The general public hates modern art. In an online poll, The Escapist magazine asked if modern art even qualifies as art in the first place. Only one person in five said that it does. At Debate.org, when asked if modern art is real art, 70 percent said no, it’s not. The collapse in artistic standards has been obvious for a while. In 2005, ABC News ran an experiment showing that even most artists and art critics can’t tell the difference between modern art and finger paintings by four-year-olds. Worse, however—and the general public has been dismissing modern art for so long now that most people aren’t even aware of this—the contemporary art world is crippling itself with axe-grinding identity politics.
This is the subject of Sohrab Ahmari’s short, barn-burning polemic, The New Philistines (just published in the U.K. and available now in the U.S. on Kindle, and in April 2017 in hardcover). Ahmari, a London-based Wall Street Journal editorial writer, takes the reader on a tour through London’s dismal art scene, where beauty is out and racial, gender, and sexual identitarianism are in; where form and aesthetics are pitched over the side and replaced with trashy attempts to shock the audience out of some imagined complacency. “Universalist, legible art still brings throngs of reverent, beauty-starved people to the museums, galleries, theaters and cinemas,” he writes. “It is why museum retrospectives of the great masters—from Greek sculpture to high modernism—usually sell out. Meanwhile, the contemporary art world of the identitarians is a desert scattered with tumbleweeds.”
Ahmari was inspired to write The New Philistines after attending a spectacularly unpleasant performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. The theater’s new director, Emma Rice, detests the original Shakespeare. The Bard’s plays, she says, are “tedious” and “inaccessible.” Perhaps, with such a dim view of the source material and its creator, she should have taken a different job, but instead she chose to make Shakespeare more “relevant.” “Relevance meant rewriting the play,” Ahmari writes, “and not just rewriting, but bad rewriting.” For instance, “Away, you Ethiope,” was changed to, “Get away from me, you ugly bitch.” Rice knew that plenty of Shakespeare purists would find her coarse edits appalling, so she had an actor walk on stage in a spacesuit and say, “Why this obsession with text?” She also placed identity politics front and center. She mandated, for instance, that 50 percent of the cast be female regardless of the gender of the characters. “It’s the next step for feminism,” she said, “and it’s the next stage for society to smash down the last pillars that are against us.”
Ahmari was aghast, and he wasn’t alone. The Globe announced last week that Rice would depart after just one season at the helm.
Ahmari decided to investigate the London art world to find out how pervasive this sort of thing actually is and found that the entire scene has become obsessed with identity politics at the expense of everything else, especially beauty and form. “The hostile takeover of a beloved institution was by no means a one-off event,” he writes. “It was an expression of one of the deepest cultural trends of our time. Identity politics now pervade every medium and mode of art, from architecture to dance to film to painting to theater to video, from the highest avant-garde to the lowest schlock.” His first stop was a multimedia installation at Gasworks by London-based Sidsel Meineche Hansen. She created an exhibition that, in her words, “foregrounds the body and its industrial complex” in a “technological variant of institutional critique,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. On a screen looped animated images of a female humanoid named EVA 3.0 stroking a strap-on penis made out of lasers and flames on a wooden bondage and sadomasochism rack.
Ahmari moved on to a film festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts near Trafalgar Square. One of the selected films, YOU ARE BORING, is about what it’s like to be “looked at” within “queer representational politics.” Another, Party for Freedom, is about the supposed “increasingly phobic natures of Western societies (homo-, islamo-, xeno-, to name a few),” ignoring the fact that with legal same-sex marriage sweeping both Europe and North America, one can safely say the West has never been less homophobic. The institute also hosted an exhibit by American artist Martine Syms that explored photography “as a colonial tool.”
During a panel discussion, Ahmari asked two filmmakers if they ever thought about creating projects with nonpolitical content or considered aesthetics. They looked at him like he’d wandered in from another dimension and told him, in so many words, no. He wanted to pull his hair out. “It is almost inconceivable,” he writes, “that so many filmmakers could think of nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing—but the politics of representation, ‘performativity,’ gender, race, queer theory, etc. There must be other subjects, in the world outside or in their inner lives, which belong on the silver (or digital) screen.”
Next, Ahmari visited the South London Gallery and saw an exhibit called “Perform Gender: A Multidisciplinary Event Celebrating Art, Theater, Queer Culture and Gender Equality” that showcased plaster casts of women’s breasts on the floor and menstrual pads on the walls. In small doses, this is nothing to get bent out of shape about. It’s axe-grinding and low brow, for sure, but not even in Leonardo da Vinci’s time was every artist Leonardo da Vinci. The trouble is that Ahmari had a hard time finding anything in London’s art scene created by anyone who wasn’t obsessed with identity politics or who cared a whit for aesthetics and beauty. “Since social power dynamics and collective identity are all that such art knows and cares about,” he writes, “its practitioners can’t grapple with individuality, with things of the soul, with the inner life—the very things that draw most of us to art in the first place.”
By obsessing over politics above all else, identitarian artists of the twenty-first century resemble the Socialist Realists from the Soviet Union in the early- to mid-twentieth century. One could charitably call Socialist Realism an artistic style, one that glorified peasants, factory workers, and Communist values, but it was nurtured by a totalitarian police state and was the only “style” allowed by the government lest hapless artists wished to live out the remaining days of their lives in a Siberian slave labor camp. “Like Socialist Realism,” Ahmari writes, “identitarian art claims to be revolutionary, but in fact rigidly adheres to a set of political dictates. Master its political grammar, and you can easily decode any piece of identitarian art. For all its claims to ‘transgressiveness,’ identity art is drearily conformist.”
At least the Russian Socialist Realists were talented artists. They produced totalitarian propaganda, yes, but they did it competently. Their paintings are interesting and engaging, and not just because they’re curious historical artifacts. “Not so with today’s identitarian critics,” Ahmari writes, “who care little for art history and aesthetics.” It is this—their ignorance and even contemptuous dismissal of what attracts people to art in the first place—that inspired Ahmari to label them Philistines. Ahmari is not, by the way, accusing these people of holding beauty and form in contempt. He is simply describing their work and what many of them think and say openly. He quotes British artist Grayson Perry, for instance, who says, “To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty hierarchy, tainted with sexism, racism, colonialism and class privilege.”
The New Philistines is no tirade written by a grumpy Grandpa Simpson. It reads more like the marvels of a stranger in a strange land. Ahmari is a young Millenial immigrant from Iran. He grew up in a tyrannical theocracy; fell in love with the West, its freedoms, and its political liberalism; and was fortunate enough to move here as a teenager. And now, as a sophisticated young adult, he’s startled by what he is seeing.
Ahmari certainly doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with having women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and sexual minorities as the subjects of art. The visibility of such people, he cogently argues, is at the heart of a decent culture. If Western art were devoid of anything non-white, non-male, non-Christian, and non-heterosexual, we’d be living in an artistic, cultural, and political wasteland. “The history of liberal democracy has been the story of rights extended to ever more people,” he writes. “The arts played a decisive role, by making visible the despised and hitherto-invisible other.” He cites examples as old as the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beacher Stowe and as recent as the film Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, about a gay man dying of AIDS. He could have added HBO’s spectacular eight-episode series, The Night Of, about an innocent Pakistani-American Muslim accused of a brutal crime he didn’t commit. This kind of art requires “sharpening of the moral senses to detect the other’s pain, which in turn helps expand society’s conception of who belongs.”
You might think today’s identitarians champion this sort of thing, but they don’t. On the contrary, they hate it. “Identitarians are deeply suspicious of liberal visibility and representation . . . . Today’s identitarians aren’t out to rectify the West’s shortcomings . . . . The art-world identitarians are committed, at least on paper, to overthrowing the liberal order.”
Why should anyone outside the art world care about this? Why not ignore these people and leave them to fester in their own irrelevance? The problem isn’t just with the degradation of art, though that’s bad enough. The real trouble is with identitarianism itself and the society-wide tribalism that’s breaking out across the entire Western world, from San Diego to Budapest. Identity politics isn’t new, nor is the politicization of art, but the shots fired in the battle of group identities by the avant-garde Left is being answered by the identitarians of the so-called alt-Right.
“Is it any wonder,” Ahmari writes, “that Americans and Europeans are increasingly embracing nationalist parties and illiberal movements—or why Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and the like are making significant gains at the ballot box? The Balkanization of Western culture into opposing identitarian camps was never going to stop with the plastic vaginas, bastardized Shakespeare, ‘brown’ versus ‘white’ dance spaces, and so on.”
Political liberalism only works when citizens see and treat each other as individuals with equal value and rights regardless of their gender, religion, sexual orientation or skin color. The famous dream of Martin Luther King seems almost painfully antiquated these days. “Classically liberal bourgeois ideas about individual rights, limited government and free enterprise are attuned to human nature,” Ahmari writes, “whereas every effort to reorganize society along collectivist, revolutionary and identitarian lines has yielded blood and fire.” Indeed. The identitarians on the so-called alt-Right are just as committed to overthrowing the liberal order as those on the far-Left. What’s happening in the art world is merely a symptom.
Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images