Political and aesthetic preferences

The arts are often viewed as being in some sense “liberal”. This could mean many different things. Art might make people more liberal. Liberals might be more likely to make art. Liberals might be more likely to appreciate art.

I don’t know enough about music to comment, but I have noticed that liberals are more likely to appreciate the visual arts. Here’s Psychology Today:

We already know from prior studies that conservatives prefer simple representational art over abstract art, traditional poetry over the avant-garde, and music that is simple, familiar, and ‘safe’.

I am not going to argue that abstract art is better than representational art—indeed most of the very best paintings are representational. Instead I’ll argue that the appreciation of abstract art is usually associated with a stronger attraction to art in general.

Consider a random sample of people that go to a museum show of abstract art, say a Klee or Kandinsky exhibit. Those people are also much more interested in representational art than the average person. They’d be far more likely to attend a representational art museum show (say Monet or Caravaggio), as compared to a random person that did not like abstract art. Abstract art is difficult, and a strong interest in abstract art is usually associated with an intense interest in the visual arts in general.

Again, I’m not arguing that abstract art is better (I like it a bit less, on average). Rather my claim is that liberals tend to have a stronger preference for the visual arts in general. I have no idea why.

When I visit coastal areas of Orange County, I notice that liberal areas tend to have more tasteful architecture than conservative areas, at least for newly constructed homes. (Say sleek mid-century moderns vs. overstuffed garish McMansions.) Of course there are plenty of exceptions. And both groups like beautiful older homes.

This tweet caught my eye:

I suspect that Stein is just trolling (although he’s right about the bad public policies, apart from some social issues). Seth’s hypothesis is less silly, but is still clearly wrong.

Lap Gong Leong uses the term “leftist”, but the more appropriate term is “liberal”. I consider myself a right wing liberal, and my two favorite US cities are San Francisco and Seattle. I find much of California to be attractive, whereas Florida is flat, ugly and depressing. I’m willing to take a big hit to my living standards in order to live in a place that I find beautiful.

But that’s just me. I’m not trying to suggest that people with different tastes are wrong. For example, I can easily understand why most people prefer exciting superhero films over more “artsy” films that use Mark Lee or Christopher Doyle as cinematographer. Nonetheless, when I attend art galleries or art films it’s pretty obvious to me that I’m mostly surrounded by liberals. So why wouldn’t we expect liberals to pay a premium to live in beautiful places? They care more visual aesthetics.

And again, there are plenty of exceptions—indeed millions of them. So stop whining.



20 Responses to “Political and aesthetic preferences”

  1. Gravatar of Lizard Man Lizard Man
    10. May 2024 at 19:42

    I have no idea who Stein is or if he intended it this way, but it is the case that a lot of places in California practice exclusionary zoning, where the point really is to keep people out due to policy that is intentionally bad for people who don’t own homes. Americans without college degrees tend to be more conservative than college grads, so it is a two-fer for California liberals, as they prevent both people of a lower social class from living near them and keep conservatives out of the state.

  2. Gravatar of Sunday assorted links – Marginal REVOLUTION Sunday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION
    12. May 2024 at 07:55

    […] 1. Is it people on the Left who have a better sense for the visual arts? […]

  3. Gravatar of Phil H Phil H
    12. May 2024 at 08:46

    I still think the null hypothesis (and most likely correct answer) has got to be level of education. But there are some other possibilities…
    Idea (1) It’s about being counterculture. At the current moment, the right regards itself as anti-mainstream, so it cultivates defiantly countercultural artforms: comedy that isn’t funny, art that rejects elitist aesthetics, films that elevate ideology above quality.
    Idea (2) It’s about being anti-leisure. The right regards itself as being interested in practicality and profit, so it rejects pursuits that absorb a lot of your time but have little practical benefit. This includes most of the arts.
    Idea (3) Conservative ideas don’t get to develop because they’re chased out of the art world. As you suggest, abstract art is often something that develops out of representational art. It requires time and institutional support/patronage to bring abstract art to maturity. But if you are expressing conservative ideas like the importance of money, the superiority of men, or the differences between races, then you never get the patronage or the institutional development, so conservative art never reaches that point in its development.
    Dunno, interesting post.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. May 2024 at 08:55

    Phil, I think it’s genetic. (It is for me.) Your second point comes closest to my view.

  5. Gravatar of Michael Michael
    12. May 2024 at 09:55

    Hard to test historically because the categories shift, but I suspect it was different in the past. Arts associated with civic striving, ‘high art’ at least sometimes part of the more conservative establishment (Catholic church, Paris Salon). I wonder if part of the reason is that the intellectual class has become so much more liberal/left leaning?

  6. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    12. May 2024 at 10:51

    Roger Scruton wrote a book and made a documentary about art.

    It’s not that conservatives don’t like art, we just don’t think shit in a can is good art.

    We prefer splendid gothic cathedrals, realism, and baroque art that expresses something about a culture and a people; something that transcends time and place.

    Not a messy bed, or shit in a can, or splattered paint on a canvas. That’s not interesting, because it’s not transcendant.

    And the democrat party is NOT liberal. What you mean to say is that you are surrounded by democrats at art galleries, particularly neo-marxist, postmodernists; they are certainly not “liberal”. The republican party is more liberal, particularly MAGA and the Tea Party, and the libertarian party. The democrats are reactionary thugs.

  7. Gravatar of Timothy Hopper Timothy Hopper
    12. May 2024 at 11:56

    2). It’s almost like the Taiwanese don’t actually want to not be invaded.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. May 2024 at 12:50

    “is more liberal, particularly MAGA”


  9. Gravatar of Carthaginian Carthaginian
    12. May 2024 at 13:05

    It’s well known that high “openness to experience” in the big 5 correlates with a more liberal mindset as well as intelligence, I think that explains so much very simply.

    Everyone likes paintings of mountains and beautifully painted people, have you seen the lines at the Ufizzi? I think you can chalk that down to an evolutionary preference for looking at pristine landscapes and healthy living things. When we get into Kandinsky-ville now you are dealing with people who appreciate it aesthetically , and maybe more so appreciated its meta-importance as an artifact in the art history timeline etc etc… it’s less universal. There’s more intellectual-ism at work and that is not as enjoyable for everyone.

  10. Gravatar of Dzhaughn Dzhaughn
    12. May 2024 at 13:21

    My 2 bit theory: “Liberal” these days correlates with “faith that the Academy says interesting/relevant things” and that faith is necessary to understand visual arts (which is what the academy calls visual art) in the 20th century and later. It’s even more necessary for classical music post 1920. a lot of that sound pretty awful, but is better than it sounds. Thanks for that, Mark Twain.

    And, honestly, count me in on that part. It took a while for me to enjoy Schoenberg, but I do! Boulez, no way.

    But, the snake eats its tail when it turns “The Academy works to identify important art” around into “the important art is that which that Academy identifies.” I’m told French painting went down that path in the 1800s. Now, you need an MFA to receive a writing award nomination.

  11. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    12. May 2024 at 13:38

    The missing idea/phrase is “affordable family formation”. Andrew Gelman found that Steve Sailer’s metric of years married for white women had one of the highest correlations for share of the two-party vote in a geographic area discovered in political science. Lyman Stone has been trumpeting recently how fertility is anticorrelated with density. People who prioritize children will move out of dense urban areas to places with more space for kids. People willing to pay a premium to live in urban areas with lots of amenities even while it’s less child-friendly will tend to be liberals.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. May 2024 at 14:22

    Carthaginian, “Everyone likes paintings of mountains and beautifully painted people”

    Yes, but the important question is what do people most care about? Liberals are willing to sacrifice more to be around beautiful things. You don’t see lots of conservatives going to art galleries featuring conservative art—they are less likely to attend any art gallery. Even a “pretty” impressionist art show is more likely to attract liberals.

    TGGP, Yes, but Portland Oregon is probably no more dense than Dallas. It’s prettier and therefore more liberal.

  13. Gravatar of Kaleberg Kaleberg
    12. May 2024 at 14:26

    The classic East Coast example is Vermont versus New Hampshire. Physically, the states are similar, but Vermont is distinctly prettier. One Vermonter explained that this was because Vermont was full of people who considered esthetics important while New Hampshire was full of people who didn’t care. It’s definitely not zoning or wealth. New Hampshire probably has just as much money, especially in the south where it can leech off Massachusetts.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. May 2024 at 14:35

    Kaleberg , Great comment. My home state is Wisconsin, and the southwest corner (which is prettier) has generally been more liberal. It’s called the “Driftless Area.”


  15. Gravatar of Carthaginian Carthaginian
    12. May 2024 at 16:24

    SS- as both liberals and conservatives get richer they obviously live in more beautiful areas / buildings , as liberal correlation with high openness to experience creates

    -more desire for expressing individualism
    -more desire for a sort of expressing their aesthetic values by their choice of area
    -more desire to signal and more responsive to signal in this way

    And of course multiple generations of aesthetes cultivating an area has effects …

    Kaleberg – as a working artist who lives close to the NH side of the Connecticut river I do take mild umbrage… VT has only been a blue state since the 90s, both NH and VT are famously full of liberals. VT does have markedly better soil from geology , making it more verdant and full of farms . (Green mountain state vs granite state right?) I personally have split the difference where I chose to settle down. 🙂

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. May 2024 at 19:06

    Carthaginian, Don’t make it so complicated. Liberals have better taste, on average.

  17. Gravatar of Steven E. Sailer Steven E. Sailer
    12. May 2024 at 19:54

    Interestingly, golf course architecture typically works in the opposite direction. Most country club membership is highly Republican, of course, but the main exceptions are Jewish country clubs. Jewish country clubs tend to have weaker golf courses than equally rich gentile clubs. Jewish country clubs generally focus most of food and entertainment, while gentile clubs focus on the golf course and the bar.

  18. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    15. May 2024 at 04:12

    He calls himself a right-wing liberal, LOL.

    This is what sumner supports:


    The undemocratic Ukranian country, where they drag 18 year olds out of their car, so that they can be sent to the front lines. And he wants you to fund it.

    “Give them more” he said.

    You like California because it’s a neo-marxist hell-hole where 90% think just like you. You’re not a ring wing liberal because there is no such thing as a right wing liberal. Are you mad?

    You’re such a douche.

    There is classical liberalism and neo-liberalism. You prefer the latter, which means you’re a socialist, elitist, gangbanger.

  19. Gravatar of Bobster Bobster
    16. May 2024 at 21:05

    “I’m willing to take a big hit to my living standards in order to live in a place that I find beautiful.”

    How much of a hit? I’m currently considering leaving socal for a pay raise and better cost of living.

    Also much of the interior west is quite beautiful but a lot more conservative.

    Also Chicago, Boston and NYC dont have a lot of natural beauty either but Miami does.

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. May 2024 at 09:03

    Bobster, Miami has much better weather, but Boston (especially suburbs) is far more attractive than Miami, it’s not even close. Newton is one of the most beautiful suburbs in the entire world.

    As for me, I have enough money that I can live as comfortably as I like even in SoCal. I have a 3700 sq. foot home with a great view–don’t need anything more. If I were richer I suppose I might live closer to the ocean, but that’s not a big deal for me.

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