Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book Review: The New Philistines

One item in my Friday Miscellanea this week was a piece in the Wall Street Journal by Sohrab Amari, a journal editorial writer based in London. The piece is an excerpt from his just-published book The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts. I downloaded the Kindle version (the hard copy is not yet available) and spent part of yesterday reading it--which was not hard as it is only 144 pages long.

Some background: as readers of the blog know, I am something of an apostate when it comes to contemporary art. In the first half of my career as a performer I did a great deal of contemporary music including national and regional premieres of works by Hans Werner Henze, Jacques Hétu, Léo Brouwer, Claude Vivier and many others and world premieres of works by Anthony Genge and other Canadian composers. To an extent I specialized in contemporary music. But as time went on, I gravitated more and more to the mainstream repertoire for two reasons: it was what audiences preferred and I began to have some real misgivings about the aesthetic value of a lot of contemporary music. I began to see the foundation of aesthetics as being more transcendent and universal and less about progressive politics. Indeed, progressive politics began more and more to leave a bad taste.

This blog explores these kinds of questions and I am happy to discover that there are a lot of readers who find this interesting.

I am not the only one to critique current trends in contemporary art, of course, and I read Amari's book with interest. But apart from its brevity, it fell a bit short of expectations. As one would expect, Amari is not a bad writer, but he has perhaps insufficient background and exposure to the history of art and aesthetics. The book reads just a bit like a master's paper, but without the necessary references. But the core of his critique is sound: that a great deal (not all) of contemporary art is obsessed with identity politics and approaches them with a fixed set of ideological formulas. Amari's point, and it is a good one, is that contemporary art is disfigured and restricted by politics to the point that it scarcely has an aesthetic any more. It resembles propaganda as much as anything. In defence of this critique, he visits a few London venues and describes them in some detail. And that, I'm afraid, is pretty much it!

One of the most valuable parts of the book is a discussion of four basic principles operating in the art world: Intersectionality, which is the analysis of social identity from the point of view of systems of oppression and discrimination; Visibility, which is becoming suspect as a political principle as so many battles for the inclusion of previously marginal groups have been won; Individualism, which is anathema if you are only interested in group identity; and Legibility, which refers to work that appeals to a broad audience--what around here we call "canonicity". So, three of the four technical terms refer to things that are undesirable to the progressive art world.

One way the book overreaches is by insisting that contemporary art is only about identity politics. A lot of it is, certainly, but it also takes in other political issues such as environmentalism. Just think of the music of John Luther Adams for one example. But this just reinforces the fundamental truth that a large amount of contemporary art consists in the re-hashing of politics under the guise of art. You can trace all this back to the French Revolution, which was the first occasion when art was harnessed to the purpose of re-making society according to progressive principles. This has returned over and over again every time some political "vision" takes hold: Woodrow Wilson's Americanism, Benito Mussolini's Fascism, Adolf Hitler's National Socialism, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Joseph Stalin's Socialist Realism--all of these involved the creation of new men through means that often included propaganda in the form of art. You might be shocked at who I include in that list, side by side, but I think the historical evidence is pretty clear.

The sad truth is that art has been conscripted into the progressive project and the aesthetic cost is enormous. Not all art, of course, but the concentration on political ways and means seems to have created a situation where those people most gifted at political power and manipulation, are pulling the strings, making sure that the "right" artists are the ones honored and commissioned and the "wrong" artists are excluded--right and wrong from a political point of view! In music this project seems, perhaps because of the abstractness of the medium, to have been less successful in picking winners and losers, but not entirely so.

What is needed is some pretty powerful works of art that do not follow the party line, and we do have a few of those, but equally important are writings that explain what is going on in clear and powerful terms so that the grip that politics has on art can be loosened in the mainstream culture. This book is a promising attempt, but we need a lot more. We need writers that have, not only enthusiasm and good instincts, but also the intellectual skills to make the argument very strongly.

Let's end with a quote from Amari's Wall Street Journal excerpt that gives some sense of his approach:

Soon after seizing power in 1979, Iran’s new Islamist regime set about transforming the country’s identity by staging a “cultural revolution.” Followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini temporarily closed the universities, purged thousands of ideologically suspect faculty and students and rewrote the curriculum wholesale.
My mother, then an art student in Tehran, remembers how the revolutionaries raided the country’s great libraries, using markers to cross out offensive images in the art books. The nascent Islamic Republic was fighting a bloody war against Iraq at the time, but there was also a battle on the home front: against Hellenistic sculpture, the Renaissance nude and American cinema.
Growing up in that climate alerted me to the power of great art. Khomeini’s regime was a seemingly omnipotent police state that claimed to derive legitimacy from Almighty God. Yet it was somehow fearful of the human form (and the human soul) as represented by, say, Titian.
There was some connection between beauty and freedom—a link I only made years later after immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager. The mullahs resorted to censorship and violence to sever that connection. But in the Free World today it has been severed, not by any repressive regime, but by the art world itself.
Art is at its best, not when it aligns itself with one political vision or the other, but when it rejects the political in favor of the aesthetic. So let's have a contemporary example of that. Here is a piece by György Kurtág for string quartet, Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky, Op. 28. Blogger doesn't want to embed so you have to follow the link:


Anonymous said...

I think music is an entirely different story, and I don't see identity politics playing much of a role in its development. The turn to complexity in American music was "engineered" by the CIA as a PR against the USSR (read Taruskin for an explanation). Nothing to do with progressive politics. In general, the relation between aesthetics and politics in music is much more complex than what you suggest. After all, the two major composers whose art has been the most influenced by politics are Beethoven and Shostakovich.

Bryan Townsend said...

Some very good points, of course. I wasn't so much presenting my own theory as doing a review of the book. Yes, music and politics have a very complex relationship and Beethoven and Shostakovich are excellent examples of that. The post-war move towards complexity was certainly funded in Europe by the CIA, but in the US itself?

Anonymous said...

Barber, Thomson, Copland all took money from the CIA, but the bulk of it went to painters (Pollock, Rothko) and institutions like MOMA. I am not passing any judgment by the way. Artists take money where they can and it doesn't imply their art becomes propaganda. But it's the rare art that does not speak to and of its political context.

Bryan Townsend said...

Interesting--I will have to look into that! Yes, artists do take money where they can and some of it is more influential than other on what is created. Renaissance patrons were very specific sometimes.

Marc Puckett said...

I don't disagree really with any of your observations, Bryan, although I am closer to half way through than to finishing the Ahmari book. Some people write well when the form is that of an essay or article but their work doesn't 'scale up' to book form, for any number of reasons, I expect; who knows. Perhaps the more rewarding Ahmari book is yet to come.

Bryan Townsend said...

Marc, please give us your thoughts when you have finished the book.