The New Philistines, by Sohrab Ahmari (Biteback, 144 pp., $14.95)
Sohrab Ahmari refers to the “new” Philistines in his book about today’s arts scene, but those of us who have been around for a while know how much today’s scene resembles yesteryear’s. For quite some time, artists and writers in the Western democracies have been cooking up works that “invariably revolve around race, gender and class, power and privilege,” and that try to advance an ideological agenda that is “a heady mix of radical feminism, racial grievance, anti-capitalism, and queer theory,” to use the words of Ahmari, a writer and editor in the Wall Street Journal’s London bureau.
Last year, Ahmari attended screenings, exhibits, workshops, plays, lectures, dance recitals, and gallery openings — in London, mostly, but occasionally in New York — and offers here the depressing results of his tour of “the hard left avant-garde and the identity-politics hucksters.” Their absurdities barely outstrip what a satirist could dream up.
And did dream up. If you were a reader of the London Daily Telegraph any time between the 1950s and the end of the 20th century, you might have come across the “Way of the World” column by “Peter Simple,” the pen name of a playful reactionary named Michael Wharton. Wharton’s fictional characters included one Marylou Ogreburg, the impresaria of a “Bread and Marmite People’s Multiracial Street Dance Theater” that used “a combination of dance, mime, dustbin lids, lumps of solidified risotto, and wall posters to create a uniquely impactful effect of protest and social awareness.”
Compare that to Ahmari’s real-life visit last year to a “painfully au courant” gallery in London’s Vauxhall district, where “Second Sex War,” an installation by artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen, was featured. “Second Sex War” involved loud, pulsating house music and a large screen on which could be seen EVA v3.0, whom Ahmari describes as “a female humanoid figure, bald with round, mirror-like glasses for eyes, stroking an intimidating laser penis . . . that extends from her crotch like a blue flame.”
According to the exhibit notes, this “post-human pornography” was supposed to raise questions about “the gender binary” and to register anger against capitalist “accumulation.” Even with the notes, Ahmari says, one could not tell whether the installation was a warning against the degrading effects of virtual reality or an invitation for the viewer to join in. It didn’t matter, of course; as long as Professor Hansen (she is an associate professor at a Danish art academy) was mucking around in identity politics, she could be said to be on the side of the angels.
Nor has Shakespearean drama been spared this submersion in political clichés. The reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare’s Globe, has had a new artistic director since the middle of last year. Emma Rice (who will be stepping down next year after an extremely short tenure) is one of the “identitarians,” to use Ahmari’s term, and a rather cagey one, for she gave assurances upon taking the job that she was “never going to lead with an idea” but would “always let the work lead.” She also said, “There are no rules.” But indeed there have been rules, including that the company strives, in all productions, to cast female and male actors in exactly equal proportions.
Rice also announced her desire to make Shakespeare “relevant” — a goal of which Ahmari does not disapprove. But he reports that A Midsummer Night’s Dream as presented by Rice “punctuat[ed] scenes with song-and-dance routines. A Bollywood-style dance number set to Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’ came early on, and the audience was treated to a rendition of the late David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ during the Rude Mechanicals’ play-within-a-play. The entire action, moreover, was accompanied by Indian music.”
A South Asian concept could profitably have been used for the staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ahmari believes. Blending subcontinental folklore with English folklore might have added something, he says, but that would have required “a sincere, rigorous encounter with these sources” and a flinty-eyed look at the mainstream culture and the peripheral culture alike, not simply bashing the mainstream culture as oppressive. That is not what these people are about, though: “The texture and weight of genuine difference elude art of this kind, with its ironic posturing and tendency toward the flattening pastiche.”
Just as “identitarian” as the artists are the culture critics who comment on their works. This we can tell from the (to me) endless chapter of this brief book dedicated to a symposium in Artforum, the leading arts magazine in the United States, according to Ahmari. The participants use all the latest lingo, such terms as “legibility,” “illegibility,” and “intersectionality.”
The first two refer merely to whether a poem, painting, or play is accessible to other people. Ahmari shows how these critics disparage an artist’s wanting to actually reach an audience: To them, legibility is a sign of knuckling under, whether consciously or not, to the power structure. In one of those passages that should go without saying, Ahmari writes more in sorrow than in anger of “the desire to be universally legible” as “among art’s oldest and noblest impulses. And yet, among the identitarians it is considered a great sin.”
As for “intersectionality,” it has to do with a hierarchy of biases that the identitarians believe exists. Some kinds of prejudice or discrimination, goes the thinking, outweigh other kinds and there needs to be a way of deciding which oppressed identity group has bragging (or kvetching) rights over others. Enter intersectionality, “a sort of grievance Olympics,” in Ahmari’s memorable phrase — a way of “investigating various social situations to determine which group is more oppressed and therefore has the better moral claim.” This concept provides a new, theoretical justification for the Left’s claim that members of minority groups cannot be racist.
Even so, it’s a trip down memory lane. Didn’t “Peter Simple” once talk up the invention of something called a “Racial Prejudometer”? This was a “Way of the World” column from the turn of the millennium, written at a time of well-intentioned but fumbling attempts by the authorities to deal with heightened racial tensions in Britain. “Peter Simple” generated fake testimonials in praise of a new gizmo that you could point at anyone suspected of racism, including yourself. The user only had to “press the easy-to-find ‘action’ button and read off the result in prejudons, the internationally recognized scientific unit of racial prejudice.”
The columnist admitted that this wondrous new device was “not yet perfect.” He allowed as how “there have been incidents in London when black people, Indians, Pakistanis, Somalis, Chinese, Japanese, and others have all been involved, causing their prejudometers to ‘over-read’ and implode.” The gizmo wasn’t supposed to register bigotry shown by people who weren’t white. Its designers vowed to tinker with it until such glitches got ironed out.
– Lauren Weiner is the associate editor of Law and Liberty (libertylawsite.org).