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December 1, 2016

Event Summary: ‘The New Philistines’

by
Henry Jackson Society

By Frank Kibble

On Monday 28th November The Henry Jackson Society welcomed former Visiting Fellow Sohrab Ahmari back to Millbank Tower to speak on his book, entitled The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure The Arts. Published by Biteback, Mr. Ahmari introduced his polemic as a study of how the art world is being politicised at the expense of traditional forms of beauty. As an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, he argued that this usurping was having a trickle-down effect on the world of politics in light of Brexit and Donald Trump.

He suggested that themes of race, gender and sexuality have become so prevalent in the art world that they now dominate the production of all discourse. Using the example of the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ 2016 London Film Festival in a reading from his book, Ahmari quoted at length various examples of what he called “gobbledygook” that one encounters when consuming art today. He contended that the Foucaultian templates that inform much of what is produced have become hackneyed to an extent that artists today have nothing to say about the world around them or their inner self. Rather, he went on to say, a subconscious embrace of the politics of identity has taken place.

Turning then to how and why this affects politics and the world around us, Ahmari asserted that art has, in the past, helped to create a common culture relevant to a free society. The enshrining of distinct identities however would have a “balkanizing” effect as he saw it, leading to a process of alienation where no-one can relate to one another. Indeed Ahmari saw the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump and similar sentiments of the EU Referendum Debate as evidence of this effect in practice. Developments in the art world were seen to reinforce certain ways of ‘doing’ politics. And returning to the content of his book, he warned that this was producing a lot of “ugly” art that had no merit by traditional aesthetic standards.

In a lively Q&A session following Ahmari’s talk, he was asked about contemporary preoccupation with ‘cultural appropriation’. He dismissed this preoccupation as ignoring the “cultural intermingling” that had gone on since the beginning of time. Pressed on the source base of his book, he enlightened the audience about the prominent journal Art Forum which he argued set the agenda for the art world and enshrined the politics of identity as the “dominant” theme within it. Responding to another question, Ahmari argued that in mainstream art the traditional concept of beauty is perennially rubbished in favour of the politics of identity. He suggested that the few who attempt to produce art inspired by these forms experience a glass ceiling and are resigned to working and exhibiting in so-called second-tier locations.

Concluding the session, Ahmari was questioned on developments in science and technology to which he agreed that it threatened traditional forms of beauty alongside the politics of identity. He offered an optimistic assessment in response to this, however, asserting that technological progress was not tantamount to moral progress. The human condition, he argued, would forever make it necessary for expressions of beauty through the arts to supersede the distinctions offered by the politics of identity.

To see a full transcript of this event click here