Review of The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigures the Arts by Sohrab Ahmari
The Philistines identified by Matthew Arnold had a narrow and reductive view of the arts as only good if they upheld a particular morality. The 1890s and the aesthetic movement upturned them, the aesthetes were despised by the Social Realists in the 30s, who were taken on by the liberal creatives bursting out in the sixties, the New Leftists returned, along with the feminists, with shock and political art and now the identitarians have moved in. The identitarians are Ahmari’s New Philistines, who judge, and sometimes make, art via their ideology, caring about the political point rather than craft or beauty. His contention that they dominate the culture is reinforced by how his frequent use of “beauty” and “truth” now seem antiquated as critical terms.
Ahmari has a reverential attitude towards high art, so Part I of his readable polemic, Intruders in the Temple, tells of how he was affronted by a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Globe. Emma Rice was the director and it included a sound-and-light show, a gay male Helena and the love juices were date rape drugs. I share his pain as I too have ground my teeth at a goose-stepping Coriolanus, say (Coriolanus is not a Fascist, and it made no sense). Directors making stupid political points are as annoying as hectoring comedians.
However for every modish production of a Shakespeare play with a Hoxton-hipster Hermia there’s a straightforward, well-acted piece in robes and furred gowns. In the RSC production of King Lear I saw the other night Anthony Sher was a mound of pelt. Although the director had rehearsed it during Brexit, and thought there were parallels with bad decision-making and a union falling apart he did not present Cordelia as Angela Merkel nor Goneril as Theresa May and left us to draw the modern parallels about power and powerlessness and the times being disturbed.
It shows a particular cultural strength that the educated Shakespearean audience sees interpretations as variations on a theme, because the plays are so well known, as Athenian play goers liked to see what a playwright would do with the myth of Orestes or Dionysus.
I can’t get too holy about Shakespeare. He has his longueurs and a lot of his humour is lost with his language so the actors have to force out laughs with cod-fingering. Cuts can be enhancements. There are plenty of excellent productions including those broadcast at local cinemas by the RSC and the terrific Wars of the Roses series on the BBC a while back.
Ahmari does make a good thrust about shallow gimmickry in theatre productions:-
The bhangra and Bollywood numbers, and actors of south Asian heritage in two leading parts, suggested an Indian sensibility. Now a Midsummer with a well-developed south-Asian concept – juxtaposing or blending say, the rich mythology of the subcontinent with English folklore – might have worked well. Such a concept would have required a sincere, rigorous encounter with these sources. Yet identitarian art is rarely capable of such engagement. The texture and weight of genuine difference elude art of this kind, with its ironic posturing and tendency towards the flattening pastiche. Identitarian art rarely manages to raise marginalise and ‘subaltern’ voices. Doing so successfully requires really listening to such voices in all their rich complexity – whereas identiarian art usually searches for subaltern props with which to bash the ‘dominant’ culture. Opposing the ‘oppressive’ mainstream is more important than examining the peripheral as it really is.
Actually I do wonder that Emma Rice wasn’t castigated for cultural appropriation by Indians, or someone purporting to speak for Indians. These fashions change so fast. Emma Rice however will not be around to do brash shows based on Shakespearean texts. She has had her marching orders because her use of neon lighting is against the spirit of The Globe. The Guardian thinks that is a bad idea, and The Spectator a good. So it goes in culture-land.
Ahmari finds a parallel with other ideological arts e.g Socialist realism but “Say what you will about the Soviet critics, at least they were erudite. Not so with today’s identitarian critics, who care little for art history and aesthetics. What they are blessed with is lots of opinions about everything – all of which invariably revolve around race, gender and class, power and privilege.”
I’ve seen just such criticism of the gooey headed Corbynistas from dialectic trained old Trots about the Corbys’ lack of hard analysis. Unlike Victorian evangelists and Marxists, the identitarians have no authoritative scripture to use as a measure for their particular world view – Foucault comes closest, but Ahmari does not find his identitarians actually quoting so much as osmosing, which he lays out in the second part of his polemic, The Illiberal Imagination. This follows discussions at Artforum. I found it a useful primer for such terms as “queer”, “performative”, “visibility” and “legibility” (something lots of people want to see and enjoy).
Liberal societies have increased “visibility” in the form of social and political rights, and liberal-minded writers were part of this process eg the authors of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist. And as far as visibility is concerned the marginalised have moved more towards the centre. The RSC’s King Lear had a lot of black actors without making any identitarian big deal about it and that would not have happened a generation ago. And those who fulminate against political corrrectness, would once have grumbled about a black Edmund and Cordelia.
Ahmari has fun with the appalling jargon his Artforumites use and its view of art as “a place where we can treat the self as historical and social material”. This particular idea has permeated through to artists whose work he goes to see in the third chapter. Some have talent but, “their curiosity is limited by politics; identitarian politics takes away their freedom to explore great big questions in an uninhibited way; without pre-determined answers and concepts. Foucault, hardline feminism and queer theory wrap their art like a straitjacket. If their English grammar sounds broken, it is because their creative grammar is, too, and the source of the brokenness is the same.”
His tour of identitarian art – videos and installations – and dance – political twerking – is amusingly terrible. My own experience of such things – neon tubes of slogans repeating banalities and amateurish looking videos saying things that are neither new nor true – has sent me along the road to the museum of handsome and interesting artefacts. The audience for this work is the highly educated white liberals that it castigates, the ones who take city breaks in grand European cities who have preserved their past.
Of course fashions change. “The Great Wall of Vagina”, plaster-casting 500 women’s sexual organs that Ahmari evokes may be deemed to be transphobic in a year or two, and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, which used a vagina theme in ceramics, is beautiful as well as polemical. Ideological art does not mean ugliness of course- as demonstrated by the great mass of Christian and Islamic art. So the ugliness may come from lack of craft as anything else. That may be the fault of the art schools, as well as the zeitgeist. Also, while the subsidised galleries and the grant receiving artists may be at work on such things the commercial artists will be turning out posters and cards of quite a different complexion for the mass market. Modern culture is definitely not all of a piece, nor stagnant.
Ahmari’s last chapter is about the effects of this ideological art on our society. “Ideas that being with elite, avant-garde institutions invariably trickle down to popular culture, then go on to impact our daily lives.” and he instances criticisms of eg Downton Abbey (which deserves it – the servant class was not treated with anything like that consideration but caste superiority has to be prettied up for the modern audience). Downton Abbey may be castigated by someone in the Guardian but it will be made as long as it makes money and Julian Fellows is ready to turn out scripts.
He thinks identitarian politics is responsible for the rise of white-rage politics of Trump and UKIP.
Is it any wonder, then, that Americans and Europeans are increasingly embracing nationalist parties and illiberal movements?..
Having been told for decades that the promise of universal rights is a lie, that group identity is all that there is to public life, that the Western canon is the preserve of Privileged Dead White Men, and that identitarian warfare is permanent, many in the West have taken up their own form of identity politics. .. When culture only rewards the assertion of group identity (black, female, queer etc.), the silent majority will want its slice of the identitarian pie. They can do identity politics, too; it’s called white nationalism. ..
Surely identitarianism is a muted annoyance compared to eg mass migration, demographic changes, a globalised economy and the sense of the world is becoming a more dangerous place. But the cause and effect of culture and politics is a large subject. In crude terms, far more read The Sun and the Daily Mail than get annoyed by The Guardian.
“To repair our politics, we could do worse than to start by expecting better from our arts and culture.”- is Ahmari’s final call, and that really is the chicken-and-the-egg. I would expect a generational shift for talent and brains will break out of a strait-jacket and they’re at work somewhere on a hub near you. Our society does have teeth and a stomach and it’s a wonder what it can digest.
After reading Ahmari I re-read Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint, which has a similar theme, and is richer and funnier from someone wholly engaged with the art world. It was published in 1992 and how little has moved on from then. What Hughes calls political correctness, we now call identity politics but they are essentially the same thing, constant language policing, a favourite target for conservative satirists.
Satire loves to fasten on manners and modes, which is what PC [political correctness] talk is, political etiquette, not politics itself. When the waters of PC recede – as they presently will, leaving the predictable scum of dead words on the social beach – it will be, in part, because young people get turned off by all the carping about verbal proprieties on campus. The radical impulses of youth are generous, romantic and instinctive and are easily chilled by an atmosphere of prim, obsessive correction. The real problem with PC isn’t ‘post-Marxism”, but post-Puritanism.
Generous, romantic and instinctive I’d like to believe but what is reported from the universities is an equal impulse for correction, censoriousness and righteousness. And against the post-Puritanism is the post-Restoration of the alt right and Milo Yiannopoulos.
So though not as apocalyptic as Ahmari, I do share some of his concerns. It is a chronic condition for liberalism to be in danger as it is an unnatural state for a tribal species and it has plenty of enemies, whether the new Red Guards of identitarianism,, the Islamic Fascists and their idiot enablers, the Guardian Cultural Sensitives, the Lock-em-Up Tabloids, and a whiff of blasphemy laws from the government.
“It’s a free country,” we would say self-righteously at my primary school during disagreements. That sentence had a long political and cultural history behind it. Do they still say it now?
I’ve refrained from commenting on Trapped until now because I’m biased: it’s jointly written by a friend and comrade, Clive Bradley. But I think I can muster enough objectivety to now confidently assert that this is top class stuff even by the high standards of the Nordic noir dramas that have been shown to such acclaim on UK TV ever since The Killing hit our screens in 2011.
As it’s still possible to catch up with the first eight episodes on BBC iPlayer (you have until 13 March to see the first two) I won’t go into any detail about the plot. Suffice to say it has several of the usual features – a flawed but sympathetic cop attempting to solve some gruesome murders while simultaneously having to deal with less than competent and/or hostile colleagues and a tortured private life. In addition, there’s one sub-plot involving the captain of a Danish car-ferry and two trafficked Nigerian sisters, plus a second involving local politics and a land deal with a Chinese consortium.
And it’s all set in a remote Icelandic fishing village cut off by a blizzard. As Les Hearn notes in his review in Solidarity, “a dominant character in the drama, sometimes it seems, the dominant character, is nature.” I’ve felt it necessary to keep warm with a bottle of Whyte & MacKay’s finest while watching the first eight episodes, and will ensure a bottle is to hand for the final episode on BBC4 this coming Saturday at 9pm. I recommend you do the same.
The playwright and TV script-writer Dennis Potter would have been 80 today. As it is, he died aged 59, on 7th June 1994. Less than three months earlier, he’d given this extraordinary interview to Melvyn Bragg on Channel 4.
By then Potter was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer and spent the interview swigging from a hip flask of morphine (possibly laced with whisky). He called his cancer ‘Rupert’, as in Murdoch: “I’d shoot the bugger if I could”.
I still cherish a 2007 pamphlet published by the Guardian, which contains a slightly edited and tidied-up transcription of the interview.
The pamphlet starts with a wonderful Foreword by the Graun‘s veteran TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith (who once worked with Potter on the old Daily Herald). It’s no surprise that Potter was an agnostic who tended to the atheistic end of the agnostic scale; nor that he was a (utopian, I’d say) socialist.
Those of us who saw the interview when it went out on Channel 4 on April 5 1994 will never forget it. For those of you who didn’t, here’s a taste (and you can watch part of it here):
“I grieve for my family and friends who know me closest, obviously, and that they’re going through it in a sense more than I am. But I discover also what you always know to be true, but you never know it till you know it, if you follow (sorry, I’ve got…my voice is echoing in my head for some reason).
“We all, we’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there’s an eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can’t. It’s in us, but we can’t actually; it’s not not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it’s too predictable, they’re locked into whatever situation they’re locked into…Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there’s the element of the unpredictable, of you don’t know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.
“Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it as the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you: you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance…not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it”.
The Graun says this:
“He was born Alan Clarke in Oldham, Lancashire. His father was a stained-glass window maker and his mother a secretary. On leaving school at 15, he took a job as a copy boy on the Manchester Evening News, but he wanted to become an actor and performed with amateur companies. He also worked at Huddersfield Rep. When, aged 18, Clarke took the role of Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer at the Liverpool Playhouse (1965), he was one of the few cast members to emerge unscathed from the Guardian critic’s review, which noted that he “plays him with placid deliberation … against the surrounding cacophony, but the style is right”. Clarke then turned professional.”
But – bloody hell – sixty seven! That’s just seven years older than me …
He seemed like a good bloke.
His character in Dalziel And Pascoe introduced me to single malts
Bob Hoskins, who died today aged 71, was a great character actor and, in life, one of the good guys. A working class lad, he started his career (accidently and, by his own account, drunkenly) at the left-wing Unity Theatre in 1969. Colleagues who worked with him on one of his last films, Made in Dagenham, (2010) confirm that he was passionate about the film’s main themes of working class women’s rights and trade unionism.
Although he specialised in tough-guys and gangsters, he always managed to convey a sense of vulnerability and even innocence in these roles. – as in the memorable closing scene of his first major film success, The Long Good Friday (1981):
Perhaps his finest role as the tough-with-a heart was as the small-time crook who falls in love with Cathy Tyson’s character in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986):
In fact, reflecting on his work over the years, I find it difficult to decide on a favourite. His role as the Chandleresque private dick in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is a personal favourite, but in the end I’d have to plump for his first major TV role, as the doomed sheet music salesman in Dennis Potter’s masterpiece, Pennies From Heaven (1978):
So long, Bob
Felix Dexter 26 July 1961 – 18 Oct 2013
Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse pay tribute here
BBC Radio 3 starts a week of Wagner in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
It begins with:
Wagner In Zurich: 12.15, Saturday 18 May
Tom Service travels to Zurich, where Richard Wagner the revolutionary lived in exile for nine years, and finds a city which played a crucial role in the development of the composer’s thinking and provided fertile ground for his Ring Cycle, and which is marking the 200th anniversary with a festival including a new musical theatre piece by the director Hans Neuenfels. Tom visits the home of the Wesendonck family, where Wagner was inspired to write Tristan und Isolde and his Wesendonck Lieder, and also the idyllic Tribschen district of Lucerne, where Wagner later lived and composed his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday gift to his second wife, Cosima. It was from Germany’s 1848 revolutions that Wagner had fled to Switzerland, and from Leipzig, Wagner’s birthplace and a city which is central to this year’s anniversary celebrations, the BBC’s Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans reports on the composer’s controversial place in German culture today.
Saturday Classics: 3.00pm, Saturday 18 May
The great English operatic bass Robert Lloyd joins Radio 3’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth with selections from his favourite Wagner operas.
Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Duration: 58 minutes: 1.00pm, Sunday 19 May
Immortalised by Wagner in his famous opera, Lucie Skeaping looks back on the life and music of the real Hans Sachs and his fellow Mastersingers in 17th Century Germany.
Wagner and His World
At 12.00 pm throughout the week Donald Macleod explores the connections and relationships that helped establish Wagner as the most revolutionary musical thinker of the 19th century. Includes:
One Winter’s Afternoon
8.00 pm, Sunday 19 May
The story of the great operatic rivalry between Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner in the year marking the bicentenary of their births. In real life, the two great composers never met.
There’s no denying the fact that Richard Wagner wrote some sublime music. But never forget this, either:
In my experience, most lefties dislike Westerns, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Almost by definition, the genre is a celebration of white settlers in confrontation with native peoples. Sometimes the portrayal of the natives is condescending and/or downright racist. It’s also the most macho of cinematic genres, with women rarely playing significant roles except as home-makers and/or romantic ideals (I leave aside, of course, the bordello girls). Westerns also tend to be morally simplistic, good-against-evil stories that leave little room for nuance, socio-economic background or understanding of the “other.”
Well, that’s what a lot of people on the left tend to think. Actually, the best Westerns explore the human condition and individual weakness in the face of hostile, relentless forces, as few other film genres do (the ‘noir’ detective films also do it, but they’re really just updated Westerns anyway). Some Westerns (and not just recent ones) even explore the position of women (Johnny Guitar) and Native Americans (The Searchers). It’s been suggested, also, that High Noon is, at least in part, about McCarthyism.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson, 1966)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (John Sturges, 1957)
Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1960)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
…but has been (imho) quite rightly denounced for not including the film that many of us consider The Greatest Western Of All Time..
My list would probably include High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), Shane (George Stevens, 1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959).
But, as I said, this is the best of them all:
Herbert Lom, actor. Born Herbert Karel Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru, 11 Sept 1917 (Prague); died 27 Sept 2012 (London).
Lom was one of the great character actors of post-war British cinema who rarely played leading roles but regularly stole the show from better-known stars. In his younger days especially, his saturnine good looks might have made him a matinée idol, but his strong accent (he was Czech-born) led to his being typecast as smooth, sinister foreign criminals and villains for most of his career. As he once commented, “In British eyes anyone foreign is slightly villainous.”
He fled his homeland as Hitler invaded, arriving in Britain in 1939 with his girlfriend Didi, who was Jewish. She was turned away at Dover for not having the correct papers. Her subsequent death (from starvation) in a concentration camp haunted Lom for the rest of his life.
Most of the obituaries have emphasised his role as Clouseau’s boss Drayfus in the various Pink Panther films, but to be honest these became less and less entertaining (something Lom was well aware of); even the best of the early ones cannot hold a candle to the funniest Ealing comedy of them all, The Ladykillers, in which Lom played his usual sinister role with a straight-faced menace that was in delicious contrast to the almost farcical antics going on around him. It was, Lom once said, “one of the few films I’m proud to have been associated with.”
He was (as far as I know) the last surviving member of the brilliant cast and production team that made this 1955 masterpiece.
(Graun obit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/sep/27/herbert-lom)
I’ve just been listening to Jonathan Myerson‘s ‘Payback’ on BBC Radio 4. It has a superb cast (including Henry Goodman as Kissinger, Peter Marinker as Nixon, Sara Kestelman as Golda Meir and Kerry Shale as Al Haig and Simcha Dinitz) and demonstrates considerable historical and psychological insight. It’s about the October 1973 ‘Yom Kippur War’ when Egypt and Syria launched an attack to recover the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and very nearly succeeded. The play concentrates on the interaction between the war and Richard Nixon’s increasingly desperate efforts to fend off an investigation into Watergate and the release of the tapes. The behind-the-scenes negotiations/shadow-boxing between Kissinger and the USSR (in the form of Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin) is also dealt with very convincingly.
Despite the deadly serious subject matter, there’s some grim humour in Myerson’s script, mainly provided by Nixon’s brilliantly scatalogical and scurrilous use of language, especially when describing enemies and fairweather friends.
The political repercussions of the Yom Kippur War were almost as vast as those of the 1967 War and are necessary for any informed understanding of the Middle East and, indeed, the world, today.
This is radio drama at its best. If you have an hour to spare (and if you haven’t – make one!), listen and learn. Or you can download it from here (Amazon, I’m afraid). Essential listening for anyone interested in recenty history and contemporary politics – or who just enjoys superb radio drama.