Adam Ellwanger and Lomez discuss the future of Art & Literature on the Right
Shortly after Joe Biden was installed as President, I had a discussion with Lomez about the health of the American regime. One year later the situation is worse than many even thought possible but Lomez himself has had a very productive twelve months, successfully launching the Passage Prize literary contest. With the hardbound anthology now being sent out, it seemed a good time to reach out and catch up. In the following conversation, we discuss aesthetics and politics, his current plans, and the future of dissident art and literature.
— Adam Ellwanger
Adam Ellwanger: Lomez, just to set the stage for readers, I wrote an essay earlier this summer that criticized the apparently contradictory aims of the work being produced by the online Right. You had a variety of reservations about my argument, notably with respect to my assumption that there should be some larger political or social telos or ultimate goal that this sphere should aim to achieve. What is your view on this question today?
Lomez: Yes, thank you. I certainly do have objections to your essay and will get to them shortly. But first, let me say that while I disagree with your arguments, and even disagree vehemently, it is healthy and necessary that discussions of this kind can take place. What is happening in these spaces in terms of art and culture is in its nascent stages. Some of it will inevitably be clumsy, confused, misdirected, even bad. There will of course be criticism leveled against these efforts, most of which can be safely ignored, but when the criticism is motivated by shared goals we should consider it seriously and attempt to engage with it.
As to whether there should be some explicit aim for what we’re doing, it is true that historically artistic movements have sometimes involved manifestos that set out their programs. Probably the most obvious example is Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. It is a beautiful piece of writing, an artistic production in its own right that announces the thematic and aesthetic beliefs that would come to animate Futurism in subsequent years. But there are other artistic movements, Expressionism for example, that arose in this same period of cultural and political tumult, but never defined itself in these terms. Instead, certain artists began to organically gravitate toward a particular style and way of seeing the world. Only in hindsight did their work coalesce into this thing we call Expressionism. This is not a judgment on the relative merits of Expressionism versus Futurism, but an illustration that aesthetics and stylistic orientation don’t need to be explicitly articulated to create aesthetic cohesion.
I want a new culture to flourish on the basis of a set of biological facts and spiritual intuitions about the world, but I remain agnostic on how those facts and intuitions will manifest in art, what traditions they will draw from or what new modes of expression they’ll inspire. And I don’t think anyone can say how this creative energy we are all perceiving will ultimately express itself. I find this landscape of possibility endlessly exciting. We are stepping into new terrain here. The trail ends where we stand.
Adam Ellwanger: Plainly no single person is in a position to dictate the terms of the transformation that is now fomenting. But there are people – I would include you among them – who have some power to influence the course of that transformation. With that in mind, what kind of tactics do you see the Passage Prize as employing?
Lomez: Creating good art and culture is a messier and less explicitly motivated process than directing a political movement. Personally I’m not trying to direct or lead anything. I’m not sure I have the vision for that. I’m trying to facilitate what I think is a productive way for the right paths to be discovered. That’s my modest contribution. The Passage Prize, with its various judges with their own tastes and preferences, was meant to draw from a variety of perspectives that in the aggregate represent something like a menu from which readers and artists and writers might draw. What makes it cohesive is a shared dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture, and a loose constellation of metaphysical impulses. This is a self-selecting population of people similarly oriented not so much by ideology, but other stuff. Biological and spiritual stuff. So, I guess these are tactics. Who I asked to judge was a calculated decision, but determined as much by interpersonal relationships as much as anything else.
Adam Ellwanger: Your answer implies a distinction between art and politics. Is there one?
Lomez: Yes, art and politics are distinct. I take that to be self-evident. They are informed by one another, as all human endeavors are, but very obviously motivated by different concerns, emphasizing different aspects of human experience, and intended to achieve different outcomes. To the extent that what we’re doing, or what I’m doing, is political, it’s that I am hoping to encourage and promote artists who themselves might be right-wing, even extremely so, and if what these artists and writers produce are coded as right-wing values, right-wing causes, and right-wing interests… well, then so be it. This project might have such a political effect, and if it does that would be great. Either way, what I am really after are the stories and images that are needed to re-enchant our world, to wrest it from the narratives and images that are promoted by the bugmen, and give people the creative vocabulary to imagine a better alternative.
Adam Ellwanger: Many frogs, responding to my essay, voiced a general criticism that it was too theoretical. But I believe that theoretical thinking on history, philosophy, and politics has an important role in fomenting a cultural transformation. Are there good reasons to distrust theoreticians and scholarly analysis?
Lomez: I do not detect quite the same allergy to theory in this sphere as you do. The dissident Right has no shortage of theorycels, from Yarvin to BAP and on down. This is a theorycel paradise. So that accusation is not quite right. What I think happened is that the particular theory articulated in your article simply did not provide much insight into its subject, if I can be blunt about it. But yes, I’ll admit that part of the negative reaction might be that many operating in this space, myself included, are tired of theory. We are oversaturated with it. And what is needed now is less of that kind of thinking and wordcelling, and a bit more action and creation motivated instead by intuition and instinct, which, it must be noted, are informed by the theory that has preceded these actions.
Adam Ellwanger: OK. Well, if not explicitly political, what is the utility or point of a dissident cultural project?
Lomez: There are a lot of ways to think about this, but one answer is to give self-identifying right-wingers a place to ply their trade. Legacy institutions are almost totally closed off to anyone to the right of 2008-era Barack Obama. Anyone with more abrasive rightist politics than that, even if those politics were only implicit in his work… forget it. So, one thing we can do is give such people a platform. We can provide an alternative cultural ecosystem where they can be open about their beliefs. And this, in turn – high-status artists and creators of various kinds being public about their political beliefs – creates what the bugmen call a “permission structure” for other people who share those beliefs to be more open and public in articulating them.
A second answer is to provide the images and stories we need to define ourselves in positive terms. A problem now is that the stories and images available to us are monopolized by people who hate us, who want to stuff us in pods, feed us bugslop, rob us of our cultural inheritance, and reduce us to NPCs who will “own nothing and be happy,” and the stories and images they broadcast are designed to induce that outcome. These are stories and images that demoralize and belittle their audience, stories and images that justify our disinheritance on moral grounds, and invert our native impulses for what is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what is holy and what is profane. So we are providing an alternative to this. We want people to aspire to a positive vision of life, one that honors the human spirit, one that is not afraid or small or degraded or constrained by petty moralism.
Adam Ellwanger: I agree with the importance of “people being public about their political beliefs” and “open” about them. Nonetheless, you and many others in the dissident art orbit do your work anonymously. Can one enact this open publicity about their views if one remains anonymous, or pseudonymous? Is “anonitude” a temporary strategy until the “permission structure” or Overton window is widened enough that the risks inherent in speaking in your own name are mitigated? Personally, one thing I like about anons is that they disqualify themselves from public recognition in the normie world. This is admirable, because it shows they aren’t “climbers” looking to earn the rewards of popular recognition. I am tempted to say that it keeps them “honest,” but that’s not really right, because anonymity also gives people license to traffic in hyperbole and misdirection, which is not to say that those strategies can’t have critical utility, but it’s not the same thing. Can you talk more about the role of anonymity as it relates to this imperative to “be public about one’s political beliefs”?
Lomez: Anonymity has a few different functions as I see it. The first is practical. To say things honestly, in an unvarnished way that does not obfuscate or tip-toe around the various taboos imposed on us by the prevailing moral regime, is much too costly for most people. There are certain beliefs that simply cannot be said without forfeiting your career. Anonymity allows for those things to be said. That’s one advantage.
There is also a second element: there is a kind of interior freedom that comes with being an anon that is nearly impossible to achieve for those whom we anons affectionately refer to as “facephags.” There is a downside to this freedom, as you point out. You say that it leads to hyperbole and misdirection. Perhaps true. Curtis Yarvin, who previously wrote anonymously as Mencius Moldbug, and so has seen both sides of this issue, has said that anons are “playing tennis without a net.” There is perhaps a lack of rigor or discipline to anon discourse (though I’m not entirely convinced that straight discourse is any less prone to these criticisms leveled at anons). In any case, I am willing to accept that argument.
So what is gained? What is the nature of this interior freedom? The cost of porting our lives to the internet is the permanent and uneditable trail of personhood that we leave behind us. In other words, we have lost the right to self-invention. And I don’t mean here making up false facts about yourself, but a softer, less intentional kind of self-invention, that we are meant to experience as we age and move from one phase of life to another. What we have lost is the ability to author our lives. Anonymity can be an antidote to this problem. It displaces the digital record.
Adam Ellwanger: Do the capacities of anonymously-produced art differ in any meaningful way from those of “nonymous” art?
Lomez: I think anonymous art has a different effect on the audience. I do not mean to get too deep into the weeds on questions of authorial identity and how that influences interpretation of the work, but with anonymity we can mostly throw all of that away. We don’t know these people’s bios. We don’t know facts about their personal life, not really. And so we are free to confront the work on its own terms.
Adam Ellwanger: Dissident artwork can (and will) be coopted by the prevailing regime as a validation of all their worst characterizations of the opposition. In that sense, the mere existence of dissident art serves to legitimize the existing power structure: only they can protect us from the barbarians at the gates, they argue. We need them. It is true that anonymity (temporarily?) prevents them from locating the people and nexuses that produce this art, but this anonymity can also also be deployed as evidence of the nefarious nature of the opposition. It also gives the impression that threats to the existing power structure are everywhere and nowhere, which amplifies the paranoia of the regime. Is this a concern of yours?
Lomez: I think if our work is done well, it won’t be co-opted by the prevailing regime. They won’t know what to do with it. A successful artistic revival won’t own the libs so much as it will confound them. The court mandarins will certainly do the old “point and sputter” routine and try to cast this work as evidence of a coming fascist takeover or whatever but that is not really a concern of mine. Owning the libs is a great sport. But that is not my primary aim. I do not hope to convert them. I do not hope to pacify them. And I certainly do not seek their approval.
Adam Ellwanger: Why is contemporary “mainstream” or popular art so bad? I mean two things here: first, what makes it bad, or weak, or insipid; and second, why is it this way and to what end?
I remember reading a Marxist critic many years ago who suggested that art in capitalist societies functions as anaesthetic rather than aesthetic. That is, the proper function of art should be to sensitize people to the world – heightening their awareness to the sounds and sights and ambiance of the spaces they inhabit – but the purpose of capitalist art is to desensitize people, and numb us to the alienation and the barrenness of culture.
I am reminded of this when people talk about cinema as a way to achieve an “escape.” In the wake of 9/11 it was particularly common to talk about going to the movies in this way. This was one of the big selling points of Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman film in 2002.
Lomez: The question of why contemporary art, or contemporary culture broadly is bad, is a hard one to answer. What is so bad about contemporary art? Well, it is boring for one thing. That is its chief sin. And the reason it is boring is because, by and large, our culture isn’t producing anything new. We are stuck. I won’t bother critiquing the Marvel/Disneyification of middle-brow culture, since that is self-evidently bland and uninventive. But also high-brow art – what gets passed around in MFA programs or presented in prestige films and novels, tends to indulge dysfunction and intellectual vanity and is very bland. People are desperate for a new culture primarily because they are bored by what we have now. They want something new.
How did we get here? There are many plausible explanations. I am partial to T.S. Eliot’s thoughts about this. In Notes Towards a Definition of Culture he argues that to even talk of a high-brow culture is an anachronism. It doesn’t exist anymore. The drive toward equality, the democratization of all things, the annihilation of hierarchies (or anyway, the superficial attempt to do so – think of our most wealthy private citizens like Bill Gates in his jeans and goofy sneakers LARPing as an ordinary peasant), this all destroys high-art, or even the possibility of its existence. There’s no conceptual space for it to exist. Would-be high art is brought low to serve the everyman, rather than set apart, and placed above him, as something to aspire to.
That said, I remain agnostic on the “why” question. We could talk about the effect of digital tech and what that does to artistic invention and consumption, or our generally sclerotic society, or the effects of globo-homogenization, or the leveling of distinct cultures and folkways, or the sterility of bugman epistemology, and on and on. In the end, it’s probably a little bit of all these things.
Adam Ellwanger: The work that masquerades as “high art” is mostly produced by people who have received formal training in an institutional context. The Passage Prize appeals to many artists who have not been shaped by an MA/MFA curriculum or formal training – outsiders. Today, probably the best thing a developing artist can do is avoid the university. But they still need time, space, and resources to learn their craft. In earlier times, this was achieved through a system of patronage, which is now almost completely dead. Can that tradition be revived?
Lomez: Yes, I think private patronage is the right path. There is a great piece in the IM-1776 print issue by Lola Salem about this very thing. She makes the point that institutional patronage networks – university MFA programs, for example – are entirely captured by the Left, which opens up a huge opportunity for the Right to vacuum up all of the talent these institutions are neglecting. Doing this effectively will take some experimentation. I think we should start small. We can begin to experiment with ateliers and collectives and more direct one-to-one donor-to-creator relationships based on affinities and mutual interests negotiated between individuals.
And yes, I hope Passage can play some role in that. The contest is, of course, one way of distributing money along these lines, but I can imagine a more ambitious attempt to fill this niche. There are many extra-institutional efforts like this around the country, but most have explicit lefty messaging and mission statements. Still, there’s absolutely no reason why the Right can’t do this. You need a physical building and maybe a couple hundred thousand for the initial endowment, and after that you pay for the operating expenses through donations or maybe set-up a bookstore in the front room, or whatever. It’s not complicated, it just requires a bit of imagination and a willingness for the right-wing donor network to cut these kinds of checks.