“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”
Thus begins Francis Bacon’s ‘Of Truth’, casting as Pilate the man who doubts but does not investigate, who is stylistically sceptical without philosophical pursuit, who posits truth as a nothing only in order to permit himself to do anything. Bacon continues “Certainly there be that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting.” There still are such, and surely ever will be – that essay was published in 1625; ‘post-truth’ is an attitude, not a period.
And the slide that is the logical result of this attitude, between subjectivity and fact, between the enshrinement of value and the equation of all values, is visible in the bifurcation of the word ‘culture’. The way this word is used in the modern era switches between two oppositional meanings which cleave together. On the one hand, ‘culture’ refers to the thought in a contemplative life; to what is ascendant in our pursuits; to what we might consider to be the highest of our activities. This is illustrated in that adjectival use, to be ‘cultured’. But ‘culture’ has come also to refer to the practices of a people to which an individual belongs, and which are seen as affecting or imbuing all aspects of an individual’s existence; ‘culture’, in this sense of the word, comes to include everything that concerns the most quotidian elements of life. We can now refer to ‘a’ culture. It is almost bacterial.
This second concept is a legacy of German romanticism; in 1774 Johann Gottfried Herder published Another Philosophy of History1 in which he presented the concept of ‘Volksgeist’: the spirit of the people. This book radicalises the thought of Montesquieu in Of the Spirit of Laws2 (1748), who writes that “Many things govern men: climate, religion, laws, maxims of government, the example of past affairs, mores, manners: whence forms as a result a general spirit”3; Herder, however, goes on to claim that all the world’s nations and societies have discrete, unique and incomparable cultures. To decontextualize any human endeavour and to judge it according to universal criteria of Beauty or Truth is a nonsense. He goes even further, joining Bacon’s Pilate, for not only does he prohibit the judgement of cultures by ideals, he goes on to attest that all such ideals themselves have historical origins, and that they are therefore subjective creations with no claim to universality.
It is thus that universalism is thrown out for the particular. Herder’s nationalism took Germany by storm (und drang). His calls to patriotism, to reinvigorate German folk traditions, songs, cultural practices, and the German language instantiated
the spirit that would be Germany’s undoing; this despite his own caveats, including the premise that Jews should be treated as Germans, and that gentiles owed Jews a debt due to the suffering they had inflicted on their race. (Though Herder’s balance also wavered, and he was capable of asking “How many of this alien people can be tolerated without injury to the true citizens?”)
As soon as it is possible to speak of ‘my’ culture then ‘cultural appropriation’ – used as a term of reproach – becomes possible. It is thus that certain strains of what is termed ‘identity politics’ share the same roots as German nationalism. Such an emphasis on the anthropologically particular commodifies personhood, since it proposes that one can possess a specific identity – and which ownership therefore also permits the possibility of theft. Sohrab Ahmari collects examples of this so-called cultural misappropriation: “The Washington Post devotes a long exposé to how Iggy Azalea mastered her “Blaccent”: ‘many critics found it offensive that Azalea would appropriate an accent so clearly not hers.’”
An accent, in this approach to culture, can be stolen; whether it is or is not one’s accent depends, apparently, on more than just whether or not that is the accent in which one speaks. There are those who would proscribe the use of such cultural commodities; they would restrict liberty of expression in the cause of liberty from oppression. Why is it deemed illegitimate and offensive when Iggy Azalea speaks with a ‘Blaccent’, whatever that is? In this mode of thought what usually entitles a particular group to the legitimate use of cultural commodities is suffering, either real or historical. If you or yours haven’t suffered for the flag, you’re not allowed to wear it.
This is a dangerous logic. Why can this supposed ‘Blaccent’ be claimed for a ‘black way’ of talking, when the same claimants would no doubt – and rightly – call it bigoted (quite apart from it being untrue) to maintain that all black people talk like this, or that any people talk in any way identifiably linked to the colour of their skin? The notion that there could be such a thing as a ‘Blaccent’ is the only thing close to a racial slur here; the idea that there is a connection between someone’s genetic makeup and the way in which they speak is the bitter seed of that moronic term.
The insistence that all cultural produce is equally worthwhile is untrue and stymies civilisation. But maintaining such a stance – that some cultural produce is better – is not eugenics, or a hierarchy of cultures; it is a hierarchy of culture. Such a viewpoint does not entail any ‘implication’ that the works a particular group of people exceed those of others by virtue of a racial or cultural difference, or that therefore some people are intrinsically more worthy than others; the consideration of people in groups is bigotry. Culture is rightfully an endeavour, not an origin; and criticising cultural practices must, moreover, be something we are free to do.
Practical applications of the fractious illogic whereby identities are somehow to be delimited into liberation is well illustrated in artificial attempts to rectify perceived biases. Such attempts absurdly beg the question. The New Philistines begins with a subject close to the heart, or at least the gal bladder, of this magazine. It opens with an attack on Emma Rice, the woman appointed Director of Shakespeare’s Globe in January 2016, and whom at that date this magazine declared its sworn enemy. Ahmari rightly criticises Rice for the desire she expresses to achieve 50/50 gender parity across roles; one of the many significant problems of such ‘gender blind’ structuring is that, in order to protest against the purported imbalance of people being sorted by a particular marker of identity, it would sort them by exactly that marker.
The main claim of Ahmari’s book is the following:
“[…] today’s art world isn’t even contemptuous of old standards – it is wholly indifferent to them. The word ‘beauty’ isn’t part of its lexicon. Sincerity, formal rigour and cohesion, the quest for truth, the sacred and the transcendent – none of these concerns, once thought timeless, is on the radar among the artists and critics who rule the contemporary art scene. These ideals have all been thrust aside to make room for the art world’s one totem, its alpha and omega: identity politics.”
He piques our interest; but he is not the subtlest thinker. When he assures us of his diffidence – “I write of beauty and truth as values to which all art should aspire. Rest assured, students of aesthetics, I know neither concept is easy or straightforward” – we are only sure that he protests too much:
“So long as you reject the rejection of universal truth and objective beauty, you are in my camp. If you agree that, say, Caravaggio’s ‘Denial of Saint Peter’ is objectively beautiful – that its beauty is timeless and its status as a masterpiece isn’t merely a function of ideology – then you already share one of my basic assumptions.”
What Ahmari means here is surely that ‘If you agree that it is possible for such a statement asserting objective beauty to be true then you share one of my basic assumptions’, but it is typical of his clumsiness of expression that what he has written suggests that our philosophical allegiance with him is dependent on our shared evaluation of this particular painting. More fundamentally, however, whilst Ahmari puts forward the belief in “objective beauty” as a sufficient condition of our concord, he does not stop to ponder the more interesting question: is it a necessary condition? And what constitutes this “objectivity”? Would it extend past humanity – would an alien find this painting objective or might they conceivably find it objectionable? Surely there must be some degree of subjectivity in any secular use of the term?
But Ahmari tends to throw the baby out with the bath water. In this instance, the baby is Michel Foucault, whom Ahmari dismisses summarily and unfairly: “The dead giveaway [that screenings at the ICA’s 2016 Artists’ Film Biennial are going to have identity politics at their centre] is Michel Foucault’s fingerprint – that dreadful prose style, the conceptual poppycock – stamped all over the programme.” We might wonder about a man criticising others for their prose style who seems to have stock clichés at his ‘fingertips’ and who misstates his entire thesis with reference to Caravaggio, but more importantly than that, by throwing out Foucault he hurls away exactly the philosopher who might be able to help him to think more clearly about the historical contingency of aesthetic concepts. It would be a gross mischaracterisation of Foucault’s writing to read it as justifying any notion that truth is meaningless because it is historically sited. Ian Hacking – the first philosopher to use Foucault’s thought in English-language philosophy – explains, for example, in Historical Ontology (2002), how ideals and facts that emerge historically create areas of knowledge about which statements can be categorically true or false.
Ahmari’s case is polemical, not investigative. He suffers, accordingly, serious problems of explanation. Whilst a philosophical investigation of the topic would proscribe what might or might not be logically defensible as a position to take (on, say, the validity of accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’), and might have at least some justice done to it in a short book like Ahmari’s, his attempts to make statements about the state of “today’s art world” are laughably ill-evidenced. Of the book’s three parts the whole of the first is entirely devoted to a critique of Emma Rice; the ‘art world’ seems to encompass productions of Shakespeare’s plays. We might accept such looseness of terminology if it didn’t seem that Ahmari is simply unable to summon enough evidence for the claims he wants to make from the ‘art world’ itself; Part III begins:
“I’m about to start a self-guided tour of London’s contemporary art scene. My aim is to test this book’s main hypothesis: is the art world really as identity-obsessed and politically correct as I claim it is. There is no statistical survey to be conducted, of course. The best I can do is to attend as many exhibit openings, gallery talks, screenings and the like as this city offers over the course of a few weeks.”
The best Ahmari can do seems to be to attend a sum total of three events – one at the Gasworks gallery in Vauxhall, one at the ICA, and one at the South London Gallery in Camberwell. Only one of these institutions can be called major, and no others are even mentioned by name. Even a list of the titles of other events would establish some evidence of this mode of thought being widespread, and Ahmari offers no attempt to make a balanced argument by attending to any exhibitions that might be, by contrast, worthwhile. Emma Rice has, since the publication of Ahmari’s book, been fired from The Globe; she will be leaving in April 2018. How widespread, really, is ‘identity politics’ in art?
Ahmari ends spectacularly, by hoisting himself on his own petard. He provides, not by explication but by illustration, the perfect example of the dangers of the modes of thinking associated with identity politics. By Part III he is already becoming infected by the “poppycock” he rails against: “The notion that [black dancers] might provide melanin contrast with MoMA’s starkly white walls […] isn’t evidence of racism, but it does evoke a certain exoticisation of black skin.” By the conclusion, it has seeped into his thought:
“Having been told for decades that the promise of universal rights is a lie, that group identity is all 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. […] They can do identity politics, too: it’s called white nationalism.
[…] Western culture […] is now under assault from identitarians of all stripes: from queer theorists as much from [sic] Donald Trump.To repair our politics, we could do worse than to start expecting better from our arts and culture.”
Leaving aside how dead men can preserve anything, this is an astonishing conclusion. First, the last sentence of the book sets artistic endeavour a political goal – exactly what Ahmari has been aggressively condemning. More fundamentally mistaken, though, he seems to view the ascent of Donald Trump in identitarian terms, which is simply an utterly impoverished view of why Trump went on to win the US Presidential election. Ahmari seems to hold the threat of the spread of white nationalism against those who espouse identity politics; he has come to see the world in the identitarian terms that belong to such supremacists themselves but which have a greater quantity of followers in the left-wing. It is thus that the press continues to cover its blindsided embarrassment at recent democratic results with cries of ‘racist nationalism!’
We remain with Bacon. “But howsoever these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments and affections, yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.”