Back in the mid-1990s, when the Republican-controlled Congress briefly considered cutting off funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, I remember seeing an editorial cartoon that portrayed Newt Gingrich taking an axe to Michelangelo’s David, over the caption “Counter-Culture.” It captured a historical snapshot of our political debate, one that was probably already antique at the time: a portrayal of conservatives as yokels and religious obscurantists, indifferent to art and literature, while the left was the party of education and cultural refinement. Though somehow I can’t recall the NEA ever funding anything remotely like the David.
Today, of course, the situation has reversed. Not that conservatism under the influence of Donald Trump has become the party of highbrow intellectualism—far from it—but the left has become the party of a literal iconoclasm, tearing down sculptures and monuments that they imagine represent the old order. They are the new obscurantists seeking to purge our culture of some of its most important art and literature.
This is not exactly unprecedented. In her notes for The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand defined her villain Ellsworth Toohey, a distillation of the 20th-century totalitarian intellectual, in these terms: “He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan,” the big industrialists of the previous era, but “he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare.” Toohey’s left-wing anti-capitalism is just cover for a wider attempt to subordinate the individual to the collective—and, in service to this goal, to deny the existence of any extraordinary individual. In the real world, this sort of outlook explained, for example, the old left’s mania for folk music, because, as Alan Lomax put it, it was “equalitarian,” providing us with “a people’s culture, a culture of the common man.” Beethoven was not a common man.
Under today’s left, this desire to cut down the tall poppies is given a racial gloss, and today’s “woke” Ellsworth Tooheys are now openly fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare on the grounds that they were white men and thus have been unjustly foisted upon us.