The marginal is the norm. We are in the final chapters of liberal democracy’s story of ever-greater inclusion. What are the hardline identitarians to do? Posing as permanent outsiders, they are deeply uncomfortable now that they own the culture.
This book moves me a little out of my comfort zone. The New Philistines is written by Sohrab Ahmari, who proudly lets us know that he fully supports many progressive social initiatives, such as homosexual marriage (though I was surprised to learn, when he happened to appear on Dennis Prager’s talk show just today, that he has recently converted to Roman Catholicism). In spite of his social views, however, author Ahmari is appalled by the fruit contemporary political movements have produced in the world of the arts. Truth, beauty, all the traditional pursuits of art have been swept from the stage. Only political identity (what he calls “identitarianism”) matters in the art world today.
He starts with a visit to the new Globe Theatre in London. Built some years ago to reproduce the kind of structure in which Shakespeare’s plays would have been originally produced, the theater attempted, in its initial phase, to do Shakespeare “straight,” to give the audience an idea of what a performance would have been like in the 17th Century. It sounds like a project both entertaining and enlightening.
But recently a new director has taken over. She is a doctrinaire feminist, whose goal is not to make Shakespeare accessible, but to deconstruct him, and with him all our “imperialist, oppressive” western civilization. The author describes a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which all roles are distributed equally between males and females (hasn’t she heard there are more than 50 genders?), the love-inducing magic flower becomes a date rape drug, and one of the two chief romantic pairs is male/male.
The author doesn’t argue with the social goals of the kinds of “artist” who produce this kind of ugliness. He merely complains that what they are creating is crude polemic, not art. Instead of truth and beauty (which he is old-fashioned enough to still seek in art), modern art has become a frenzied exercise of ever-decreasing effectiveness, desperate to find new ways to shock an increasingly unshockable – and disinterested – public.
The New Philistines is a well-written, very short book. I found it stimulating and convincing. Cautions for disturbing subject matter, and some foul language.