You Are Not Important: Defund Identity Culture

You Are Not Important: Defund Identity Culture

Reilly Smethurst
Reilly Smethurst
6 min read

The Australia Council for the Arts, state Arts ministries, Humanities faculties, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) should not force taxpayers to fund work that explores the desert of identity and rejoices at mirages. Today, one encounters examples of identity culture in multiple artistic fields. “Join us to explore the meaning of identity,” wrote the Director of the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival on the program’s welcome page. The Director of the Melbourne Conservatorium, Gary McPherson, lists identity among his principal research topics. Pamela Burnard, a Cambridge professor and Melbourne University alumnus, considers identity of supreme importance. According to Burnard, academics and music teachers must “understand the voices and the multi-voicedness of students” and celebrate “diverse creativities” for the sake of an “emergent ecology.” (I do not know what this means.) John Gray, the well-known critic of liberal humanism, referred to Burnard’s ilk as members of “increasingly marginal universities.” The more that twenty-first-century societies lose interest in the Humanities, the more Humanities academics pretend to address everyone, promote social participation, and claim to make the world a better place, as if vying for a job on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Christine Liu labelled these people the “new elite of ordinariness” – academics on six-figure salaries that promise each and every identity, “You, too, are worthy of the limelight! You are important!” This is empty flattery.

Identity culture is not new. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, it began with Euripides. “Euripides brought the spectator on to the stage,” the young philologist explained. Thanks to Euripides, “people from everyday life pushed their way out of the audience and on to the stage; the mirror which once revealed only great and bold features now became painfully true to life, reproducing conscientiously even the lines which nature had drawn badly.” Euripides, in other words, is responsible for Gogglebox and participatory art. Euripides initiated the turn from the grand Hellene to the Graeculus – the “little Greek” that Juvenal loved to mock and that Nietzsche defined as a good-natured, domestic slave. At present, the Graeculus is the figure that Australian taxpayers are commanded to identify with and support – the supposedly good-natured struggler. British taxpayers face a similar problem. According to Gray, they too are forced to pay for the “right” of all citizens, most of whom are middle-class, “to assert what they take to be their identity,” especially if their identity can be represented as pitiful or oppressed, just like the Graeculus.

Identity culture is an offshoot of narcissistic philistinism. If one ceases to believe in the existence of profound truths, sublime terror, Art, gods, muses, or geniuses (defined classically as inhuman spirits), then one’s self or identity acquires a hyperbolic sense of importance. Contrary to what is said in Cultural Studies departments, Art’s supreme function is not the expression of a middle-class self or the construction of a millennial identity; it is the forgetting of the self. In ancient Greece, Dionysus’s followers lost themselves through music; today, Selena Gomez’s followers find themselves. This does not count as progress.

Identity culture is not unique to Australia, and it is not necessarily the pride and joy of the Right or the Left. Contemporary Europe, for example, is riven with populist identity movements such as France’s Génération Identitaire and Austria’s Identitären Bewegung. This is not music to the conservative Right’s ears. According to the reactionary provocateur, Michel Houellebecq, atomised identities and paltry, post-70s displays of empowerment are tantamount to “the suicide of the West.” As for the Left, not all factions celebrate identity. For Theodor Adorno, identity was cause for suspicion. He equated identity with “the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism.” (Identitarian safe spaces on contemporary university campuses are effects of this pledge.) More recently, the philosopher Alain Badiou mocked Third Way democracies’ obsequious treatment of “women, homosexuals, the disabled, Arabs” and fashionable identity-combinations such as “black homosexuals, disabled Serbs, moderate Muslims, married priests and ecologist yuppies.” According to Badiou’s argument, identity is bound up with niche media (Muslim feminist blogs, for example, for Muslim feminist audience members), “targeted advertising networks” and “heady public debates at peak viewing times.” Badiou is not wrong. Count the number of times that the word identity emerged during episodes of the ABC’s Q&A or SBS’s Insight between 2013 and 2016. The word is incessant.

Following Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Badiou advocated “indifference to difference” – an amusing phrase. For Paul, faith in Christ’s resurrection permitted indifference to differences between orthodox and secular identities, oppressed and privileged identities, masculine and feminine identities. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote. This is, I believe, the greatest verse from the New Testament. For Badiou (a modern Platonist), profound artistic, scientific, amorous, and political truths likewise permit indifference to trivial differences. Georg Cantor’s invention of set-theoretical mathematics, for instance, does not recognise or celebrate the opinions of any identitarian tribe. Cantor’s invention is not a toy of consumer-philodoxy or preening philanthropy. According to Badiou’s followers, the same can be said for the best artistic movements.

Claire Bishop, a British art-historian, is another leftist at odds with identity culture. Bishop particularly resents New Labour’s penchant for “fostering aspiration” among fashionable identities to the detriment of aesthetics and artistic experimentation as “values in and of themselves.” The Australian Labor party is guilty of more or less the same thing. When Graham Perrett spoke to Federal Parliament about Labor’s Creative Australia policy, he claimed that “searching for our identity is more important” than Art proper. Bishop holds progressive academia responsible for this line of reasoning. In the book that received the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, Richard Hofstadter characterised progressive academia as “an atmosphere of warm philanthropy and breathless idealism in which the needs of the less gifted and the under-privileged commanded a generous response.” In Hofstadter’s opinion, progressivism creates a bizarre, “self-defeating” version of democracy in which no citizens can be judged superior in any sense to “immature, insecure, nervous, retarded” people. I agree with both Bishop and Hofstadter. Progressive academia undoubtedly influences decisions about public arts funding in multiple capitalist democracies, and as Hofstadter warned, the effects are too often defeatist and despairing. Consider the recent, tax-funded production of Christoph Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice by Opera Queensland and the Blue Roo Theatre Company. Staged at the Judith Wright Centre in December 2016, the production featured performers with Downs Syndrome and other disability-identities. Is this really something that the majority of Australians would affirm as art? Is it even something that the majority of Australians would accept as professional entertainment? It is not, I claim, the best way to serve the arts; and I doubt it is the best policy to assist people with disabilities.

If identity culture is defunded, will this count as a conspiratorial win for White Nationalists? No. White male identity culture must be defunded, too, for the white male Graeculus is just as tedious as the feminist Graeculus, the LGBTIQ Graeculus, the moderate Muslim Graeculus, the disabled Serbian Graeculus, and the ecologist yuppie Graeculus. Consider, for example, the men from Spur Projects’ Make Sound. Spur is a small, not-for-profit organisation that will receive $500,000 under a Shorten Labor Government, according to a promise made by Senator Penny Wong in mid-2016. Make Sound is a program for Australian men (some of whom are white, obviously) “designed to create long-lasting and meaningful connections that really do last a lifetime.” How good-natured! The participants are “not required to have any previous experience in design, construction, composition, and performing”: they are indeed Graeculuses. The purpose of Make Sound is to gather together a bunch of Australian males with no necessary talent and teach them how to make musical instruments for a period of two weeks. Why? The men are apparently at risk of suicide. The point is clear: white males can adopt the struggler-identity, too, and unless my proposal succeeds, taxpayers will continue to pay for white male Graeculuses’ so-called cultural activities. This is the definition of patronising.

If taxpayers from both the Right and the Left refuse to fund identity culture, what exactly will remain of the arts? I shall briefly note two well-known alternatives – one Christian, one Greek. According to Dante Alighieri, Art is the grandchild of God. It is not principally a consumable that benefits one’s emotional well-being or scores in brain-training apps. Art is not a tool or a servant. The self, in its best possible form, serves Art. One is thereby committed to the mystery of Creation. This is a variant of Timaeus’s poetic sophistry. As Timaeus pointed out to Socrates, when creating a myth or a new image of the cosmos, sensible men invoke the gods. Timaeus did not dedicate his cosmology to Graeculuses. Gods and muses were figures of significance; the ordinary spectator was not, and neither was the master of technique that served as a paid entertainer (such as the wind player from Plato’s Symposium). Put simply, when art is Art, it involves something in excess of the spectator and the professional, the inexperienced and the skilled, the consumer and the producer. As soon as this mysterious ‘something’ is lost, one is cursed with self-belief and/or faith in one’s fellow Graeculuses, philistine identity culture and/or participatory art; hence the present predicament.

The Dante and Timaeus justifications may suffice for some, but religious or metaphysical rhetoric has little power to shift discussions about Australian arts funding in the year 2017. A secular justification is therefore necessary – one that affirms bodies of artistic work rather than bodies of over-valued opinion, and one that does not fall back on unlettered empiricism, nostalgia, or simplistic interpretations of the Nietzschean Übermensch (like Identitären Bewegung). The nature of this secular affirmation can be determined in future. For now, the preliminary necessity is clear: defund identity culture, with no pity and no exceptions. It clips both wings – the Right and the Left – and makes squawking galahs of us all.

ArtArt and Culture

Reilly Smethurst

Reilly Smethurst is an Australian-born writer. He has a philosophy doctorate from the Queensland Conservatorium.