Why Right-Wing Art Sucks: A Brief History, From Gladiator To Pepe The Frog
The emergence of the alt-right has resurrected an age-old question: why does all great art come from the left? Maybe it's because the right can only borrow and steal from genuine culture, writes JOSEPH EARP.
“It has become a popular mantra of progressives to claim that conservatives are unable to contribute in any meaningful way to art or entertainment in America. The sole defence for the assertion that conservatives are not capable of creating art is that we have no soul.”
– Frances Byrd, Breitbart
Born In The USA: The State Of Conservative American Culture
“I like a lot of books. I like reading books. I don’t have the time to read very much now in terms of the books, but I like reading them.” – Donald Trump in Axios
Last month, an eminently shouty, distinctly trumped up alt-right spokesperson named Paul Joseph Watson took to Twitter to share one of his more lopsided thoughts. In his trademark smirky manner, the minor internet celebrity and online editor for Infowars – a spurious, often fact-challenged website led by known conspiracy theorist Alex Jones – proudly proclaimed that “conservatism is the NEW punk rock”.
It was in many ways a sentiment that Watson had been leading up to for some time. A large number of his videos posted prior to the tweet contained ‘takedowns’ of celebrity culture, particularly targeting what Watson has long claimed to be the kind of out-of-touch art peddled by his mortal enemies: left-wingers in Hollywood.
In one lengthy, straight-to-camera vlog in early February, Watson even made the claim that culture in general – but particularly music, and especially hip hop and pop – has been on a downward slide since the beginning of the 2000s. Holding up Miley Cyrus, the conservative’s favourite target, as proof of his argument, Watson spat moralistic slurs, subtly conflating the ‘Wrecking Ball’ singer’s political stance with her penchant for nudity and general stylised shock tactics.
“Popular culture is more vulgar, vapid, self-absorbed and dehumanising than at any other time in living memory,” he barked at his audience, standing before the map of the world that has served as his backdrop for four years of video-making, over which time he has laid waste to targets as varied as feminists and the entire nation of Sweden. “For the past two decades, pop culture has only served as a sewer pipe of projectile diarrhoea aimed directly at our gawping mouths.”
Paul Joseph Watson
Watson’s criticisms of art are wide-ranging – he has made videos that claim the music industry is controlled by the Illuminati, and others still in which he argues that “postmodern nihilism” represents a direct threat to the sanctity of the modern family. But amidst all this endless whinging, and his constant, obsessive praising of the alternative credentials of conservatism, Watson is yet to provide anything resembling evidence of the right wing’s cultural superiority or edge.
Indeed, the dearth of conservative art is something that no alt-right figure has ever been really able to account for. The superstars of this emerging political form, many of whom openly flirt with neo-Nazism, almost universally have left-to-centre-leaning tastes when it comes to music, literature and cinema.
Just take Richard Spencer, the white nationalist (read: racist) who was jubilantly punched while explaining the origins of the Pepe the Frog meme to an ABC news camera at the beginning of this year. He is a hardcore Depeche Mode fan who was promptly denounced by his heroes as soon as he made his love of them known.
Pepe The Frog
“Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the alt-right and does not support the alt-right movement,” the band told Spin, reacting to Spencer’s claim that the ’80s electronic rockers were “the official band of the alt-right”. Spencer, for his part, claimed he was joking. The internet spliced up the footage of Spencer being punched and set it to Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. The clip went viral.
There are so many more examples, a great litany including conservatives like Milo Yiannopoulos, the now disgraced alt-right spokesperson who lost his job at conservative news site Breitbart after a video surfaced in which he allegedly defended paedophilia, and who has written on a range of cultural phenomena – including, bizarrely enough, the children’s cartoon Digimon.
“Digimon has emerged with hindsight as a clear connoisseur’s choice,” Yiannopoulos claimed in an article titled, somewhat preposterously, ‘The Lost Franchise: Why Digimon Deserves A Glorious Renaissance’ – a verbose, bilious missive that might be the most bizarre attempt yet by conservatives to repurpose and retool contemporary culture. “Nowhere in the Pokémon canon exist the moments of maturity, complexity and artistic achievement that Digimon, at its best, has offered its fans.”
Of course, neither Digimon nor Depeche Mode are stridently, obviously leftist – though it’s worth remembering that the latter did release a song called ‘People Are People’, including the line: “We’re different colours / And we’re different creeds / And different people have different needs.”
But it is nonetheless curious that conservatives, when confronted over the great abyss where their artistic accomplishments should be, tend to latch on to apolitical works, or art made by those who affiliate most closely with Ayn Randian levels of libertarianism.
The writers, thinkers and creatives they cling to are either those who have never made their political aspirations particularly clear – the filmmaker Ridley Scott, for example, who is responsible for a range of films adopted by the right, including Gladiator and Kingdom Of Heaven – or, more troublingly, those who emphasise the kind of humanism that can be misinterpreted as a rejection of ‘political correctness’, whatever that nebulous term means today.
For instance, neo-Nazis and the more extreme contingent of the alt-right have for some time been co-opting and rebranding the key figures of the new media movement. In this way, their tastes have expanded away from literature and cinema and into content creators like YouTube star PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg); blank slates onto which they can cast their extremist ideologies.
It is no matter to those on the alt-right that new media rock stars like Kjellberg, pop culture figures with considerable influence and heft, are never even vaguely anti-Semitic or racist in terms of their content. Instead, extreme conservatives point to the claims made by Kjellberg that all jokes should be acceptable, no matter how off-colour they might be – he is on record as saying, “I do strongly believe that you can joke about anything.”
Such precise chinks in Kjellberg’s armour means he has had his messages hijacked, as his views on intellectual and comedic freedom have been used by extremists as an excuse to push forward dangerous, fascistic subtexts. Indeed, Kjellberg has become an unwitting neo-Nazi figurehead of late, a controversy that came to a head when The Wall Street Journal successfully got him dropped by both Maker Studios, his agency, and YouTube itself, thanks wholly to his favourability among American fascist groups.
Needless to say, such a drastic move rapidly proved not only unfair but irresponsible, possibly even immoral, as it implied agency on Kjellberg’s part while ignoring the real root of the problem. The issue was not Kjellberg and his bad, sometimes tasteless jokes, but the magpie-like habit of the right when it comes to art.
After all, extreme conservatives have nothing less than a symptomatic attitude towards the repurposing of centrist and apolitical works; an obsessive need to Trojan horse their nefarious tendencies, hiding hatred in the guts of apolitical art.
Lions And Wardrobes (No Witches): The Absence Of Conflict In Conservative Stories
“The conservative mind is unbalanced – hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.” – Adam Bellow, The National Review
“As we can clearly see, Cubans have the very best healthcare in the world,” Michael Moore is saying to camera, sipping on a mojito and standing before a hospital slapped with a sign bearing Che Guevara’s name. Or no, not Michael Moore – Michael Malone, a thinly veiled cipher, sporting a gross, swollen belly and a blue baseball cap, perched on a mess of greasy hair. “Not like in America, where it can kill you.”
It’s a joke, and a key scene from David Zucker’s An American Carol, perhaps the most aggressively conservative film released in recent years. A spin on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the comedy casts Malone (Kevin Farley, doing his best to live up to the early Jim Belushi comparisons critics heaped upon him) as its Scrooge stand-in.
Over the course of this inexcusably long satire, the anti-American Malone is forced to contend with three ghosts who aim to reintroduce the infidel (quite literally – he agrees to assist the Taliban in their attempts to make a goofy training video) to the pleasures of US freedom and culture. It’s not exactly subtle, and its swollen tumour of a subtext is unavoidable.
Nor is it very funny. The film, a mess of racist “who’s on first?” jokes that aims to find comedic gold by substituting ‘Hu’ with ‘Muhammad Hussein’ in agonisingly absurdist scenes, is an anti-art curio. It’s remarkable, but mainly as a way of discovering which of your hallowed childhood heroes are bigoted enough to appear in a production that deals in misogynistic and determinedly inhumane jokes (“Leslie Nielsen? Seriously? What is he doing in this movie?!”).
But it is also an outsider. It remains one of the few stridently right-wing works released to American cinemas in the last decade; a rare example of a conservative film made for conservatives, rather than a work vague enough to have its ideologies hijacked.
And, finally, it is a failure. An American Carol was not only a critical and creative bomb, but a universally derided waste of cash. Against a US$20 million dollar budget, the film recouped a mere $7 million. Even conservative press outlets tried, however subtly, to distance themselves from the work. “Carol insults conservatives by presuming that they are so simple as to be won over by fat jokes and flatulence,” read a scathing review by Michael Brendan Dougherty of The American Conservative.
For many, An American Carol’s main source of repulsion is its unsubtlety. The film deals solely in caricatures – its conservatives, including broadly drawn historical figures such as General Patton (Kelsey Grammer) and George Washington (Jon Voight, a strident Trump supporter), are relentlessly heroic, while its liberals are physically repellent pigs, all hypocritical and heretical.
An American Carol
To that end, An American Carol has its political mirror images – films like Paul Haggis’ hideous and hurried Crash, a bizarre leftist Best Picture Oscar winner that confuses heart with boorishness and proves repellent to any but those ready to swallow its message without question. Or the agonising Michael Clayton, a mixed metaphor of a film that attempts to tackle conservative capitalist culture by directly engaging with it.
But therein lies the rub: unlike leftist or centralist art, which can emphasise change as a kind of spiritual awakening and an inherently humanistic act, conservative art is forced to be extreme in order to generate anything resembling a central conflict. An American Carol could simply not exist as a less aggressively broad and inaccurately written barrage of mud-slinging – it would not work by halves, and its central conceit requires its antagonist to speak in exaggeration so obscene that reality is soon left far behind.
After all, by its very nature, anything resembling a right-wing point of view is couched in terms of upholding the norm. The villains in conservative films are those who want to change things, or to insult and tip the status quo – even Malone is defined by his resistance to America, and the film’s Middle Eastern antagonists all want to alter the US so profoundly that it stops resembling the country at all.
Of course, when that kind of opposition is toned down ever so slightly, it begins to look a lot like heroism. Change is healthy – necessary even, and the evolution of a species requires a resistance to what has come before. But on a more practical level, change is also the very driving force of narratives, whether they be filmic or literary.
“I always think change is important in a character,” the actor Peter Sarsgaard once said. “The most dynamic choices that you can make for a character are always the best ones.”
‘Get Off My Lawn’: Borrowed Art In The US And Australia
“It has come to my attention that certain groups of people have been using my voice, my songs as their anthems at rallies ... None of these people represent me and I do not support them.” – Jimmy Barnes
The struggle faced by conservative creatives in attempting to make their heroes look powerful is a profound one. How do you make your heroes appear heroic if all they want to do is keep things as they are? In the case of rigidly right-wing films like those directed by noted Republican Clint Eastwood – particularly his hokey anti-art oddity Gran Torino – the answer is to make the villains seem insane and careless; without sense, motivated only by anarchy.
In Gran Torino, the antagonists are interested in nothing but aggression and thievery for reasons that are never properly defined, and the hero – Eastwood in full gurning, fogey mode – is established as a denizen of sense and safety. The endgame of the film’s enemies is deliberately untenable: it’s nothing more complicated than pain, and therefore can be cast as inherently immoral.
But again, such an attitude has its shortcomings, and skewed conservative narratives often require their villains to be simultaneously underwritten and over-the-top. The Persians in 300, Zack Snyder’s fascistic epic (“just what you would expect from the heavily freighted right-wing filmic propaganda of the post-9/11 period”, as critic and author Rick Moody described it) are broad caricatures, driven by desires that could simply be called ‘foreign’.
The Persians, led by Xerxes, want nothing more than land, for no other reason than they believe it is their God-given right: the film works hard to make clear their essential ‘otherness’. They are weird, and maybe even (shock horror) a little bit homoerotic, and for that reason alone they are derided as evil.
The problem with such a creative attitude is that nine times out of ten, underwritten ‘otherness’ simply doesn’t work as a narrative device, even when viewed from a practical, critical perspective. You can’t hate or fear a villain that you don’t really know, and yet time again conservative films have tried to present waddling, wasted stereotypes as something to be feared.
The same gimmick defines The Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s cannibalistic horror film and one designed to humiliate and attack ‘clicktivists’, AKA leftists who have only a surface-level concern regarding the horrors they claim to be trying to protect us from. In this gory, rampantly repulsive film, a group of well-meaning ‘do-gooders’ attempting to preserve a rainforest are served the ‘ultimate punishment’ when they are consumed alive by the locals they’re trying to save.
The Green Inferno
The joke is obvious: for their crime of generalising, the leftists are murdered. But in order to dole out that moral justice, writer/director Roth makes the exact same mistake, generalising the tribe and casting them as a vague ethnic mass; a force as without identity as a pack of wild animals, or termites decimating trees.
In order to bypass this inherent need to underwrite, some conservative narratives have tried the different, slightly more successful tactic of recasting the supposedly ‘oppressive’ nature of cultural policing as a new kind of fascism. Aided in no small part the by the popularity of phrases such as ‘the regressive left’, conservative filmgoers and aesthetes have managed to adopt heroes positioned as Guy Fawkes-esque figures, revolutionaries purporting to upset entire carts full of bad apples.
The most commonly upheld example of this phenomenon remains The Matrix. The film has been celebrated by men’s rights activists worldwide as an important text, and has even been mined for some of their most defining language. A ‘red pill moment’ – a term taken from the scene in the first Matrix film in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) chooses to live with the awareness that he is in a computer simulation – has been hijacked by MRAs as a way of explaining their ‘awareness’ that the world is supposedly geared towards supporting women over men.
But such a term serves as a bastardisation of the source material’s core principal. Though largely apolitical, The Matrix is a film about freedom; about rejecting mob behaviour, and thinking with independence in a way that requires humanity and empathy – all actions that stand in direct contrast to the tenets of the MRA movement.
There are some academics who have even argued that The Matrix is a powerful exploration of transgender rights. “As I see it, a transgender reading of The Matrix examines three points: Neo’s so-called ‘Path’ to becoming the One, the artificiality and pervasiveness of the Matrix itself, and the rigidity with which it is enforced by not only its creators, but those trapped within,” wrote the academic Hannah DuVoix in 2012.
“For those of us who transgress gender as it exists in the world today, we follow a similar path. We must free our minds from an artificial system of control that can’t be seen but is omnipresent, and the system is rigidly, frighteningly self-enforced by those who operate within it.”
Whether that sounds like a needlessly deep reading or not, the facts remain the same: by recasting themselves as victims determined to overthrow change, extreme conservatives and alt-right activists are misrepresenting themselves, the texts they steal from, and even their own ideologies, ironically undermining their own arguments exactly as they choose to express them.
In the case of the appropriation of The Matrix, that irony is particularly sweet, given that the film from which MRAs draw so much influence was directed by two trans women, Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
Here in Australia, extreme conservative culture is, if possible, even sadder. Just as the American alt-right has been forced to borrow elements from leftist art, the still laughably small Australian conservative contingent has largely been forced to follow in the lead of its US mates.
Meme culture, for example, remains the dominant form of creativity for many on the Aus-right. Pepe the Frog, the cartoon amphibian adopted as a mascot by Trump supporters, has been repurposed and retooled in this country to fit the whims and views of Pauline Hanson followers. These members of what they call ‘Dingo Twitter’ flood the website with poorly illustrated, lo-fi meme art, much of it inspired by (read: ripped off from) the deluge of bad cartoons that swamped the internet in the lead-up to Trump’s election.
These conservatives are glorified trolls, and their stances and attitudes are poorly thought-out, insulting in the way that a particularly racist, particularly deluded high school student considers something insulting. “Dingo Twitter argues that the Aboriginal peoples of Australia belong to a seperate [sic] species and must be segregated into the Northern Territories [sic] in order to restrict their atavistic dark energies,” a Twitter user named THRILLHO told Buzzfeed News in October last year.
Given their messy, uncoordinated ideologies, it’s fitting that in terms of ‘original’ conservative content, a poorly edited cartoon frog remains just about the be-all and end-all of their output. Some on Dingo Twitter use the image of Mel Gibson to represent them as their avatars, presumably as a way of proudly proclaiming their anti-Semitism. But they don’t seem to have any interest in the man’s actual body of work: there is no study of his films, or repurposing of his art, and they have only the barest of interest in what he represents.
Yet that kind of disjointed, copycat approach to art isn’t only upheld by fringe groups and extremists. Cory Bernardi, Australia’s own Trump wannabe, has attempted to establish his online identity as the leader of the new Australian Conservatives party by flooding Twitter with memes. “Being the savvy statesman that he is, Bernardi knows that to spearhead a populist movement, he needs to engage the populace, and he’s taken to the internet to do just that – startling and delighting social media … [by] posting meme[s],” wrote Ben McLeay for SBS in a savage analysis of Bernardi’s ‘online dad’ approach to internet humour and culture.
But aside from serving as an easy opportunity to score points off Senator Bernardi, his use of memes is also just another indicator of the lack of extreme right-wing creativity. Aside from their requisite, lo-fi internet dankness, the rest of the right-wing anthems and iconographies upheld by the new political movement tend to be plucked from anything celebrating Australian masculinity or nationalism.
In order to find such exhumed indicators, then, extreme conservatives are forced to look back to the ’80s and early ’90s, leaping on such quietly preposterous artworks as Crocodile Dundee and the discography of Jimmy Barnes, or defending the likes of dismissible, racist trash such as Hey Hey It’s Saturday, a show notable only for a controversy in 2009 when several performers lathered themselves up in blackface.
As a result, there is something distinctly throwback – something antiquated, even – about the nature of far-right art in this country. Even its most principled and ‘acceptable’ doyens, like columnist and mouthpiece Andrew Bolt, have to mine deep into the past in order to find works that support their world view. For that reason, it should be of surprise to no-one, given the long-standing connection between opera and the right, that Bolt is a Wagner fan.
Ultimately, the rest of Australian conservative art and criticism largely exists in contrast to something, rather than as its own distinct entity. Extreme alt-righters don’t create, they condemn, and they tend to try and express their views by criticising the likes of progressive content aired on the ABC. Anything that emphasises diversity – whether it be a program like the surrealist sketch series Black Comedy or the supernatural action/horror/drama hybrid Cleverman – gets torn down and attacked.
“Wow, did they make this series to propagandise hate against white people, because this series is one long hate filled anti-white propaganda,” ran a particularly frantic condemnation of the latter, posted to Reddit. “Why is it okay to hate white people in this ‘modern’ world. It’s just racism, no matter what.”
Even in their criticism they reveal a lack of imagination, and there is never a concerted attempt to espouse whatever the values of Australian conservative creativity might be. In this country, as in countries all over the world, extreme conservative art has proven to be accidental, incidental, borrowed and stolen.
Like a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy, the works that extreme right-wingers hold up as masterpieces are lacking in colour, and distinctly smudged – pale, sad whorls of monochrome, read into as though they are Rorschach tests.
Paul Watson and his ilk might be convinced that conservatism is the new punk rock, but the great swathe of art they point to is merely a rusted junk shop; a dismal collection of rank, wretched narratives and a couple of croaking cartoon frogs. ◼︎
[Miley Cyrus live photo by Ashley Mar]