Should Art Be About Beauty, or Identity?

Sohrab Ahmari has a piece in the Wall Street Journal Titled “Remember When Art Was Supposed to Be Beautiful?” that addresses the current situation in art–I would even go so far as to call it a crisis in art. Ahmari actually only hints at what is going on in contemporary art in the West when he first discusses the role the oppressive regime of Iran played in what was allowed to be portrayed in art and then discusses the high degree to which contemporary art only ever deals with identity politics.

Abmari is suggesting a connection between totalitarian thinking and the current avant-garde obsession with identity politics. Totalitarian regimes, especially theocracies, tend to demand the art being produced reflect the identity of that regime–and only that regime. The same is true of identity politics-driven avant-garde art in the West. The difference is that in the West the artists have voluntarily chosen within the artistic orders to accept a fundamentally totalitarian world view and impose it on themselves. Totday’s totalitarians are much more clever than the old-school totalitarians: they have managed to figure out how to get people to impose it on themselves.

Ahmari isn’t the only one to note this. I reviewed a book, After the Avant-Gardes, where this connection between totalitarian thinking and the avant-garde is also investigated. This mentality goes beyond my observation that the avant-garde is very much “normal art” now and isn’t remotely avant-garde–if the “avant-garde” is indeed supposed to be what is out ahead of everything else. It’s not, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Worse, the avant-garde is thoroughly institutionalized in our universities, and even receives the overwhelming amount of government art funds. If avant-garde art is in fact founded in a totalitarian mindset, we should not be surprised to find it supported by the government.

Art is supposed to be about beauty. It can even be a critique of current standards of beauty within the art world, but it is supposed to be about beauty. Beauty expands our worlds and our world views; identity politics restricts them and tribalizes us. The ugly identity politics of the left has now been matched with the uglier identity politics of the alt.right–and it seems a very unfortunate arms-race is in the works, with tribalist attitudes being met with even more tribalist attitudes. This is the inevitable result of identity politics of any sort.

Does art reflect the world or does the world reflect art? Inevitably, the answer to that question is, “yes.” There is a degree to which our art has been reflecting the world as viewed by the artists, but that art has in turn been affecting the way others view the world. Only the artists can fix things, but that will mean a complete wiping away of the current dominant paradigm in the arts. The solution is to return art to beauty, not to answer identity politics with more identity politics.

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