High Risk, High Reward: The Reactionary Temperament in the Arts
Under electric lights, seated men watch the dealer turn over playing cards on the green baize. Glasses of whisky and brandy are at their elbows, chips stacked high or low, a thin veil of cigar smoke just above bowed heads…
Last month I read stories by Knut Hamsun on men ruined by gambling. Hamsun was a big gambler, spending his royalties from his novels Hunger, Mysteries and Pan in Danish casinos. Despite his literary fame and financial success, Hamsun’s gambling fever put his marriage at risk and threatened him with bankruptcy. This led me to an idea about risk, temperament, and vanguardism, specifically in relation to reactionary creators.
We should distinguish conservatives from reactionaries. Temperamentally, conservatives are aligned with liberals and socialists. They are risk averse. Conservatives value continuity, stability and predictability: anti-risk qualities. Together with socialists, they value conformity and group cohesion. They prioritize the socialization of risk and cost – conservatives through family and local community, socialists through the welfare state.
These people are far removed from the risk-taking, disagreeable, headstrong loners of the archetypes of the pioneer, explorer, prospector, athlete and warrior. In the early twentieth century, these kinds of men saw themselves as Nietzschean Übermenschen, who separated themselves from the received morality of the herd in a quest for truth. They visited unknown places and climbed unconquered peaks at great hazard to themselves, not knowing if what they attempted was even possible.
As the mechanical age of exploration arrived and the whole world was either colonized or organized into nation-states, these ventures came to an end – except in the arts, where there were still formal, material, conceptual, and moral barriers that could be overcomed. It took promethean heroes to break free of salesrooms and academy ateliers in order to flatten the pictorial plane, abolish figuration, depict the unspeakable and advocate the unthinkable. If you failed, you would be classed insane or (even worse) unprofessional, dying impoverished and unknown. Yet the rewards were immense.
Consider Picasso. An academically proficient painter who became associated with mild modernism in Madrid and Barcelona, Picasso then moved to Paris, where intense personal rivalry with more ambitious vanguardists lead him to develop Cubism. His appetite supercharged the breaking of a path of innovation. Not for nothing did he compare himself and his colleague Georges Braque to two mountaineers, tied together while scaling an unclimbed summit. In his early years, he risked everything because he knew he could forge a path no other man could.
Picasso was a loyal member of the French Communist Party, but I cannot believe that either he or Ernest Hemingway – both of whom had seen death in the bullring – ever properly squared that raw reality with the political formulations of socialism and communism. Hemingway and Picasso shied away from the political implications of their insights into the tragic vision of man’s nature.
The painter Francis Bacon was another example. Bacon was notoriously a big risk-taker, a heavy drinker and profligate with money. He was reckless in sex and his relationships cost him work. His lover Peter Lacy destroyed valuable Bacon paintings in alcohol-fuelled rages. Bacon was also a gambler, both winning and losing vast fortunes at the roulette wheel. After running underground gambling evenings in Blitz-era London – gambling on multiple levels, you might say – Bacon left for Monte Carlo to spend the late 1940s living from gambling rather than painting.
In his painting, Bacon often courted failure. He ruined great pictures by overworking them in search of a more intense, extraordinary outcome. He impetuously destroyed paintings he thought failures, only to later regret it. Bacon was gambling in the studio as much as he did in any casino.
Thomas Sowell has written of high rewards accrued by early adopters and vanguard figures and their unique psychological qualities. Pioneers of new movements are adventurous, independent, free-thinking, disagreeable and asocial. Most importantly, they are intense and committed. They stake everything. This is the epitome of the vanguardist as risk-taker, gambler, hunter, ground-breaker.
These loners are usually not collegial. They don’t make good leaders because they don’t obey rules. Then as soon as rewards are won by the small group of vanguardists, figures of lesser quality arrive in their wake: careerists and followers, exploiting opportunities rather than being committed to visions. They form a cadre of second-wave patrons, commentators, organizers, dealers, publishers, and critics, who disseminate the counter-elite’s ideas and values of the new elite group.
What distinguishes the vanguard from the followers is risk-taking temperament and behavior. Risk-takers are natural individualists. They understand the tragic vision of man bound to primitive drives which can never be overcome and which must be respected. Risk-takers are compelled to go into unmapped territory because it is unmapped.
José Ortega y Gasset’s 1925 essay “The Dehumanization of Art” decried Modernist detachment from the values of the past. He was sanguine about elitism – art on a sociological level was, as Gasset noted, a means for a distinct class of individuals to recognize their shared minority status – but he regretted the revolt against reality and the narrowing of the scope of art. Modernism (Cubism, Futurism) went beyond Romanticism. “It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is antipopular […] It divides the public into two groups: one very small, formed by those who are favorably inclined towards it; another very large – the hostile majority.” Acceleration towards territory so new and unfamiliar that it elicits not merely dislike but actual aggressive rejection might in part be due to risk-taking loners engaging in a competition to see who can take the most vanguard position.
The formal and conceptual extremism of the visual fine arts – caused by competition between risk-taking men, fuelled by the money of status-chasing patrons – have sped Western culture from Modernism to Post-Modernism in barely over a century. The same space of time has elapsed between Courbet’s Stonebreakers (1850) and Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1977) as between the birth of Leonardo da Vinci (1452) and the death of Titian (1576). This rapid sequence of art concepts and schools has provided us with richness but the drive for originality (or novelty, depending on your perspective) led to a greater distancing between the elite and the mass population, unwilling or unable to accept the parade of new concepts and styles.
A reactionary vanguard paints exciting pictures that show society the vital brutishness of life, reminding the comfortable of the animal within themselves, but you wouldn’t want them running your academies, teaching your children or managing your money. Conversely, conservatives might be the best custodians of tradition, but their art is often terribly dull. What is the solution?
Reactionaries will always be lumbered with risk-averse, social-conforming conservatives, and conservatives will always resent the unpredictable, perverse, untameable reactionary explorers. Ultimately a territory cannot be won without risk-taking individuals, and a territory cannot be held without risk-averse individuals. We should just let each play their role and hope the gamble pays off.