Philistinism Redux

Review – The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari

Identity politics, that very modern ideological constellation, with its fixation on race, class and gender, has migrated from academia into the arts. Queer theory, feminist readings, post-colonial studies – all these have carved out significant positions at the heart of the art world. Many artists and ‘creatives’ aspire to these doctrines; they increasingly govern the propagation of culture as well as new criticism of canonical art. Such things matter more than could be expected.

Sohrab Ahmari in this brisk polemic argues that these developments are tragid. Identity politics has made contemporary art less true, less beautiful and less worthy of the name; and such things ‘disfigure’ our cultural life and take the arts further from the universal idea, and the universal ideal.

This author truly loves the arts; he cares about our culture, and – for all the good it does him – the contemporary artistic scene. Ahmari knows of what he speaks, and for him the bastardisation of art at the hands of faddish artists is less a matter for anger than a profound waste.

One such wasted opportunity was a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe theatre last May. It was the first play staged by Emma Rice, a progressive, even radical voice, during her tenure as the Globe’s artistic director. Ahmari documented what followed, complete with Bollywood-themed musical interjections and unnecessary additions to the script. His sardonic assessment of it in the Wall Street Journal at the time adds a necessary humorous element to what could have been either angry or sorrowful commentary.

Ahmari’s appreciation for Shakespeare is both palpable and deeply sincere, but it never tips over into misty-eyed adoration. Every mention of the playwright by the sobriquet ‘the Bard’ is liable to make less devoted readers twitch, but simple reverence is not on offer here. Ahmari’s criticism rests less on the lack of respect shown to the greatest writer in the English language, and more on the fact that, by being so cavalier with Shakespeare’s work, Rice places ideological goals above artistic ones, and therefore sells her audience short, denying them an opportunity to experience the timeless wonder on offer.

At heart, this is a confrontation of artistic ideologies: an intensely contemporary attempt to use art to advance political aims, and a desire to see art released from this political straitjacket and restored as an end in itself.

One unsatisfactory element of this narrative is the way Ahmari draws a direct comparison between the ‘identitarians’ of today and the court artists of the past. He compares those engaging in the current attempt to make art conform more to this ideological standard to those court artists who, under dictatorships, produced state-sanctioned, political work. This interpretation contains two important errors. Though many artists remain Marxists – and there is something distinctly Maoist about the way modern proponents of identity politics operate – the truth is that, unlike artists employed to produce approved material in the Soviet Union, the ‘identitarians’ have a choice. They got to choose whether or not they spend their artistic lives consciously promoting dogma, yet they answer in the affirmative.

Martin Amis and others have argued that it was impossible to be a court artist under Stalin or his successors and to do good work; this is not true. Some of the sculpture and architecture produced in the USSR has a chilly, monolithic beauty unparalleled elsewhere. Certainly Russian music, the visual arts and especially cinema experienced something of a renaissance under communism. The survival of this art is testament to the human spirit and the enduring power of beauty. Perhaps more damning than this comparison, then, is the fact that even with the freedom liberal democracy allows, many artists have not only fallen into ideological poverty but also produced work which is neither true nor beautiful.

It seems the creation of beauty is no longer the primary intention of the artist. Beauty is a secondary consideration. Politics provides the impetus, and this is almost always fairly tedious and predictable. In a world where individuality is prized over almost everything else, and the pressure on artists pushes them to be transgressive, countercultural and radical, it is remarkable that so many end up sounding almost exactly the same, and having effectively the same thoughts. Even the titles of exhibitions are barely distinguishable. ‘Social Identity and the Moving Image’ is, as Ahmari points out, hardly distinct from ‘Political Identity and the Moving Image’.

Ahmari is at his best when he describes the remarkable homogeneity of this apparently vibrant artistic class – the ‘herd of independent minds’. This book is no jeremiad, for it overflows with good humour, wry comments and droll descriptions. When Ahmari tours some galleries and exhibitions, reporting in their own words the ambitions of many contemporary artists, which in turn demonstrates their extreme dullness, the book becomes very funny.

He transcribes conversations, littered with verbal filler, incomplete thoughts and needlessly obscure language, and reproduces text from a roundtable discussion organised by a celebrated art magazine, Artforum. In all cases it seems the paucity of ideas is directly related to the impenetrable, Byzantine language employed to communicate them.

This from Artforum: ‘How do visibility, legibility, materiality – the very stuff or mediums of art – affect manifestations of identity?’ Jamie Crewe, an artist, explains his work: ‘Without wanting to be trite, it does, like, weirdly, like, synchronise with thoughts about, like, how much you want to be seen, in terms of, like, thoughts about identity, uh, thinking about the stakes of visibility and invisibility, legibility and obtuseness’.

Ahmari also touches on popular culture, where ideas derived from the identity politics of the art world are beginning to seep in. He lists a selection of films which have recently come under criticism from this political trend, and the specious reasons why this was so. Often this resembles nothing more than undigested regurgitation of pseudo-academic theory.

Such things may not have mattered once, but though high culture is now entirely absent from the lives of so many, the general public ‘still has TV and the movies’. This is the place to find beauty and entertainment in general circulation. Ahmari’s argument here is a worthy one; his suggestion that popular culture has taken up some of the burdens of elevating the public is true, though his suggestion that ‘genuinely mesmerising images and real beauty’ can be found in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies falls a little short of the mark.

The films of Paolo Sorrentino, particularly The Great Beauty and Youth, are exquisitely beautiful, and considering the intellectual impotence of much contemporary art, they come as close to high culture achieving a high circulation as is possible in our era. But Sorrentino has been criticised; his deliberate use of the beautiful bodies of his actors and actresses, alongside gorgeous shots of the city of Rome and alpine tundra, has been called ‘relentlessly male’ and declared exemplary of the ‘male gaze’, which proponents of identity politics do not approve of. Everything is political and must be held to new standards; nothing can escape criticism on ideological grounds.

Ahmari’s argument is more profound than a simple disdain for this criticism of aspects of popular culture, which is almost reflexive. This is in many ways a symptom of an artistic worldview that appears to hold canonical texts in contempt. There is a more profound cultural question – whether we will continue to esteem the great artists, the great writers, the great thinkers of the past, or instead condemn them for not demonstrating modern sensibilities. Ahmari’s book provides a welcome counterblast to this insidious trend, and serves to justify the pursuit of truth and cultivation of the beautiful in a way which is amusing and important.

This piece appeared originally in the Summer 2017 edition of The Salisbury Review.