This is a review of Sohrab Ahmari’s book, The New Philistines. It was originally published in the IPA Review in June 2017.
Corrupted by identity politics, high culture in the West is no longer about the search for truth or beauty, but merely a tool for the advancement of leftist social engineering. So argues Wall Street Journal editorial writer Sohrab Ahmari in The New Philistines, a polemic about contemporary art.
Ahmari’s target is not any contemporary art form or style. Instead, he takes aim at the political motivation of much, if not all, of today’s art. Debates about aesthetics are set to one side because the art world is now dominated by people who deny objective standards outright. ‘So long as you reject the rejection of universal truth and beauty, you are in my camp,’ he writes of the modern day art expert. The book is a defence of the traditional higher aspirations of art, an attempted vindication of the idea that the function of art is to bring us into communion with the ideal and thereby celebrate the human spirit.
In an observation of the effect that postmodern nihilism has on our cultural institutions, Ahmari describes the staging of a new version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the iconic Globe Theatre in London in 2014. The play, one of Shakespeare’s most popular, was desecrated, with the setting ‘updated’ to East London, lines rewritten and vulgarised, and Bollywood dance routines inserted. For Ahmari, the new version was an obvious failure, providing a clue to why all identity politics-driven art must necessarily fail. ‘Identitarian’ art, as Ahmari calls it, reduces everyone to token status, merely using cultural difference as a club with which to ‘bash the dominant culture’. As such, it does not engage with the struggles and aspirations of individuals and so cannot truly engender among the audience. He writes:
This … is identitarian art’s greatest injustice against the culture: since social power dynamics and collective identity are all that such art knows and cares about, 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.
In place of universal truth, contemporary art elevates politics. The worth of art is measured in how successful it is in promoting the narrow politics of intersectional post-structuralism, the idea that society should be understood as the product of various inequalities of power that disadvantage members of particular groups. This mode of analysis has been adopted wholesale by art critics, and it is they who create a cultural safe space for the bad art that fills our galleries and theatres and from which even Shakespeare himself is not safe.
These critics are the titular ‘New Philistines’, who care nothing for art beyond its political utility. They have developed a whole language for describing art in terms of their one true concern, power. Among these terms is legibility, the idea that art should be in some way readable or intelligible. Oddly enough, today’s artists see legibility as a misguided ideal: on this view, the idea that something might be universally understood erases essential differences between individuals created by their membership of privileged or disadvantaged groups.
Moreover, as Ahmari notes, they have mistaken obscurity for complexity. The evasive opacity of postmodernism is designed to distance its art, literature and philosophy from objective interpretation, leaving critics merely to assess its utility for the struggle. Indeed, there is no other function critics might perform, since there is no other way to look at art but through its relationship to the power dynamics of the society from which it originated.
Against this sad vision, Ahmari defends art as an expression of liberal universalism, the capacity of all individuals to comprehend the truth, and as a foundation for liberal democracy. Universalism in art and liberalism in politics are connected. In both, humans cultivate and express their capacity for empathy:
The desire to be universally legible is thus among art’s oldest and noblest impulses. And yet, among the identitarians, it is considered a great sin … when identitarians attack legibility, they are also taking aim at the liberal-universal vision of culture. For democratic liberalism is indeed bound up with a universalist idea of culture.
While Ahmari’s defence of objective aesthetic standards is welcome, he harms his case by connecting it to his specific politics. In doing so, he invites upon himself many of the criticisms he has levelled at the identitarians.
For example, at one point he praises the ‘decisive role’ that some art has played in the extension of individual rights to previously marginalised people. He cites the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Dickens’ illustrations of the deprivations of Victorian London, the ‘criminally underappreciated’ painting of Norman Rockwell, and the 1993 Oscar-winner about the AIDS crisis, Philadelphia. However, with the exception of Dickens at his best, a case could certainly be made against the merits of these works, which range from stilted to maudlin. If the argument is that the higher aspirations of art are somehow more than merely political, it is self-defeating to canonise these works for their political impact just because we happen to agree with their messages.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Ahmari’s view of good art and politics as complementary expressions of liberal empathy is confusing. It would either imply that art of non-liberal civilisations be excluded from the annals, or lead to a convoluted argument separating the supposed liberalism inherent in the art of, say, China, from the decidedly illiberal culture of which it is surely part.
Ahmari’s focus on the role that identity politics has played in undermining traditional aesthetic standards leads him to downplay the nihilism inherent in postmodernism, which is present even when identity politics is not. The work of the identitarians is necessarily built on the earlier efforts of men like Jackson Pollock to elide the difference between meaning and nonsense and, ultimately, between good and bad.
Lastly, Ahmari’s abstract universalism is simply too thin a definition of culture. Good art is particular: it is good because it is connected to the ideas and customs of a particular group of people. This network of meaning enriches the art and the experience of the observer, and it is by playing on these allusions to everyday concepts and actions that art enables communion with the higher good. The postmodernists have jettisoned history in the way that a spaceship releases itself from a booster rocket, and now they orbit the planet, unmoored, distant and uncomprehending. We must not join them there. Instead, we must recognise that the good is both ideal and real, and that merit—in art as in anything else—exists in the connection between the two.
Just as liberalism is established in the real world in nation-states, so too is aesthetic merit found in, and made possible by, the existence of a broader system of meaning, which we call civilisation. As such, we must defend objectivity, which Ahamri does manfully, but we must also appreciate the depth and thickness of our culture. For it is in this context that we engage one another; it is how we pursue the truth and find meaning in the world. We can defend neither liberal democracy nor art without recognising the specialness of Western Civilisation and its unique ideas, institutions and values.