I reviewed Sohrab Ahmari’s book, The New Philistines, for City Journal. Here’s the first part.
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.”