A movement to where?
What, if anything, is “right-wing” art?
Much ink has been spilt on the relationship between contemporary art and progressive politics. Art, we are told, is the engine of change. In art schools, the ideological descendants of art’s 1968 activist moment teach future artists that art must be activism. The people who decide what hangs in our museums and galleries poll more liberal than any other occupational group. In the art press, good art is left-wing art, and left-wing art is good art. If we believe art’s PR, today’s creative practices are radical champions of the political underdog that would build the world from scratch.
Where, then, is right-wing art? The very question rings false because in contemporary art’s critical vocabulary “right-wing” immediately conjures “far-right”, and that is as good as “fascist”. How about “conservative art” then? That too is confusing because art that finds success in the market is often labelled conservative as a euphemism for “sell-out”. Is there a way to make art against the art world’s progressivist agenda without falling into its semantic trap?
Many artists profess conservative politics, and this group isn’t limited to that one time Tracey Emin admitted to voting Tory. Some of their art is traditionalist, some at the vanguard of what it means for art to be contemporary. A lot of it is deeply political, often despite itself. What unites right-wing artists is their outsider status, though. The alt-right aesthetics of online forums like 4Chan, for example, is so alien to the art world that some critics have called Steve Bannon the right’s greatest artist. Some reactionaries adopt outsideness as a strategy: the now-defunct Apostate Gallery, which hosted pseudonymous artists with monikers, borrowed from the neoreactionary philosopher Nick Land. The Facebook HQ shooter Nasim Aghdam tried to refine the aesthetic wisdom of online crowds into a politics of heresy.
Traditionalist reactionary art garners little critical interest
What of artists who don’t count outrage in their toolkits? Traditionalist reactionary art garners little critical interest. This is strange because its ideas should be far easier to parse for those trained in aesthetics than the experiments of online edgelords. Collections of work by the Canadian self-styled gonzo philosopher and “Frog Twitter artist” Gio Pennacchietti, for example, greet audiences with promises of “acrylic, watercolour, and tradition” and reflect on “spirituality, ecology, and politics”. Indeed, Pennacchietti’s output includes linocuts of the sacred heart, portraits of monks rendered in acrylic and … pen sketches of Donald Trump in court. Stylistically, little separates this work from that of the Sunday painters who supply seaside galleries. Looking at Pennacchietti’s other cultural productions, however, it becomes clear that the art is only a minor component in a broader content production strategy that includes podcasting, writing and endless hot takes. This aesthetics works for the kind of politicised audience that Pennacchietti cultivates on Patreon and Substack, and he is not without cultural influence. Should one, therefore, worry about his art as art?
Members of a group elliptically referring to itself as “the movement”, who came together to stage an equally obscurely titled show The Exhibition in London this month, gave themselves no such excuses. The manifesto that accompanied the work proclaimed a “hunger for true beauty, aesthetic strength, and vital expressions” and opposition to the creation-stifling “petty ideology” of the contemporary art world. These are laudable ambitions indeed, and ones that the group’s best-known member and Critic contributor Alexander Adams has made no secret of espousing in his earlier work.
They may be on to something: words like “beauty” have been taboo in the art world ever since the social theorist Theodore Adorno proclaimed in 1949 that writing poetry after the Holocaust was barbaric. There are good reasons today, not all of them political, to fit “Make Art Beautiful Again” on a hat. Judging by the works, the movement believes that the best place to find an “aesthetics that embodies values” was 1880: The Exhibition’s uniting theme was its anachronism. Matthew Fall Mckenzie’s canvases carry a heavy influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. Vladan Pejanovic roots his ideas in the Baroque. Even Adams, whose portraiture occasionally strays away from realism and tradition, presented architectural oils that would gain the approval of Twitter’s Culture Critic, an account that posts photographs of urban scenes from 1900 whilst forever asking where we have gone wrong. The Scottish sculptor Fen de Villiers’s dynamic bronze and plaster forms, which evoke the 1930s Art Deco designs of train engines straight out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, are the most modern (and, indeed, Modern) of the lot. Where does this leave us in 2023?
There is a public for this kind of work who don’t mind that Fall Mckenzie’s pastoral landscapes weren’t made by their 19th century artistic forebear. For the traditionalist artist, however, the question of art’s role in shaping today’s aesthetic imaginary is vexing. Is the artist’s aim to expand and renew (if that’s not too progressive a word) the canon so that it continues to affirm its values today? Or is it to create simulacra of canonical works that were often convention-breaking at the time of their creation, in the hope that this anachronism re-establishes the convention?
The incompatibility of these ideas is visible in the popular Twitter practice of advocating for “RETVRN”, spelt with a V as though in the Roman Empire’s alphabet, by which online conservatives signal their nostalgia for a culture they have only a received idea of. It would be naïve to pretend that the stylistic choices made in The Exhibition by the artist Ferro, in his Arts and Crafts-inspired textile designs, can be separated from the hundred years of art history’s work of rewriting the history of Arts and Crafts.
Just like the art world mainstream, they risk sacrificing aesthetics to politics
That history hasn’t made it impossible for today’s art to speak to the values of “heroism, bravery, nobility, and vigour” that the movement’s manifesto sets forth. The London sculptor Nick Hornby, unaffiliated with The Exhibition, only this month inaugurated two major public sculptures, one of which portrays … a man on a horse, sword stretched out ready for battle. Isn’t this the kind of past the RETVRN crowd claims has been completely obliterated in the present? The reason that Hornby can confidently engage with both the politics and aesthetics of these gestures is that he is in full command of his medium and has critically examined the history of its application. The latter is not an aspect of traditionalism that all the movement’s artists would agree with. Just like in the ideologically driven art world mainstream, they risk sacrificing aesthetics to politics. To do all this, just to show up the “contemporary” of contemporary art as an ideological construct, seems like a pyrrhic victory.
The problem with outsider status is that it can be confused with amateurishness. In their manifesto, the movement promises greater things to come. For now, their strategy of positioning the show as a salon des refuses wasn’t entirely unproductive: Curtis Yarvin, the neo-reactionary American blogger better known as Mencius Moldbug was spotted at the opening. Could this mark the beginning of Frizrovia’s Dimes Square moment, turning a patch of central London into the stomping ground of trad Catholics and radical podcasters? Perhaps, but The Exhibition’s gallery neighbours a hardcore gay sex club, and nobody seemed to recognise Yarvin when he arrived. Perhaps his techno-monarchist ideas are too invested in the 21st century for the crowd’s liking.
Conservative art suffers from the same paralysis that plagues liberal art production: every aesthetic expression must contend with the ideological reality that created it. Here, right-wing art shares the dilemmas of conservative politics at large. Should art be morally proscriptive or amplify the values of the already conservative art market? Should its ambition be to recover the past, stop the clock or shape the future? Artists wanting to bypass this stalemate may want to look to the mainstream liberal art world’s resentful fascination with neo-reactionary and alt-right online aesthetics for clues on which ideas have the potential to truly grip audiences today.
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