Review of The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigures the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari
The Philistines identified by Matthew Arnold had a narrow and reductive view of the arts as only good if they upheld a particular morality. The 1890s and the aesthetic movement upturned them, the aesthetes were despised by the Social Realists in the 30s, who were taken on by the liberal creatives bursting out in the sixties, the New Leftists returned, along with the feminists, with shock and political art and now the identitarians have moved in. The identitarians are Ahmari's New Philistines, who judge, and sometimes make, art via their ideology, caring about the political point rather than craft or beauty. His contention that they dominate the culture is reinforced by how his frequent use of “beauty” and “truth” now seem antiquated as critical terms.
Ahmari has a reverential attitude towards high art, so Part I of his readable polemic, Intruders in the Temple, tells of how he was affronted by a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Globe. Emma Rice was the director and it included a sound-and-light show, a gay male Helena and the love juices were date rape drugs. I share his pain as I too have ground my teeth at a goose-stepping Coriolanus, say (Coriolanus is not a Fascist, and it made no sense). Directors making stupid political points are as annoying as hectoring comedians.
However for every modish production of a Shakespeare play with a Hoxton-hipster Hermia there's a straightforward, well-acted piece in robes and furred gowns. In the RSC production of King Lear I saw the other night Anthony Sher was a mound of pelt. Although the director had rehearsed it during Brexit, and thought there were parallels with bad decision-making and a union falling apart he did not present Cordelia as Angela Merkel nor Goneril as Theresa May and left us to draw the modern parallels about power and powerlessness and the times being disturbed.
It shows a particular cultural strength that the educated Shakespearean audience sees interpretations as variations on a theme, because the plays are so well known, as Athenian play goers liked to see what a playwright would do with the myth of Orestes or Dionysus.
I can't get too holy about Shakespeare. He has his longueurs and a lot of his humour is lost with his language so the actors have to force out laughs with cod-fingering. Cuts can be enhancements. There are plenty of excellent productions including those broadcast at local cinemas by the RSC and the terrific Wars of the Roses series on the BBC a while back.
Ahmari does make a good thrust about shallow gimmickry in theatre productions:-
The bhangra and Bollywood numbers, and actors of south Asian heritage in two leading parts, suggested an Indian sensibility. Now a Midsummer with a well-developed south-Asian concept – juxtaposing or blending say, the rich mythology of the subcontinent with English folklore – might have worked well. Such a concept would have required a sincere, rigorous encounter with these sources. Yet identitarian art is rarely capable of such engagement. The texture and weight of genuine difference elude art of this kind, with its ironic posturing and tendency towards the flattening pastiche. Identitarian art rarely manages to raise marginalise and 'subaltern' voices. Doing so successfully requires really listening to such voices in all their rich complexity – whereas identiarian art usually searches for subaltern props with which to bash the 'dominant' culture. Opposing the 'oppressive' mainstream is more important than examining the peripheral as it really is.
Actually I do wonder that Emma Rice wasn't castigated for cultural appropriation by Indians, or someone purporting to speak for Indians. These fashions change so fast. Emma Rice however will not be around to do brash shows based on Shakespearean texts. She has had her marching orders because her use of neon lighting is against the spirit of The Globe. The Guardian thinks that is a bad idea, and The Spectator a good. So it goes in culture-land.
Ahmari finds a parallel with other ideological arts e.g Socialist realism but “Say what you will about the Soviet critics, at least they were erudite. Not so with today's identitarian critics, who care little for art history and aesthetics. What they are blessed with is lots of opinions about everything – all of which invariably revolve around race, gender and class, power and privilege.”
I've seen just such criticism of the gooey headed Corbynistas from dialectic trained old Trots about the Corbys' lack of hard analysis. Unlike Victorian evangelists and Marxists, the identitarians have no authoritative scripture to use as a measure for their particular world view – Foucault comes closest, but Ahmari does not find his identitarians actually quoting so much as osmosing, which he lays out in the second part of his polemic, The Illiberal Imagination. This follows discussions at Artforum. I found it a useful primer for such terms as “queer”, “performative”, “visibility” and “legibility” (something lots of people want to see and enjoy).
Liberal societies have increased “visibility” in the form of social and political rights, and liberal-minded writers were part of this process eg the authors of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Oliver Twist. And as far as visibility is concerned the marginalised have moved more towards the centre. The RSC's King Lear had a lot of black actors without making any identitarian big deal about it and that would not have happened a generation ago. And those who fulminate against political corrrectness, would once have grumbled about a black Edmund and Cordelia.
Ahmari has fun with the appalling jargon his Artforumites use and its view of art as “a place where we can treat the self as historical and social material”. This particular idea has permeated through to artists whose work he goes to see in the third chapter. Some have talent but, “their curiosity is limited by politics; identitarian politics takes away their freedom to explore great big questions in an uninhibited way; without pre-determined answers and concepts. Foucault, hardline feminism and queer theory wrap their art like a straitjacket. If their English grammar sounds broken, it is because their creative grammar is, too, and the source of the brokenness is the same.”
His tour of identitarian art – videos and installations – and dance – political twerking – is amusingly terrible. My own experience of such things – neon tubes of slogans repeating banalities and amateurish looking videos saying things that are neither new nor true – has sent me along the road to the museum of handsome and interesting artefacts. The audience for this work is the highly educated white liberals that it castigates, the ones who take city breaks in grand European cities who have preserved their past.
Of course fashions change. “The Great Wall of Vagina”, plaster-casting 500 women's sexual organs that Ahmari evokes may be deemed to be transphobic in a year or two, and Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, which used a vagina theme in ceramics, is beautiful as well as polemical. Ideological art does not mean ugliness of course- as demonstrated by the great mass of Christian and Islamic art. So the ugliness may come from lack of craft as anything else. That may be the fault of the art schools, as well as the zeitgeist. Also, while the subsidised galleries and the grant receiving artists may be at work on such things the commercial artists will be turning out posters and cards of quite a different complexion for the mass market. Modern culture is definitely not all of a piece, nor stagnant.
Ahmari's last chapter is about the effects of this ideological art on our society. “Ideas that being with elite, avant-garde institutions invariably trickle down to popular culture, then go on to impact our daily lives.” and he instances criticisms of eg Downton Abbey (which deserves it – the servant class was not treated with anything like that consideration but caste superiority has to be prettied up for the modern audience). Downton Abbey may be castigated by someone in the Guardian but it will be made as long as it makes money and Julian Fellows is ready to turn out scripts.
He thinks identitarian politics is responsible for the rise of white-rage politics of Trump and UKIP.
Is it any wonder, then, that Americans and Europeans are increasingly embracing nationalist parties and illiberal movements?..
Having been told for decades that the promise of universal rights is a lie, that group identity is all that there is to public life, that the Western canon is the preserve of Privileged Dead White Men, and that identitarian warfare is permanent, many in the West have taken up their own form of identity politics. .. When culture only rewards the assertion of group identity (black, female, queer etc.), the silent majority will want its slice of the identitarian pie. They can do identity politics, too; it's called white nationalism. ..
Surely identitarianism is a muted annoyance compared to eg mass migration, demographic changes, a globalised economy and the sense of the world is becoming a more dangerous place. But the cause and effect of culture and politics is a large subject. In crude terms, far more read The Sun and the Daily Mail than get annoyed by The Guardian.
“To repair our politics, we could do worse than to start by expecting better from our arts and culture.”- is Ahmari's final call, and that really is the chicken-and-the-egg. I would expect a generational shift for talent and brains will break out of a strait-jacket and they're at work somewhere on a hub near you. Our society does have teeth and a stomach and it's a wonder what it can digest.
After reading Ahmari I re-read Robert Hughes' Culture of Complaint, which has a similar theme, and is richer and funnier from someone wholly engaged with the art world. It was published in 1992 and how little has moved on from then. What Hughes calls political correctness, we now call identity politics but they are essentially the same thing, constant language policing, a favourite target for conservative satirists.
Satire loves to fasten on manners and modes, which is what PC [political correctness] talk is, political etiquette, not politics itself. When the waters of PC recede – as they presently will, leaving the predictable scum of dead words on the social beach – it will be, in part, because young people get turned off by all the carping about verbal proprieties on campus. The radical impulses of youth are generous, romantic and instinctive and are easily chilled by an atmosphere of prim, obsessive correction. The real problem with PC isn't 'post-Marxism”, but post-Puritanism.
Generous, romantic and instinctive I'd like to believe but what is reported from the universities is an equal impulse for correction, censoriousness and righteousness. And against the post-Puritanism is the post-Restoration of the alt right and Milo Yiannopoulos.
So though not as apocalyptic as Ahmari, I do share some of his concerns. It is a chronic condition for liberalism to be in danger as it is an unnatural state for a tribal species and it has plenty of enemies, whether the new Red Guards of identitarianism,, the Islamic Fascists and their idiot enablers, the Guardian Cultural Sensitives, the Lock-em-Up Tabloids, and a whiff of blasphemy laws from the government.
“It's a free country,” we would say self-righteously at my primary school during disagreements. That sentence had a long political and cultural history behind it. Do they still say it now?