The Inherent Evil of Identitarianism

In Part II of The New Philistines, Sohrab Ahmari focuses on the summer 2016 special issue of Artforum magazine that was devoted to “Art and Identity.” Wow. It reminded me of a Seinfeld character’s take on “The Kramer”: after calling the subject in the painting “a loathsome, offensive brute,” he said, “but I can’t look away.”

Perhaps the most interesting and appreciated part of this section is Ahmari’s defining of terms essential to identitarians’—well, identity—I guess:

Intersectionality* describes a method of investigating various social situations to determine which group is more oppressed and therefore has the better moral claim. …

Visibility is another common, and rather malleable, term in identity politics, one that is increasingly gaining usage in the mainstream culture. … In one sense, the quest for visibility really is at the heart of a decent culture. The thinking runs something like this. Hitherto, certain groups of people have been marginalised or excluded from the culture on account of their race, sex, class and so on, and the injustices committed against them have likewise remained hidden. …

This, then, is the liberal model of visibility: a way of sharpening the moral senses to detect the other’s pain, which in turn helps expand society’s conception of who belongs.

The Artforum identitarians are deeply suspicious of liberal visibility and representation. This might appear paradoxical at first, but as we shall see, today’s identitarians aren’t out to rectify the West’s shortcomings. Contemporary identity politics is deeply illiberal. The art-world identitarians are committed, at least on paper, to overthrowing liberal order. …

Liberal, free-market societies can, and do, grant visibility and representation to the hitherto invisible and unrepresented, in other words, without radically changing the social structure. Marginal groups and peripheral movements rise up; they win legal emancipation and cultural acceptance; and then they are absorbed into the fabric of the liberalism. At its best—or worst, depending on your outlook—liberal capitalism can defang even its most ardent enemies, rendering them into harmless kitsch like so many Che Guevera T-shirts. …

For the identitarians, however, liberal capitalism’s seemingly infinite capacity to absorb and dilute shows how sinister it is. …

Having exhausted visibility’s utility for their political agenda, the identitarians now sneer at the concept. And we are back to square one: even after the enormous legal and social transformations of the past two centuries, they claim, the West remains as monstrously intolerant as ever. …

Identitartian art also has little patience for individualism.**

Recall that queer theory denies the existence of a true, immutable self that is separate from the material body or from language. This is why, for example, the identitarians don’t read the great novels on their own terms: the moral awakening of Jane Austen’s protagonist in Emma (1815), the growth of the soul, so important in the nineteenth-century English novel, isn’t worthy of serious study. What matters to the idenitarians is how, by the end of the novel, Emma learns to position herself within a ‘gendered order’, how she comes to ‘perform’ femininity and so forth.

This opposition to individualism and self-expression is another facet of identitarian art’s illiberalism. …

For all their odes to diffrence, moreover, the identitarians are deeply intolerant of members of marginalized groups who stray from ideological orthodoxy. …

The identitarians celebrate individual difference, so long as you are different in the same way. …

Finally, legibility—another undesirable quality in identitarian art. … In this context … to say that a piece of art is legible means that it appeals to a broad audience, or that the mainstream culture can appreciate and understand it. …

One motivation for dismissing legibility may be that contemporary art often is illegible, owing to the loss of technical mastery and the erosion of standards. …

Standards aside, when identitarians attack legibility, they are also taking aim at the liberal-universal vision of culture. For democratic liberalism is indeed bound up with a universalist idea of culture.

In liberal societies, rights inhere in the individual, and government exists to protect rights that are natural and universal, and that precede the state (‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’) And by dint of a shared inheritance of rights and duties, you and I can relate to each other notwithstanding differences of race, class, sex, and so on. More than that, we can share a cultural commonwealth. As I’ve argued, liberalism absorbs, shifts and melds cultures, diluting and blunting differences that other societies resolve by dictatorship or civil war. …

The Artforum editors despise art that tries to be ‘legible’, because it reminds them that, for all their efforts to put the final nail in the coffin of universalism, we still gravitate toward universal art. Toward art that wrestles with the timeless and transcendent things in the world. The identitarians know, too, that their ideology can’t supplant the pure joy we take in the energetic brushstroke, in the playful line, in shape and colour, in the nobility of the human form, in the ecstasies of the human body in motion, in self-expression unbound—both for their own sake and for the deeper things they say about our love of beauty.

 


*Interestingly, I had just read about intersectionality in the next chapter of Dangerous by Milo.

 

**As my friend Jessica recently noted, Satan doesn’t care about the individual, but God most certainly does.

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