DATE: Monday 28th November 2016, 18:00-19:00
VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower, 21-24 Millbank, SW1P 4QP
SPEAKER: Sohrab Ahmari, Author, The New Philistines
CHAIR: Emma Webb, Henry Jackson Society
Emma Webb: A passionate plea for discrimination is vital; this is a topic that’s close to my heart. You may know of the excellent works on the topic by Angus Kennedy, who called for discrimination as a necessity in being cultured, and the excellent work of Anthony Daniels on discrimination as a guarantor of civilisation. This topic encompasses everything from philosophical questions about post-modernism, subjectivity and judgement to broader considerations about western civilisation and its future. Sohrab’s work is part of this conversation without which our appreciation of art and our ability to create beauty would be condemned to becoming flabby, unrefined, shallow, drab and boring. When you believe that there is no such thing as objectivity, it’s inevitable that art and everything else along with it will become instrumentalised. In Sohrab’s new book, The New Philistines, he explores the cultural scene where art is celebrated for its conformity to fashionable ideology, rather like a bed disfigured to fit with the limits of identity politics. Sohrab is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal and is now based in London. He studied law at Northeastern University in Boston and completed a two year commitment for Teach for America. He has given evidence in Parliament and is a regular on British and American broadcast media. So without further ado: Sohrab.
Sohrab Ahmari: Thank you. Thank you all for coming. It’s a cold November night so it’s terrific to see you all here. Some of you I know professionally, personally, some I don’t and I look forward to meeting you. And let me thank the HJS for hosting this; I have a long-standing association and friendship with the HJS: I was a non-resident fellow of the Society while I was in law school so this is a very special place now that I’m based in London and it’s terrific to have a book launch here.
The book is called The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts. It’s one of those books where the title and subtitle in a way encompass the thesis. The book is about an art world that is overwhelmingly politicised at the expense of traditional aesthetic criteria and traditional purposes and functions of art, in the west at least. So it’s a familiar topic but I hope to perhaps update you a bit. So I’ll read a small section of the book and then go on to draw broader conclusions from outside that chapter or to extend those conclusions.
In the third chapter of the book, I try to test the main hypothesis which is that the art world is dominated by identity politics and constantly and only about race, gender, sexuality ad infinitum. So the third chapter is my attempt to actually test whether that is the case or not. And I tour several galleries, theatre performances, dancer performances, all of them in London, up and down the city, and every single one of them had something to do with race, gender and sexuality – explicitly, and at the expense of everything else. So let me take you to the ICA, just off Trafalgar Sq, where there was a film festival on this summer. So let me give you a taste of it.
‘New venue, new medium. A double decker takes me to the ICA. I’m here for the 2016 Artist Film Biennale, a five-day celebration of artists’ films and the moving image. The brochure says ‘themes of social and political identity permeate the content and subjects explored by the participants. These themes underpin moving images’s relevance in 2016.’ No kidding. Seemingly every screening, workshop and talk at the festival has identity politics at its core. The dead giveaway, before attending any screening, is Michel Foucault’s fingerprints, that dreadful prose style, the conceptual poppycock stamped all over the programme. One speaker talks about taking the experience of Bambi and Sleeping Beauty beyond the field of their narratives, for them to encounter vivid sexual awakanings. A screening session entitled ‘Always, Already, Yes’ has addiction as its theme. The curator sees it as ‘a counterfeit in the economy of desire with enjoyment induced outside the circulation of social practises. The addicted subject is provisional, porous, inessential, performative. It is a community without asserting an identity. The addicted user circumvents the assumpted reality of consumerist capitalism because the supplement, in whatever form or activity – sexual, consumer, chemical etc – can produce a biologically absolute enjoyment. The subject therefore bypasses and redirects the previous subject-object relations and reinvests them in the new closed system: the body.’
No doubt Tim Steer [the curator] thinks this gobbledegook is the height of profundity, and surely at least one person would agree.
The next day, a talk on ‘political identity and the moving image’ which explores ‘how political identities are depicted and captured with the moving image’. The day after that: ‘In the commercial break: a programme of moving images selected by the American artist Martine Simms on such themes as radical politics and black aesthetics, politics as something to do with your body, the black radical tradition.’ The ICA also shows a multimedia exhibition by Simms that explores how photography is ‘a colonial tool.’
And the day after that there’s a series of academic presentations aimed at ‘understanding both emergent forms of mediated fragmentation and emergent forms of mediated politics.’ This is followed by a selection of moving images curated by ‘a concomitant group of artists and radicals exploring culture, aesthetics and learning through the lens of contemporary feminism.’ Among the selected films is You Are Boring which ‘addresses the troublesome themes of looking and being looked at by queer politics.’ Plus, a film titled Party for Freedom on ‘the increasingly phobic nature of Western society: homo-, Islamo-, Xeno- to name a few’ and immediately following that, concluding the festival’s programme, a screening selected by Ming Wan, ‘an artist working with performance, video and instillation to explore cinematic histories and the politics of gender and representations.’
It is almost inconceivable that so many artists, film makers and so on could think of nothing, be inspired by nothing, nothing nothing nothing but the politics of representation, performativity, gender, race, queer theory and so on.
There must be other subjects, in the world outside or in their inner lives, which belong on the silver or digital screen. This degree of conformity is unsettling. It should alarm cultural elites rather than comfort them that if the art world’s ideological atmosphere is so thick and pervasive if those inside it don’t even realise that it is the air they breathe.
Forgive me: I forgot to mention one other permissible topic. Consumptive capitalism. That oppressive economic system which creates mass sums of taxable wealth, which in turn allows the UK government to fund even this nonsense.’
So I’ll stop there, that’s just a taste of the book, and as you saw literally every performance, literally every artist represented, had nothing to say about the world around them or their own inner lives other than that which comes through the unholy trinity of race, gender and sexuality.
The chapter goes on, there’s a dance performance, which of course is about the relationship between the body, dancing and identity politics. I also write in the first chapter about Emma Rice, the new Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe, who came with a heavy-handed ideological agenda to make Shakespeare ‘relevant’ which for her means that there has to gender parity among the actors onstage: 50/50 regardless of the ramifications for meaning, narrative and so on. The Globe actually parted ways with her this year; they said her tenure would end early. The reason they cited was that she preferred to use lighting and amplifiers when it’s supposed to be a replica theatre that reproduces the conditions of Shakespeare’s time. I think there was also some of these other dimensions; but I won’t claim credit for Emma Rice’s departure from the globe.
Why does this matter? We’re in the midst of an extraordinary set of elections that have happened in both the UK and the US where you have the rise of Donal Trump, you have the rise of a certain kind of populist right across continental Europe; you’ve had Brexit, Islamist terrorism. Surely there must be more important things than what happens in the art world.
And yet, as I argue in the book, what happens in the art world matters to those other issues as well. Because, traditionally, art at its very best has helped create a common culture and has been complementary to the development of the free societies that we live in. So my thesis that I submit to you is that when you have a culture that is so Balkanised – and by the way, this stuff isn’t just limited to the world of high art or what happens in serious art galleries and museums, but also it’s increasingly shaping popular culture and our response to it. The result is a sense of Balkanisation where people can’t relate to each other; people are becoming increasingly tribal and withdrawing into their own identities. And you ask why; well one answer is that we have a culture that relentlessly tells us that we should be divided up into our identitarian differences, whether it’s race, gender, nationality and so forth and that the assertion of claims about identity are sacred and that if a piece of art bring self-affirmation to an artist based on their race, gender, blah blah blah, identity, that in itself is enough to say that it has value. Not traditional criteria of beauty and formal rigour and so forth.
That says something about culture, and the things that happen in these elite institutions – the themes that they put forward – eventually trickle down to the broader civil society and the broader culture. So when culture only rewards a certain definition of identity, eventually the majority of European societies, and in the US as well, will want its share of the identity pie. So that the white majority in these societies will say well if identity is the basis of culture – not universal values, not shared experiences or a sense of shared common democratic purpose – then we want our share of the identitarian pie as well and we want, say, Donald Trump.
The relentless Balkanisation that happens at institutions like the ICA, and the elite galleries, and art criticism, and the institutions that uphold all of that actually shape our culture as well. And I think it makes for not only a culture that’s ugly but also a culture that’s alienating us from each other because we can’t relate to each other, we can’t see the common things in each other. And that’s the book’s main thesis and I think the major criticism that has been posed to the book is that I am somehow retrograde and I want us to go back to restage the Sistine chapel, or go back to Hellenistic sculpture and so forth. And I’m not, in fact; I’m a fan of and enthusiast of much modern and contemporary art.
What I take issue with is an art world that only speaks to itself in this impossible ridiculous jargon that is designed to essentially discourage outside scrutiny and outside criticism. And that finally presents really ugly stuff for the most part that won’t be remembered and that doesn’t speak to any higher values.
That’s my contention. So I’m not saying that what happened at the ICA caused Brexit, or the rise of Donald Trump, but I would suggest that the phenomena are not entirely unrelated. So I’ll stop there: I’ve talked for about 15 minutes and I’m happy to take questions if there are any.
Question one: there’s a lot of talk in the wider social justice movement about cultural appropriation ie you shouldn’t inspire yourself – whether it’s cooking or writing or any form of visual expression – from a culture that’s not yours, because it doesn’t belong to you. And I think that’s very disturbing when you think about art which has always enriched itself from different traditions. Have you encountered such objections in your work, or seen an artist who tried to borrow from other forms of expression being shut down?
Sohrab Ahmari: Yes, excellent question. So I actually do adress cultural appropriation in the book. So for those who aren’t in the know – and I don’t blame you if you’re not because it’s this rarefied world of identity politics – but essentially it’s the idea that artists or creators more generally should avoid being inspired, that’s how I’d put it, by other cultures, or cultures that don’t belong to them. Because that’s a sort of cultural theft and it’s a sort of broader oppression that happens primarily when people from the dominant culture, whatever you define that to be, when it appropriates the things – the beautiful objects, the ideas and so forth – of marginalised communities, let’s put it that way. And it’s nonsense. I guess we could put that into practise but then let me see what things we wouldn’t have. We wouldn’t have rock music, we wouldn’t have jazz. We wouldn’t have access to a great deal of classical philosophy, which came to us because the arabs culturally appropriated the classical world. So eventually you have a world in which the microbe that appropriated the single-cell organism shouldn’t have done it either?
The whole of civilisation is about cultural mingling and intermingling and dynamism. I will say there is an exception when it’s outright theft. So there’s an example of the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight from The Lion King. That was a case where it was a song written by South African Zooloos and somehow it became a popular song, but the people who actually wrote the song would have been entitled to royalties and so that’s a clear case of cultural appropriation that’s a sort of copyright violation. Fine. But anything beyond that and the concept of cultural appropriation is to say that there shouldn’t be cultural intermingling, there shouldn’t be cultural dynamism or exchange. So it’s ridiculous. And it’s definitely part of this agenda.
Question two: I wanted to ask you about your evidence base. We’ve not read the book yet but you talked about the ICA and that resonates a bit. Could you just comment on the breadth of your evidence base and, for example, fringe theatre is doing some of what you describe but a lot that is different and lot that isn’t what you describe. So, what was your evidence base, what did you feel about it, and when you looked at it were there any sort of beacons of light that weren’t doing identity-gender politics?
Sohrab Ahmari: So unfortunately I didn’t have an army of research assistants to go through every exhibit, dance performance, or theatre show and so forth that’s been staged over a certain period of time and then to have them quantify somehow whether each piece promotes identity politics or does something else.
So essentially the evidence is anecdotal. So I ranged through every medium, and there are some that I left out because the series that the book is published in is a short polemic so you only have a limited amount of space to work with. But for the most part I went to dance, I went to theatre, primarily in London, video, performance art, painting – which has sort of disappeared, but what’s left of it – installation and so forth. And I would say that without me trying – I didn’t mean to set out to find these things – but every single thing I ran into had something or other to do with identity politics.
And then it’s worthwhile looking, for example, at the main critical journals that set the agenda for the art world. So in one chapter I look at an entire edition of the magazine Art Forum. And literally every single article, every single review, has to do with identity politics.
Is there other kinds of art being made? Of course. And the book is a polemic so I go for the jugular and I suggest that perhaps there isn’t. But no, obviously there are other kinds of art being made. But I would say that the dominant strain, the kind of art that is promoted in the serious galleries, in the institutes and museums, and that world of Art Forum and similar magazines is overwhelmingly driven by this kind of thing. And I just challenge you: go to these places, the ICA, or just randomly open Art Forum and I promise you the first thing you hit will have something to do with race, gender, sex.
But, yes, there is plenty of other great art being made – in this city and elsewhere. And I found plenty of it. For example, at The Globe, until recently, you could see rather orthodox productions of Shakespeare’s canon being performed terrifically. There’s plenty of great painting going on that falls below the radar – and, by the way, it’s often in second-tier cities. The first tier is London, New York and Los Angeles. But in places like Boston, Vancouver, Manchester you’re more likely to find artists who are grappling with timeless aesthetic challenges and themes. They don’t rise to the radar, and I would submit that this is because there is an ideological gateway to the art world, and if you don’t pass the criteria, you won’t get as noticed.
Question three: Have you considered that the rise of this kind of art may be due to these people having a voice? Because with the rise of political correctness, people who used to be kept in a corner, who used to be kept quiet, are given a voice.
Sohrab Ahmari: Those are very good questions, and if you’re prepared to listen I’d like to share my theory of the rise of the alternative right. I’m a kind of Reagan-ite conservative, so I believe in an equal vision, a West that acts with confidence on the world stage, individual rights and private enterprise, domestically, and some respect for tradition. That’s basically the old conservative programme, at least in the Anglo-American sphere, that’s being pushed aside, I argue, with that kind of politics which is more tribal and it says the programme doesn’t work: that we’re squeezed on one hand by a right that deregulates and makes us economically insecure and left that accuses us of racism and sexism and so on. And so we’re going to stick together as the majority – perhaps the depressed and constrained majority in European and American society. I find the rise of this kind of right dangerous. I find the populism – and there are some genuinely bigoted elements in it – is dangerous. But can we create a symbol that all people aspire to? Yeah! It’s the old vision of liberal democracy. For example in the art world, we’re not putting forward a programme saying: this is what art should stand for, this is what art should do. We’re not the soviet union, we’re not Cuba. But art should be an open quest, so that people can answer for themselves: what is beauty, what is truth, what is the relationship between them? But in a sphere where all the answers are already given – and the people who populate the art world know who is right and who is wrong – you create a particular juncture of power, identity and privilege that excludes a whole bunch of people. Then not only is the art bad but it’s also irrelevant to a lot of people.
So I think the answer, frankly, is liberal democracy: the reassertion of common values, and a move away – particularly on the part of the left – from these kind of identity politics. It’s gone too far and people are pushing back. And they way they’re pushing back isn’t the kind of universal liberalism that you or I would like; they’re pushing back with their own form of identity politics. And I think finding a third way between right-wing populist identity politics on the one hand, and politically correct censorious left-wing identity politics on the other, is the great challenge for liberals in this generation.
Question four: you have said that art should aspire to higher values. It won’t be solved by liberal democracy alone: people don’t believe in values like truth and beauty. Ruskin pointed out that when artists start moving away from beauty they simply become ticklers and fans of the soul’s sleep. And I think that’s the situation that we’re in. I’m not confident that any good art is being produced. You’re really describing the result of a more general malaise: when people don’t have any notion of beauty, what do artists do? And when anyone who tries to talk about beauty rubbished, what are they supposed to do except relax into anger and identity politics?
Sohrab Ahmari: I endorse a lot of your sentiments. In fact, I don’t know why I sounded optimistic: I haven’t seen very good art. I will say that a lot of the people in the art establishment don’t believe in beauty; beauty is actually a very awkward term. At one of the events I went to at the ICA, there was a Q&A session and I asked the two artists who were presenting: do you ever begin a project with non-politcal goals in mind? Do you ever start with an idea that’s not political? Does traditional aesthetic criteria ever come into play? And they looked at me like I was from mars! One of them was like: beauty! Pah! With such contempt.
Just to be clear: I don’t mean art necessarily has to be narrative driven, or that art has to be figurative instead of abstract. Just that beauty can be – or should be – one aspiration when an artist approaches art.
Question five: why has this become so prevalent in the art world? And also why has identity politics become so prevalent this year?
Sohrab Ahmari: I think on the first question, the avant-garde has always – for much of the C20th – gravitated to the political left. In the 60s and 70s as the old left – the Soviet Union – came to be seen as a calcified, non-relevant entity on the world stage, gradually the art world gravitated to identity politics. This was a time of ferment, and it gathered force. By the 80s and 90s and the Soviet Union collapsed, that was when the progeny of the new left emerged and said: our demands should coalesce around identity and the politics of representation and the aesthetics of representation. And many of the people who came of age around that time now rule many of the art establishments and institutions.
As for your second point. Art isn’t the only place that this has become a big issue. Trump and populism are rising. There’s been slow economic growth; in the US we’ve had a decade of growth rising at 2% per year, when we’re used to 3% or 4%. When growth stumbles and people feel like the welfare pie is not getting any bigger, then they become a lot more reluctant to share the welfare pie with newcomers, with immigrants and so forth. I would say that the immigration crisis absolutely has had something to do with catalysing the far-right in Europe and to do with the backlash in the US as well, even though the US hasn’t taken in that many ‘refugees.’
Those are the wider causes that go beyond art and culture. And there is a genuinely exclusionary populist politics that never goes away, and it is the task of mainstream politics to combat them. No platforming, speech codes, aggressive identity politics and so forth.
Question six: what will Donald Trump’s cultural policy be?
Sohrab Ahmari: in the US there isn’t really such a thing as cultural policy. Which I kind of like. I mean, we have a national endowment for humanties and arts which, in comparison with the US budget, is just some miniscule amount. I would like less cultural policy in Europe in terms of less state funding. It’s odd in a liberal democracy where people have equal access to a public square and to the arts market why the state should subsidise any art – other than what it buys for public institutions.
Question seven: who decides what is good art? What is art? Is an engine from WWII art, just because it is well put together? Is there any criteria? Define objectivity.
Sohrab Ahmari: well the engine is beautiful, but I would say that it’s not built primarily as a beautiful object. If you find beauty in it, it’s a subsidiary effect: it’s not the main purpose of that object. But why an object or a piece of art is beautiful is a vast question. But I would say that there is such a thing as relatively objective beauty. We have standards that have devolved in every medium across centuries and millennia. They are partly based on consensus and partly based on philosophical inquiry beginning with Aristotle. What I would say is that if you agree with me that, say, the Denial of St Peter is objectively beautiful across time, across your identity as whatever you are; beauty is not a function of ideology because it affirms somone’s power or someone’s lack of power; then you share my premise. We can go on and define beauty. People have grappled with that question for millennia, for centuries, and we could debate about that. But if you just agree with me that the Western canon, what it has left us, is objectively beautiful, and that that beauty is not merely a function of power ideology, you already share my premise. Now we can go to explore what is the relationship between form and content, why should art be sincere etc etc? We can debate that. But at least agree with me that these things aren’t just beautiful because the powerful say so. That’s the view in the establishment of the current art world: that beauty is merely what white, privileged blah blah blah heterosexual males have said it is. The very concept of beauty is suspect. That’s all I’m proposing.
Question eight: I just wanted to find out if you make any recommendations for our creative practitioners who are interested in the arts, who do go and study art, because it all starts with academia. At the moment at the ICA it’s a hand-picked selection of the new and most exciting young graduates; at Goldsmiths they literally tell you that drawing belongs in the C18th – you don’t draw here. We’re not even allowed to think beyond how we can earn political currency. And especially if you come from a minority group: they feel that you’re crazy if you’re not spending your currency. And by that I mean if you’re not expressing how marginalised you are because of your race, gender. They teach you how to speak the lingo and how to use it to your advantage. And when I have done that I’ve been included in shows that I wouldn’t have been in if I hadn’t done that. It’s really difficult being in this world when people are telling you that these are the most important things – even if you don’t care about them – and people are telling you to emphasise that, if you want to work in the art world.
Sohrab Ahmari: you’ve made my books points better than I do! Because you’re in the art world and I’m mostly outside it. Let me just talk about the remain / leave thing. I happened to be on the side of remain in the debate because I thought England was better placed within the councils of Europe to push for reform from within. But in the book, I describe, I went to this gallery called Gasworks which is very prestigious and cutting edge. And outside were a series of posters basically campaigning for remain. And even though I favoured that side I thought: these people have cultural capital, and they’ve chosen to capitalise on it, to leverage that capital, in the most cheap, tawdry way and to intervene in a political debate like that seems to me to be really unfortunate for artistic institutions.
How to be outside that? I think there are institutions and people that operate outside it. It takes some risk though. I wonder if, someone like you, whether it’s kind of like getting tenure as a professor. By that time, you can kind of do whatever you want and not have to worry about these pressures maybe? I don’t know. But other than that it’s to be an outside and to be marginal. But good artists have often found themselves in that kind of position for different reasons so…
Question nine: You were talking about beauty. We often hear about physics and maths: the beauty of an equation and so on. That word gets thrown around quite a lot in that realm, and I was wondering about the inverse correlation between the centralism of science in the times we live in and the relative decline of art. Maybe in a way it’s just an inevitability that as science is growing, this centrality of art is something deeply important. It’s been reduced.
Sohrab Ahmari: I think you’re right in describing this, but I don’t think we should accept it. In other words, yes it’s true. And I think that people who set out to reform the things that I take issue with in the book – for example your average Republican congressmen – to the extent that they worry about this issue after all the other issues of bread and butter political issues, they’ll say: you know what we need? We need more maths and science. As far as educational establishments go, we shouldn’t worry about this stuff. With that stuff you get clear answers, you get the beauty of equations, it’s objective, E=MC squared or what have you. I’m a very left-brain person so that’s about the only equation I know! But the thing about being human is that no matter how much technological progress, it doesn’t equate to moral progress. And the problems of what I would called fallen-ness – of envy, of war, of redemption – will always be with us and they never change. We don’t necessarily become better human beings as a result of the gadgets we have or the science that we wield. So as long as those problems of what it means to be human are with us, we need the arts and we need the humanities to grapple genuinely with them. And good art does that, and it helps our moral growth. Those things are essential. Science alone doesn’t help society get by.
And I guess I’ll stop there.
Emma Webb: I think our time is up, thank you so much for coming.
Sohrab Ahmari: thank you for having me!