to hymns, folk songs, musicals, and jazz, but the four-part choir, which we owe to Renaissance polyphony, remains a staple of musical-institution building all across American society. Recently I was asked to give the commencement speech at a charter school in Arizona. The leaving class of 50 students assembled in their gowns to sing their farewell to the school – children of different abilities and backgrounds, who nevertheless all joined in the song, which was a difficult four-part hymn of praise to friendship in the American revivalist tradition.

To my way of thinking, there cannot be a coherent conservatism, either in everyday life or in politics, that does not take high culture seriously. It really matters to the future of our societies that classical music should survive, not as a museum exhibit but as a live tradition of performance and enjoyment, radiating its grace and graciousness across our communities, and providing us all, whether as performers or as listeners, with a sense of the intrinsic value of being here, now, and among our fellows. From that primary experience of togetherness, of which music is not the only but surely the most exhilarating instance, countless other benefits flow, in the form of solidarity, mutual support and responsibility, and the growth of real communities.

Conservatives therefore ought to pay more attention than they do to the survival of musical skills, and to the place of music in the school and university curriculum. They ought to see that the symphony hall, the musical stage, and the instrumental ensemble are all institutions that they should promote, not as optional extras but as the very essence of what they value most, which is human life itself.

About the Author

Roger Scruton is the world's preeminent philosopher in the field of aesthetics. Having graduated with honors from Cambridge, he has subsequently held positions at some of the world's most prestigious institutions including the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, St Andrews, Princeton, and Boston. Roger was called to the Bar after his studies at the Inns of Court in London. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy. Moreover, Roger has been awarded the Czech Republic's Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts to establish an underground university in Czechoslovakia during its last decade of communism. Today he serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. But his principal activity remains what it has been for the last 30 years, which is writing. Roger is an astonishingly prolific writer on a broad range of topics in several genres. His serious academic research has been in the area of aesthetics, with two books – The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Aesthetics of Music – that have made important contributions to their respective fields. In addition Roger has written essays, criticism, autobiography, invocations of country life, novels, and poems. He is deeply devoted to classical music and an accomplished amateur composer. For in case you missed it, somewhere in there he also found time to write two operas and the libretto for a third.
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Discussion

  • Strong pleading for the preservation and education of classical music within the context of modern society. But it also invites for some remarks:

    1)
    Sir Roger gives the impression of classical music, as an art form, being a conservative thing. He suggests a link between political conservatism, of which he has some criticism (it should be more daring in defending ‘elitist’ culture), and the preservation of classical music. But the term ‘conservatism’ is a slippery one, changing its meaning in different contexts. One thing is clear: classical music in itself is not ‘conserving’ anything. We can only speak of ‘conservatism’ in classical music where performers are too lazy to explore the art form’s deeper meaning and restrict their practices to simply repeating works they have routinely mastered, or referring to performers who see their talents and the music merely as vehicles for a career. (Unfortunately the classical music world is rife with such performers, next to the more serious type.) Also we see conservatism where contemporary composers cultivate a narrow-minded postwar avantgardism which they deem valid for eternity, as if history was frozen around 1960. But the nature of the art form is the opposite of this kind of conservatism, it is a very living thing. If political conservatives, or people who express themselves being ‘conservative’, defend classical music, that does not make the art form conservative, but merely is to the credit of conservative people. Equally this applies to people who express themselves as being ‘progressive’, ‘socialist’, or ‘liberal’. Defending classical music is an end in itself, as it is itself also an end in itself as Sir Roger rightly explains.

    2)
    “The real reason people are conservatives is that they are attached to the things that they love, and want to preserve them from abuse and decay. They are attached to their family, their friends, their religion, and their immediate environment. They have made a lifelong distinction between the things that nourish and the things that threaten their security and peace of mind.” These reasons are in themselves not ‘conservative’ at all, but simply the universal needs of the human being right through the many different cultures of the world, and apparant from times immemorial. The problem here is that universal needs are defined in terms of a political perspective. However, people protesting prescriptive or oppressing family structures in an attempt to create space for alternatives, are not criticizing those universal needs, but claim space for different ways to realize them in practice. Given the forms in which these universal needs are always realized in practice are always in the majority, those alternatives are not ‘threatening’ traditional family structures; it appears that it is the lack of understanding the universalism of these needs by people defending ‘traditional family values’ that reinforces the critique on these very values.

    “Conservatives hold on to things not only because they are attached to them, but also because they do not see the sense in radical change, until someone has told them what it will lead to. You criticize the traditional family? Then tell us about the alternative, and please give us the details: Tell us how children grow up in this new arrangement, how they find security, love, and satisfaction, how they acquire the sense of responsibility, how they live with others, how they reproduce and how they die.” Social and cultural structures as they appear in reality – apart from their ideals – are not good or bad in themselves, but depend upon the people who practice them. There are lots of examples of traditional families which are destructive, traumatizing, disabling, as there are lots of examples of singe parent families, or gay couples with adopted children, suffering from similar disaster. The point here is, that such structures all aspire to what Sir Roger himself rightly formulates as fulfilling: “The traditional family has an intrinsic as well as an instrumental value, and that is the real reason so many conservatives defend it. They defend it because they have a vision of human fulfillment that goes well beyond the economic, to embrace all those values – moral, spiritual, and personal – that shape human beings as higher than the animals and especially worthy of our protection.” So, from this description it appears that the ‘traditional family’ is not conservative at all but universal, and what is universal cannot be conservative or progressive. We should not forget that not all people are the same, and not equally suited to create a fulfilling structure as formulated by Sir Roger. This can be compared with the fact that not all people are equally open to enjoy classical music: it is the universal value of both and its universal meaning and their ideals which are an end in themselves and which deserve more than one way of approaching its ideals.

    I was born in a rather bohemian milieu of artists, who improvised along the way to try to create a fulfilling place for family life, which was not easy in the given circumstances, and often rather insecure. Where these people not conservative enough? I have seen well-to-do, active, well-organized and socially-powerful families – who would be considered ‘conservative’ – imploding into neurotic disfunction because the parents tried too hard, ignoring their deficiencies, to conform to the ideals so properly outlined by Sir Roger and the results were devastating, showing how correct many insights of Freud and Jung have been. And I have seen unusual family forms which had to cope with serious material problems but where these problems were compensated for by a ‘warm nest’ of emotional security. I have seen immigrant families struggling with a range of material, cultural, and emotional problems far beyond what average locals are confronted with and still maintaining a centre of emotional security in which the children grow-up healthily and do well in school. And I have seen very traditional families who, in spite of some material problems, easily fell within the description of Sir Roger. What I want to say is, that people from different backgrounds and with different abilities and in different circumstances try to create exactly the environment that Sir Roger describes as best, only in different ways. I don’t see any ‘conservatism’ in the ideals that universal human needs dictate.

    Going from this to classical music, it seems clear to me that painting classical music as a conservative project is not necessary to underline its meaning and importance for modern society, and for the individual civilian. The preservation of a precious cultural tradition is an attempt to keep something that is important, alive, and should not be claimed by a political movement, be it conservative or liberal – the annexation of classical music by the German nazis and the Russian communists in the last century should be a red warning sign against the politicization of the art form, as should be the totalitarian nature of postwar modernism in contemporary music which wanted to destroy tradition in order to create a place for the alternative it advocated. Here, we can again make a comparison: militant feminism, or aggressive gay rights activists, or yellow vests attacking cultural symbols, are distorted results from initially justified critique, as 20C postwar avantgardism grew from dissatisfaction about a much too strict and too narrow definition of tradition. As the central idea of traditional family life is the creation of an emotionally and intellectually fulfilling space, the heart of the cultural tradition of classical music is equally born from the deepest needs of the human being, and these needs change over time without altering its spiritual aim: survival in a strange and often alien and difficult world.

  • This is an interesting article and does set out well the conservative argument for classical music but … I fear it’s avoiding something, either deliberately or as I suspect without realizing it. This sentence is one instance where I think the author is bumping up against something but not going all the way:

    ” … the existence of people who are real practitioners of classical music, who can perpetuate this precious repository of emotional knowledge, is just as important to the rest of us as it is to them. They set a standard of dedication and refinement. They create around themselves an aura of seriousness and peace, and the art that they learn is one on which we all depend when it comes to expressing our most solemn and committed emotions.”

    The author sings the praises of people who play this music, but there always seems to be a reluctance on the part of conservative music lovers to admit that an awful lot of the people who do this music for a living — write and play it — are not often conservative, at least in the US. I hate to put it that bluntly, but it so often turns out that way.

    Classical musicians come from all over the world and are among the most egalitarian performers thanks to the blind audition that is so much a part of that world. It was the installation of the audition screen that caused four open violinist seats to be filled at once with women during an audition with one of the Big Five (I think Cleveland but maybe Boston) in the early part of the 20th century. Women hadn’t suddenly gotten good enough to “make the cut” — they were already good enough, but the screen was needed so that the men making the decisions could tell without their eyes fooling them. One of the jurists complained to the person who had instituted the screens, “You’re going to go down in history as the son of a b*tch who let women into this orchestra!”

    He complained because he was, and would have called himself, a conservative — someone who wanted things to stay the way they were, someone who valued traditions and thought that things were already a meritocracy and that no further mechanisms needed to be put in place to ensure this. Someone who liked it when men and women (and maybe other minorities) stayed in their lanes and likely thought that those lanes were the way they were for a very good reason.

    I’ll come clean if it’s not obvious — I am much more liberal than conservative. And I do understand the value that the classical arts have as foundations of our current culture. I love them. I wouldn’t have devoted so much of my life to playing and writing this music otherwise. But I’m always struck by the conservative arts lovers refusal to admit that most of the people who create and play these works of art nowdays are, at least in the US, not very conservative. If this music exerts such a positive influence over people and causes their minds to improve, then how does a conservative arts fan square that with the fact that most of the people who devote their very lives to it are on the other side of the political fence?

    I know this is a sh*t-stirring question, but most of the good ones are. I’m really not trying to be snotty here. We’ve got enough political slap fights going on at the moment, and I’m not up for another. But I have to ask.

    • Good question. It seems to me that most musicians, working in the field, are not much aware of the meaning of politics apart from the most obvious appearances, and if the deepest values of the art form are universal rather than conservative, we will find adherence to these values with all kinds of musicians across the spectrum. Also, classical music as a genre seems, in practice, so far removed from the trivial world of politics which fills the news with an unending succession of mishaps and misery, that many musicians consider it as a field of experience, very far removed from such misery. That concert life is, in one way or another, still connected to political processes, is a difficult reality which is then not very inviting to be explored. In other words, the classical music world is often felt to be an ‘island’ of humanity in a sea of unpeasantness, while it can also be seen as a place of healing and inspiration as a preparation for any embarkment on that very sea.

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