Among contemporary conservative politics and philosophy, there is a clear lack of consensus on what is and should be the main concern of conservatism: is it to preserve liberty, as Frank Meyer said, or should it be to preserve a certain order and way of life, as Gabriel Kolko proposed?
The truth is that the primary object of those who wish to restore society, to paraphrase Richard M. Weaver, is the “demassing of the masses”. Here, the role of aesthetics is paramount. We like to say the right of beauty is ‘metaphysical’ because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness. This is because aesthetics isn’t like other areas of philosophy, hence often being, indeed, one of the most overlooked. And yet uniforms, paintings, architecture, symbols, flags, colors… they can be used as a powerful driving force for politics — as beauty, explicitly or implicitly shown, is always part of the perception of the reality and dynamics of power. And the quest to achieve power is one the conservative-right, today, admittedly, is losing. Could it be because it isn’t making proper use of aesthetics?
Among the genuine conservative and other analogous schools of thought on the right, few thinkers have been as intense in their study of aesthetics as Sir Roger Scruton was, whose work very often delved into the idea of conservatism as an aesthetic experience of the self and of the world, and on how politics should be used to preserve the beauty of ages past. In a sense, however, Scruton’s approach was not meant to be applied, but to be observed as a rule of good government with an ethical obligation to be inspired by Tradition to maintain the beauty of long-lasting institutions proven functional by history.
Yet, despite the great man’s contribution, aesthetics has not been the strongest suit of modern-day conservatives, who in a world focused on the destruction of material beauty as their representation of spiritual decay, are (arguably) nothing but delayed progressives.
The brown scare has been deeply influential in the contemporary Right’s disconnect from the arts and their political meaning. It was by assimilating a particular aesthetic idea promoted by the national variants of Fascism in the ’30s into a representation of all of the symbolic elements of a wider rightist movement, that conservatives surrendered both the study and the practice of aesthetics to the disperse left, which then used them to promote the cultural changes that sparked the identity conflicts we are suffering today. Ideally, philosophers focused on matters of ethics and aesthetics would be the ones ruling our civilization, but since the processes of secularization have separated all spiritual things from politics, a wave of materialistic rationalism and constructivism has taken over and built a society with little to no educated perspective on the political meaning of beauty.
But aesthetics still has a place in secular politics, as it guides the remnants of the Western Christian political theology into higher ends (at least symbolically). As Curtis Yarvin observes in a relatively recent essay for American Mind where he mentions the deep relation art has with revolutionary movements, from artistic ones and schools, to the very metapolitics exposed by the aesthetic adopted by a political party, the symbols and banners it flies, and the monuments it builds once it gets to power — one can observe how art shaped politics. Romanticism promoted the ideas of classical liberalism and the Enlightenment, realism promoted those of revolutionary socialism, futurism those of Fascism. The origins of comic books during World War II, or caricatures to ridicule political leaders both in the years leading to the uprisings of 1848, used the arts for propaganda purposes.
Since the 17th century, the arts have been used as a means to convince both leaders and the masses of adopting and then implementing views of society. A modern example would be the way artistic schools present the current world and its social issues, who are later then taken as truths by political actors and then framed as policies to be promoted.
Liberalism, in fact, transformed aesthetic needs into consumer products by commodification; socialism then transformed those needs into luxuries by scarcity, and fascism then reinvented them into government programs by making the State use them as propaganda. This shows that, in modernity, arts first are economic goods then sold to be used as political tools. They’re never meant for what they should be: which is beauty and transcendence.
This metapolitical understanding of aesthetics was the practical basis of various movements (none of which were liberal nor conservative). The most known of them all, was Antonio Gramsci’s attempt at promoting Marxism as a cultural movement instead of a political one, so institutions could be captured from the inside. Gramsci understood that the Marxist subversion of the culture was meant to twist the aesthetic perception of both individuals and communities so they couldn’t realize the power dialectics of class conflict. If there was no organic promotion of beauty, then collectivized beauty could be easily taken as a cause by revolutionary Marxists.
Then, of course, there’s Fascism: from the Roman Imperial undertones in Mussolini’s speeches to the use of the grandiose Altare della Patria in Rome, or that of the yoke and arrows as a distinguishable, standardized symbol by the Spanish Phalanx, all the way to the universally hated swastika, stolen from Hindu traditional art by the German Nazis, wrapped under military-style uniforms and paramilitary formations… the Fascist wave was masterful in the metapolitical use of aesthetics. Far from a simple revolutionary set of movements, they were aiming at symbolizing the living image of an imperial, traditional, glorious revival of the victories of ages past. If this was a deliberate attempt at creating their own symbolism, or just another lesson learned and adapted from the artistic takes made from conservative movements during the Belle Époque, it sure worked for them, going as far as being recognized as part of a Fascist aesthetic even if the elements, in fact, belonged to a traditional imperial European fashion.
The third movement — and perhaps the most successful at rightly understanding and using aesthetics for a conservative political goal — are the ones spawned from Plinio Correa de Oliveira’s work and activism. These two groups, one that formally belongs to the Catholic Church and the other that works as an association of traditionalist laymen, were highly inspired by one of their founder’s books, The Universe as a Cathedral, to create their movement’s aesthetics based on the idea of pulchrum (a term meaning a higher beauty) and using a brighter image of the Middle Ages, from their own churches and headquarters to their very clothing that looks like the robes of crusader soldier-monks. This can be seen a somewhat extreme, but it creates a pattern to be followed by all conservatives, which can be summarized as the adoption of a distinguishable fashion and set of colors and shapes meant to create a particular sensation in the bystander.
The current conservative-right, however, does not really know what to do with aesthetics. For this reason, analogous movements, elsewhere, have created fashions for themselves. Among such, the controversial adoption of vaporwave as part of their identity stands out.
At first sight, vaporwave would have nothing to do with conservatism, neo-reaction, nor traditionalism. But the continued use of ’80s style neon aesthetics, with classical art and synth music by groups who shared a mutual dislike of consumer society and meaninglessness, made the transition from a post-modern critique of itself to a decentralized uniform and distinguishable standard of beauty for the disperse Right to easily adopt and replicate.
It is now fairly common to see in right-wing and social media posts the use of stereotypic and neon distorted colors; some classical art as part of the scenery; low fidelity synth melodies in the background. Some said this aesthetic creates a sense of nostalgia for the ’80s that could be easily capitalized by ideologues and militant movements. Some believed it to be just another internet meme, one that will disappear after a few months of overuse. Yet, by now, the latter is hardly going to be the case, since such uses of vaporwave by neo-reactionaries and other right-wingers have been ongoing for years: the most well-known of all being the vaporwave-inspired hats of 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang (which enjoyed quite the popularity among young right-wingers), and the use of vaporwave intros and background music for NRx YouTubers such as TrueDilTom and Keith Woods.
Given its capacity to gain popularity by the mere nostalgia it evokes, this particular perception of beauty should be adopted universally by all non-conformist conservatives, and maybe even promoted as a visible political banner for future campaigns. It is true that such an aesthetic can be seen as populist. This is understandable, as part of it is. But its capacity to resonate with people rests on the fact that vaporwave represent all that modern traditional conservatives are fighting for: the return to a simpler, nicer, and more prosperous era; the inspiration and admiration by classical political and cultural artifacts, not to mention a good critique of post-modernity, along with desacralization it carries along.
It is disquieting to realize that, in beauty, survives the last battle Conservatism of any kind can fight. The moral solution, after all, is the distribution of small doses of beauty. They can take the form of catchy melodies; memorable images of bright colors and distinguishable shapes where individual perception gives significance to nostalgia over interpretation. Such perception provides a range of elements through which one can send the full message. And it is precisely the abridgment of this perception, for which conservatives must condemn modernity along with progressivism, and restore the Great Tradition to serve its proper function: that of preserving beauty and transcendence.