All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1991

Book Review: Capturing The Culture: Film, Art, And Politics by Richard Grenier

Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1030 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005 • 1991 • 392 pages, $24.95 cloth

Ideological studies revolve around more than politics; they involve culture as well. Lenin was the first socialist to implement Marx’s nightmare vision in the political realm. But another Marxist—the Italian Antonio Gramsci—played a crucial role in Marxism’s spread to the cultural realm. Neoconservative Richard Grenier notes in this intriguing book that Gramsci was “the most prescient analyst of the contemporary relationship of art and politics . . . . Culture, Gram-sci felt, is not simply the superstructure of an economic base—the role assigned to it in orthodox Marxism—but is central to a society.”

Gramsci’s famous slogan was “Capture the culture.” Grenier documents how Gramsci’s disciples continue their “long march through the institutions” of the cultural world. The collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has totally discredited Lenin’s political work. But Gramsci’s legacy remains with us in the form of a powerful cultural left. In this collection of essays originally published in Commentary, The Washington Times and The New York Times, Grenier explores how “the modern artist’s predisposition to estrangement has flung him, in America especially, straight into Gramsci’s arms.”

Many of Grenier’s insights would warm the heart of any classical liberal. Reds, Warren Beatty’s film about the Russian Revolution, “has politics after all,” Grenier observes. “They are what can be called the ‘politics of intent,’ as opposed to the politics of achievement. If one has noble intentions, and means well toward one’s fellow man, and one’s heart is pure, and generous, and filled with love, then that is what matters. If one’s ideas are unworkable, bring social disruption, disaster, and even tragedy on a colossal scale—one can’t be expected to foresee all that, can one?” Despite the socialistic bias of Reds, there are highlights. At one point, Jack Nicholson, portraying Eugene O’Neill, drily remarks, “Something in me tightens, when an American intellectual’s eyes shine at the mention of Russia.”

Important post-World War II European filmmakers unknown to the average American—but not to flattering leftist critics—are an easy mark for Grenier. The late director Rainer Werner Fass-binder and other “New Wave” film-makers were creations of the West German government. “For without lavish government funding,” Grenier observes, “this New German cinema would not only never have survived, it would never have been born.” Fassbinder was part of “a subsidized underground cinema.”

Grenier writes, “When you see [the Greek director Kostantinos Costa-Gavras in Europe] there are no evasions. He’s your straight, mind-numbing Marxist . . . . But whenever he flies to America he converts to free enterprise . . . . He takes Americans for political illiterates, and fair is fair, he’s usually right.”

The Frenchman François Truffaut was a different sort of film-maker. Grenier observes that it “was not hard for General de Gaulle or his culture minister, André Malraux, to grasp that France had produced in Truffaut and [his followers] a school of film-makers whose conservatism, both cultural and political, was profound . . . . [Truffaut] simply could not abide a cinema that told him, in accordance with the modish ideas of the Marxianized French elite culture of his early years, that the world was a rotten place, evil, doomed . . . .” De Gaulle and Malraux moved quickly. Fassbinder was part of a government-subsidized, left-wing cinema, while Truffaut was subsidized by a government of the political right.

Some libertarians may be disturbed by Gre-nier’s reduction of culture to the Cold War, but they should be more troubled by the scant attention paid to the South and Midwest, arguably the foundation of American culture. This comes as little surprise. To a neoconservative such as Grenier, New York is the center of the world. Despite this oversight, Grenier’s book does contain one observation about that vast tract of land west of the Hudson River. Clint Eastwood, he writes, “draws the skilled industrial workers, farmers, men who if they no longer work with their hands come from a different America than the Vassar that produced Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep.” Fine. But there is much more that Grenier could have said about the South and Midwest.

Shortly after the Bolsheviks took power in the Soviet Union, Lenin declared, “Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important.” Richard Grenier observes, “Only in America . . . is it possible for a critic to be in the editorial offices of an influential organ of the press . . . and have an editor say: ‘Who’s Gramsci?’” Two good reasons, despite its shortcomings, to read this book. 

Greg Kaza is Vice President for Policy Research at The Mackinac Center of Midland, Michigan, and co-author of the book, Michigan: An Agenda for the ‘90s.

  • Greg Kaza is a Michigan state representative. He has taught economics and history at Northwood University, where he served as an adjunct professor.