Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?
Contemporary art is obsessed with the politics of race, gender and sexuality.
By SOHRAB AHMARI, Wall Street Journal
Oct. 21, 2016
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.
In today’s art scene, the word “beauty” isn’t even part of the lexicon. Sincerity, formal rigor and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent—all of these ideals, once thought timeless, have been thrust aside to make room for the art world’s one totem, its alpha and omega: identity politics.
Now, identity has always been at the heart of culture. Who are we? What is our nature? How are we—as individuals and as groups—distinct from each other, from the animals, from the gods or God? But identity politics cares little for such open-ended questions. Its adherents think they already have all the answers, a set of all-purpose formulas that tell you who’s right and who’s wrong at a particular intersection of identity, power and privilege.
Contemporary art is obsessed with articulating those formulas in novel ways. If you ever find yourself wondering why nothing stirs inside you when you encounter contemporary art, chances are you’re suffering the effects of the relentless politicization of the arts. Every form and genre—whether high or low, or whether in the visual, literary or performing arts—is now obsessed with the politics of race, gender and sexuality.
This summer I spent a few weeks attending as many plays, exhibit openings, gallery talks and screenings as I could find in London. Every single one had something to do with identity politics.
Start with theater. At the Globe, built near the site of the original theater cofounded by Shakespeare, new artistic director Emma Rice is rewriting the Bard to fit her trendy politics. Among her rules: All productions must feature 50-50 sex parity among actors, regardless of the ramifications for narrative and meaning. “It’s the next stage for feminism and it’s the next stage for society to smash down the pillars that are against us,” Ms. Rice said in a recent interview.
At Gasworks, a prestigious gallery in Vauxhall, multimedia artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen used EVA 3.0, a digital humanoid figure used in video games and adult entertainment, to “explore the overlap between subjects in real life and objects in virtual reality, focusing on their accumulation by capital through the gender binary.” Her degraded, pornographic art is difficult to describe in a family newspaper.
A film festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts was devoted to “themes of social and political identity,” as the program put it. The dozens of films, installations and talks on offer dealt with “how political identities are depicted”; “black aesthetics”; “politics as something you do with your body”; photography’s role as a “colonial tool”; “culture, aesthetics and learning through the lens of contemporary feminism”; “queer representational politics”; “the politics of gender and representation”; and on and on.
A group exhibition in ultra-hip East London was titled “Perform Gender: A Multidisciplinary Event Celebrating Art, Theatre, Queer Culture and Gender Equality.” It featured mounds of plaster breasts on the floors, menstrual pads taped to the walls and lots of sadomasochistic imagery.
Not even dance is immune. An artist’s talk at the South London Gallery was devoted to exploring “dance and identity politics” and “the political virtues of the twerk.”
It is inconceivable that so many directors, painters, filmmakers, dancers and performance artists could be inspired by nothing but the politics of race, gender and sexuality. There must be other subjects, in the world outside or in their inner lives, that deserve creative interest. Yet the art world’s ideological atmosphere is so thick and pervasive that those inside don’t even realize it is the air they breathe.
This state of affairs should alarm anyone who cares about the future of liberal civilization. Free societies need art that aspires to timeless ideals like truth and beauty, and that grapples with the transcendent things about what it means to be human. Such art allows us to relate to each other across identitarian differences and share a cultural commonwealth. When all culture is reduced to group identity and grievance, tyranny is around the corner.
Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial writer in London. This is adapted from his book, “The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts,” out this week from Biteback Publishing.