One does not struggle to find a polemic about cultural decline that focuses on the art world. However, Sohrab Ahmari’s The New Philistines stands apart because it examines these questions on serious philosophical grounds, avoiding the complaining tone of similar works.
Ahmari, a London-based editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, has written a book that does not focus so much on the rote messaging inherent in most modern art today. Rather, he shows how the left’s increasingly strict demands for ideological orthodoxy in art has affected creativity and dynamism.
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When conservatives write cultural criticism, far too often they fall into the same politicized trap that suffocates the art and art criticism they dislike ("Lemonade is an ode to traditional marriage!" "Feminism is Destroying the Library of America!") Bad art is bad because it has bad politics, and even good art is praised in moralistic terms ("What Terrence Malik Teaches Us About School Choice," "Stranger Things Shows Single Mothers Can’t Have it Both Ways,"), etc.
While art and morality are often crucially intertwined, in the world of art and art criticism, both left and right have forgotten that art does not exist merely to convey moral messages. The preeminent culture of over-politicizing things is contagious. And, to be fair, it is easier to nitpick a piece based on its politics than to stray into more transcendent questions that art philosophy seeks to provoke: What is beauty? What is the best life? What are we for?
Ahmari frames his book as a sort of nightmarish walking tour of the London Fine Arts scene (with a few detours). We start at Shakespeare’s Globe, now operating under an artistic director who thinks that Shakespeare is boring (I wrote warily about Emma Rice when I visited the Globe in January; by Ahmari’s account, her reign is worse than I expected).
Rice seems to believe that Shakespeare’s plays exist for her to superimpose her ideologies onto them. What’s worse, she seems totally unaware that Shakespeare engages forcefully with some of the topics (race, gender, sexuality) she want to explore. Instead, she chooses lazy and trite ways to make her politics known, often by reducing, rather than increasing, nuances and ambiguities in the text.
For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream why does Demetrius abandon, threaten, and then come around to marrying, his poor fiancée Helena? Is it only a love potion? What happens if it wears off? Why does Helena want to marry him, anyway?
It’s a problem that casts a shadow on the play’s happy ending, unless you are Rice, and you turn Helena into a man, Helenus, and you explain all of the difficulty away by saying that Demetrius rejected Helenus because he was struggling with his sexuality, but now, thanks to the helpful fairies, he has learned how to love himself. Instead of pointing to the uglier, fickle side of irrational love, our doubts about Demetrius are now perfectly explained. Rice seems to think that such moves are daring and subversive, when in fact they invent comforting solutions meant to soothe audiences where they might be unsettled.
After we leave the Globe, Ahmari takes us to a roundtable discussion at the influential American arts magazine Artforum, a tony Vauxhall gallery, and a London Contemporary Arts film festival. At these venues, Ahmari lets the artists speak for themselves in interminable artsy jargon, while providing an English translation of terms like intersectionality, queer theory, "representational politics," and "performativity."
One of this book’s virtues is that it seeks to understand the people it criticizes on their own terms before dismissing or disagreeing with them. Without this critical first step, criticism cannot claim to be intellectually honest or serious. Admittedly, when these artists are quoted I read them in the voice of Maude Lebowski. But at least I had some sense of their rationale as I read on.
The New Philistines shows that the trouble in the art world is not so much that it is debauched, but that it is airless, clinical, and bereft of curiosity and feeling—even bad feelings. The book doesn’t merely seek to ridicule the (admittedly very bad) art it criticizes, nor does it seek to impose an alternate ideological agenda on the modern art world. It is inspired by a longing, Ahmari says, "for art—in any medium or style—that reflects formal rigor and intellect along with genuine mystery and individuality."
Ahmari’s book shows that rigid adherence to a set of social orthodoxies diminishes art and turns it into something else: a vessel for unquestionable political opinions (in this case, left-wing orthodoxies about race, class, gender, and sexuality). The answers are all given, so the art asks no questions and makes no demands on the viewer besides, "you must agree." And, as Ahmari points out, since now even intelligibility is looked down upon as déclassé, elite artists often don’t try to speak to audiences outside their narrow cadre. This turns art criticism into an infinity mirror of nodding heads whose gazes never waver from each other.
Even when artists have the "correct" views, Ahmari points out, they are often prevented from expressing them authentically, so policed and scrutinized are their words and avenues for expression. The result is propaganda, not art, which can only tell, not teach. Perhaps work of this kind is pleasant for viewers who believe in its message, but it is a pleasure that is anathema to doubt, learning, or wonder. Surely, art can do more.
I am not as sure as Ahmari is that "the things that are going wrong with art now are qualitatively worse than all that came before." But here I think he must ignore all of the silly, shlocky, garbage art of the past that must now be lost to oblivion. Only what is strong enough to survive time’s obscuring hand remains for us to judge and admire. Works of true greatness and transcendence have always been rare, and were often invisible in their own time.
Who knows what will remain of what we have now? I am confident that the art Ahmari mentions will not. Still, the culture Ahmari describes is toxic, and the more its legitimacy is questioned and upset, the better things will be.
The New Philistines stands out from its peers because it is a work prompted by a love of the beautiful rather than scorn, and by a willingness to have the soul disturbed as long as it is moved. Any artist worth their salt should hope for such an audience.