Stand Up For Heresy

Stand Up For Heresy

Jamie Palmer
Jamie Palmer
12 min read

A review of The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari. Biteback Publishing, (October 16, 2016) 128 pages.

Postmodernism might have had a liberating effect on the arts. Skepticism about the objectivity of truth provided artists with limitless imaginative possibilities, while a critical analysis that privileged subjective interpretation over authorial intent opened the doors to a bracing new iconoclasm.

Postmodernism, in other words, seemed to herald a democratization of form, meaning, and value. It would rescue the arts from the dusty irrelevance of the traditionalist canon, and the pointy-headed elitists who presumed to decide what was of worthy of greatness and study and what was not. Hitherto neglected artists and their works were disinterred and reappraised (some of which turned out to be good and some of which did not), while sacred cows were gleefully slaughtered and gutted (some of which deserved it and some of which did not). And some exciting and vibrant new art got produced in the process — hip, ironic, self-referential, irreverent, and smart.

But then postmodernism began a precipitous slide into reductio ad absurdum that ought to have been a foreseeable consequence of its premises. Skepticism about objectivity petrified into a paradoxical dogma that the only objective truth is that nothing is objectively true. The democratization of merit, meanwhile, raised new and perplexing questions about how to evaluate art. If artistic value is merely a matter of personal interpretation and taste, then by what standard is critical judgement possible? If subjective response is the true measure of value then, independent of interpretation, art is all of equal worth. And if all art is of equal worth then it is all equally worthless. So now what is art for?

The revolutionaries and counter-culturalists of the New Left thought they had an answer to these questions in the politics of identity. 2nd wave feminists, queer theorists, anti-racist and civil rights activists, peaceniks, and anti-establishmentarians of various stripes were already attracted to postmodernism’s anti-elitism. Now they declared that what separated bad art from good art depended upon whether or not it served their own ideological ends.

Art (and much else besides), they claimed, had been a reactionary fiefdom jealously ruled by white heterosexual males. Other voices and perspectives had been marginalized, and the time had come for those voices and perspectives to be heard. The canon would be diversified to promote art made by minorities, and critical analysis would focus on whether or not it served their interests. Anything deemed insufficiently favorable to those interests was to be denounced for its racism, sexism, ethnocentricity, and so on, and then summarily discarded.

But as the New Left and its doctrines of cultural relativism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and critical theory swept into academia, the contradictions only multiplied. Postmodern counter-orthodoxies were now marshaled in support of a new orthodoxy. The sworn foes of moralizing conformity became the most exacting moralizing conformists. And postmodernism turned out to be just another entry in the twentieth century’s long list of revolutionary ideas that promised emancipation, but became a warrant for tyranny.

In a crisp new polemic entitled The New Philistines, the Wall Street Journal’s London-based editorialist Sohrab Ahmari offers an assessment of the impact of identity politics and postmodern dogma on the arts, and that assessment is stark. “This is a book,” he writes in the opening sentence, “about a crisis in the art world.”

Ahmari was born and raised in Iran, so he is alive to the symptoms and dangers of revolutionary zeal. As a child he watched as the Khomeinists purged the country’s universities of anyone suspected of ideological heresy. This experience, he writes —

[T]aught me early on about the power of great art and its connection with human freedom. And it makes me wonder: what does it say about the Free World today, that much of our art is so doctrinaire, so incapable of conveying any meaning other than the imperatives of identity politics?

As Ahmari acknowledges in the preface, his slender volume is not intended to be either comprehensive or scholarly (there is no mention of Roger Scruton or Allan Bloom, and only a passing reference to Camille Paglia). It is, rather, a highly readable 3-part primer written by a journalist and enthusiast dismayed by the parlous state into which so much of Western art has slumped. Anticipating the objection that complaints about declining standards date back to Aristotle, he argues that the identitarian revolution has produced something “qualitatively worse” — an aesthetic and philosophical dead end:

Overturning any old order, after all, implies a measure of respect for its authority. Otherwise the revolution would come too easily, and the revolutionaries would draw no satisfaction from victory.

By contrast, today’s art world isn’t even contemptuous of old standards — it is wholly indifferent to them. The word ‘beauty’ isn’t part of its lexicon. Sincerity, formal rigor and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent — none of these concerns, once thought timeless, is on the radar among the artists and critics who rule the contemporary art scene. These ideals have all been thrust aside to make room for the art world’s one totem, its alpha and omega: identity politics.

In pursuit of this totem, nothing may be spared vandalism. The first part of The New Philistines is entitled “Intruders in the Temple” (a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, Ahmari’s secular lament is dusted with religious allusions), and it examines the decline of London’s Globe theatre under the stewardship of its current artistic director, Emma Rice.

Once the stage upon which Shakespeare opened his most famous and revered plays, the Globe was closed and demolished by England’s 17th century religious puritans. It was fitting then, Ahmari observes, that its painstaking reconstruction should have been the work of Sam Wanamaker, an American communist driven into exile by the McCarthyite puritans on the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Decades in the making, Wanamaker’s labor of love was finally completed four years after he passed away, but the theatre’s first two artistic directors sought to approach Shakespeare’s work in the same spirit of humility and respect Wanamaker had brought to his own restoration project. Ahmari readily concedes that this traditionalism is not to everyone’s taste but that it nevertheless provided for purists who had wearied of the revisionism available everywhere else.

Emma Rice was appointed artistic director at the Globe in May 2015. What seems to irk Ahmari more than the Globe’s subsequent direction per se is the air of arrogance and presumption with which Rice set about explaining how and why things had to change. “It’s the next stage for feminism,” she announced, “and it’s the next stage for society to smash down the last pillars that are against us. Also, my generation have come of age and come into positions of power and we have to use it for good. That’s certainly what I intend to do.”

Artistic considerations then would be — indeed should be — subordinate to the demands of Rice’s politics, which would correct for Shakespeare’s alleged gender bias and anything else that appeared to run contrary to ‘inclusivity’. Besides which, she complained, “I have tried to sit down with Shakespeare but it doesn’t work. I get very sleepy and then suddenly I want to listen to The Archers.”

“I think there’s a lot of Emperor’s New Clothes in theatre,” she told the Telegraph. “Nobody wants to be the one who doesn’t understand it so nobody says they don’t. I feel that then becomes a conspiracy.” A lot of theatre, “some of it Shakespeare, some of it not, feels like medicine”.

Attending Rice’s debut production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on press night, Ahmari reports an incoherent stew of dance routines, contemporary pop, self-referential wink-tipping, bowdlerized verse, adolescent gags, Hoxton hipsters, nipple tassles, disapproving allusions to contemporary ‘rape culture’, and omnipresent sitar music, all of which had been bafflingly transposed from Athens to Bankside in South London. Not only did this flatten the text’s poetry but, Ahmari argues, but the play’s tokenism also failed on its own multicultural terms:

Identitarian art rarely manages to raise marginalised and ‘subaltern’ voices. Doing so successfully requires really listening to such voices in all their rich complexity — whereas identitarian art usually searches for subaltern props with which to bash the ‘dominant’ culture.

For Ahmari, contemporary art’s preoccupation with political pedagogy recalls the airless didacticism of the Soviet Union’s Socialist Realism. The result is a suffocating conformity of message, reinforced by like-minded progressive critics and theorists. Turning his attention to these critics and theorists in Part Two, Ahmari picks his way through a round-table discussion published in the influential American magazine Artforum. The topic at hand was “art and identity” and Artforum had devoted its entire Summer 2016 issue to the topic.

The extracts Ahmari reprints in The New Philistines are heavy with obscurantist jargon and light on substantive disagreement. As Ahmari notes, the assembled all agree “that ‘neoliberalism’ is something bad; that liberal democracy is merely a more subtle form of tyranny; that Western societies are racist and sexist by design.” In a representative sample, participant Huey Copeland complains:

The conversation has changed, but that discursive shift doesn’t always correspond to a real shift. Homophobia, antiblackness, sexism, misogyny — all these forms of violence continue apace and are even more spectacularly displayed for us today, whether in the streets or on our phones. How do we reckon between this seeming contradiction in terms of what’s gained pedagogically, institutionally, and discursively through the politics of identity — and how that’s failed to gain traction in terms of politics on the ground, or structural transformations that actually impact people’s lives?

In plain English: our progressive ideas now dominate institutions, so why is America still a dystopian nightmare? This prompts much brow-furrowing and head-nodding from three other participants who solemnly agree that, yes, this is indeed confounding.

Ahmari resists easy derision and instead asks us to notice just how narrow the discussion is — the notion that art might offer something more than political instruction is not afforded even perfunctory consideration. But the Artforum discussion, he points out, spotlights another interesting question: what happens to radical anti-elitists once they displace the old elites?

In a 2003 essay, the former Women’s Studies professor Daphne Patai revisited a compendium published by the Feminist Press in 2000 entitled The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony From 30 Founding Mothers. This important volume, Patai wrote, was “filled with inspirational, even heroic, narratives that tell of individual commitment, struggle, and success.” But it also testified to the rapid success of feminism in transforming the institutions to which it had laid siege:

Within the first decade (1970-1980), approximately 350 Women’s Studies programs — that is about half of the currently existing ones — were set in place. There is no history in this book of concerted male resistance, no evidence of generalized institutional rejection of feminist faculty, students, and staff. On the contrary, what all this suggests is a society prepared for change and indeed embracing it, bolstered by legislation endorsed by the “patriarchal” government in Washington, D. C.

Patriarchy — that impregnable citadel of male privilege and the object of so much feminist anger and hatred — turned out to be a paper tiger, after all. Feminists discovered that in liberal democracies, radical activism can quickly become a casualty of its own success. Those for whom the attainment of political goals is less important than the romance of resistance itself, perversely require an immovable antagonist against which to hurl themselves. “Perhaps to their own disappointment,” Ahmari observes of the Artforum discussion, “the identitarians today find that liberal order has given in to most of their demands.”

America passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. By 2008, an African-American was President of the United States and returned to office 4 years later. At the time of writing, America looks likely to elect its first female head of state. Ahmari notes that “[i]n less than a generation, gay marriage has gone from unimaginable to the norm in dozens of Western countries . . . Transgender rights, the latest frontier in identity politics, will be conquered within this decade . . . [and] elite institutions [now] cater to the most exotic sexual minorities.”

The marginal is the norm. We are in the final chapters of liberal democracy’s story of ever-greater inclusion. What are the hardline identitarians to do? Posing as permanent outsiders, they are deeply uncomfortable now that they own the culture.

Instead of celebrating the part their achievements played in the march of progress, many activists answered this dilemma by turning on their former demands. They had rightly demanded greater representation — or ‘visibility’ — in a system they regarded as an implacable foe. But when these demands were met without the expected repression, they concluded they had been deceived, and that what looked like progress was in fact a bourgeois trap.

But what if they had simply misunderstood the nature of the enemy? What if liberal democracy is not a mendacious form of despotism at all, but a flexible system able to accommodate precisely the kind of change progressives want to effect? In liberal, free-market societies, Ahmari argues…

Marginal groups and peripheral movements rise up; they win legal emancipation and cultural acceptance; and then they are absorbed into the fabric of liberalism. At its best — or worst, depending on your outlook — liberal capitalism can defang even its most ardent enemies.

This defanging has bred a bitter resentment nourished by the unforgiving belief that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, activism has achieved nothing and that free societies remain as repressive as they ever were and as they ever shall be. This is a politics of hopelessness and despair, devoted only to the furious stoking of anger. So, having demanded and received acceptance from the mainstream, identitarians turned back to the fringes and retreated ever deeper into obscurantist theory and expression, spurning universalism and individualism as the stuff of compromise, co-option, and capitulation.

In the third and final part of The New Philistines, Ahmari takes a “self-guided tour of London’s contemporary arts scene” and discovers angry, sloganeering artists bristling with indignation and flinging themselves into the arms of self-parody. Open societies are far more permissive than they were as recently as 20 years ago, not least because provocateurs in the intervening years have succeeded in opening minds and forcing inhibitions into retreat. What was once considered provocative and outrageous has lost its capacity to shock and disturb. All that remains is an ugly petulance and inscrutability, accompanied by explanatory notes and artist bios thick with unintelligible gibberish and replete with references to things like “post-human pornography,” a “technosomatic variant of institutional critique,” and “accumulation by capital through gender binary.”

At a five-day film festival devoted to “themes of social and political identity” he attends a talk about “how political identities are depicted and captured with the moving image” and watches experimental films about “radical politics” and “black aesthetics” and “culture, aesthetics and learning through the lens of contemporary feminism” and “queer representational politics” and “consumptive capitalism” and so on. “This degree of conformity,” he remarks, “is unsettling.”

After a panel of film-makers stumble through a halting catechism of postmodern banalities during a Q&A, Ahmari asks if any of them would consider making films that are not explicitly political. His query is met with blank looks of incomprehension. These are people for whom the personal is political and vice-versa. All of life’s mysteries may be collapsed into this mantra. There is nothing else.

Does any of this matter? It does matter. Ahmari reminds us that identitarian politics is no longer confined to academia and the avant-garde fringe, no matter how much its theorists and practitioners may disdain the mainstream. Its exacting doctrines and strictures bleed into popular culture and inform the way that too is discussed.

Pop music finds itself in the dock, denounced for its “cultural appropriation” of style and iconography. Blockbusters and TV shows are convicted of ‘orientalism’, gender stereotyping, and so forth, often to the exclusion of any other considerations. On BBC Newsnight Review a few years ago, the feminist critic Bidisha described reading John Updike’s new novel Terrorist as “like being sexually assaulted by a very talkative racist who then made me drink the contents of a sewer — in talking about gender, in talking about race, identity, faith, anything.” When the novelist Tim Lott objected that Bidisha’s remarks were “overwrought”, she retorted: “It is a misogynistic cliché to call a woman’s response to misogyny overwrought.”

Examples of this myopic species of criticism are endless. As Ahmari’s book was going to press, the American novelist Lionel Shriver was addressing concerns about cultural appropriation in a thoughtful keynote speech to the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Identity politics, she argued, was imprisoning artists within silos of their own immediate experience and impoverishing the creative imagination. A young Australian writer of Sudanese descent was so scandalized by this suggestion that she stalked out of the hall in protest and fired 1300 words of haughty, incoherent indignation into the blogosphere. This so impressed the editors at the Guardian newspaper that they reprinted her post in full. The Festival, meanwhile, hastily disowned Shriver’s address and the sentiments expressed therein, and arranged a Right of Reply discussion in a craven effort to pacify Shriver’s apoplectic critics.

Sohrab Ahmari’s slender polemic is hardly likely to be the last word on the subject but it is an elegant and necessary salvo in a new culture war. A palpable dismay and alarm seeps from between the lines of its carefully measured prose, not least because, as he points out in his closing paragraphs, this has ramifications for our moment that extend well beyond art and entertainment.

The gathering backlash against relativism, communitarianism, and political correctness is producing a populist politics that has not been slow to adopt the Left’s language of anti-elitism and identity in the furtherance of its own reactionary grievance agenda. The Trump candidacy is the most immediately menacing of these, but across the European continent, right-wing anti-establishmentarians are stirring into life and drumming up support among those dissatisfied with the multicultural pieties they have been made to swallow.

When the execution of a roomful of cartoonists by religious fanatics in a Western capital prompts a substantial section of the left-wing blogosphere and commentariat to condemn the victims for their insensitivity to cultural and religious difference, it should be evident that something has gone profoundly wrong. Arguments about liberty and free expression have been turned inside out.

The revolutionaries of the New Left who once fought a conservative establishment for the right to be heard have become the new authoritarians. Today’s iconoclasts are those who resist asphyxiation by the Left’s cultural commissars and who demand the right to think, speak, and create works of the imagination that challenge prevailing notions of acceptability and good taste. “Every revolutionary,” Albert Camus once wrote, “ends by becoming an oppressor or a heretic.” So let us once more stand up for heresy.

Jamie Palmer

Jamie Palmer is senior editor at Quillette.