Giles Auty: Review of The New Philistines by Sihrab Ahmari

Although I no longer live permanently in Britain, I have been fascinated to learn about the apparent stir caused there recently by this worthy and unusual little book.

The feelings of indignation and outrage which underwrite it are understandable. Yet even the fiercest cultural arguments seldom seem to stir much in the way of violent emotions in Britain. By custom we generally prefer to ignore such supposedly ‘irrelevant’ matters as our culture more or less completely – or sweep them as swiftly as possible under the carpet.

As a relatively recent newcomer to Britain, Mr. Ahmari’s lack of experience of such ingrained attitudes not only insulates him but possibly encourages him to believe that sentiments such as his really do deserve to be heard. To a large extent I agree with him. Yet if the history of our world in the past 100 years teaches us anything it must surely be that deeply flawed ideas and notions prevail all too often and sometimes for much too long even in ostensibly democratic Western societies. Thus somewhere – if only on the campus of a Western university – some group or other will surely be planning to celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia during the latter part of this year.

Indeed, it is the kind of New Left, postmodernist brainwashing which has taken place largely unresisted for decades now in Western academic institutions which is the true cause of almost everything to which Mr. Ahmari so rightly objects.

But was such brainwashing something our Western populations either requested or desired? The answer to that is a resounding no. Instead the almost total destruction of the teaching of the arts and humanities in Britain and other Western countries in recent times was, in fact, a direct consequence of the largely unresisted ‘Long March’ which began its sweep through the soft underbelly of Western life and culture nearly half a century ago now.

Who then were the prime movers and founding fathers of the so-called ‘Long March Through The Institutions’? All were scions of the Extreme Left of course – think Gramsci and Marcuse as typical examples – rather than any kind of believers at all in what most of us would understand by democracy let alone by the word culture.

One of the first objects of Mr. Ahmari’s criticism, Director of the Globe Theatre Emma Rice, seems to me to be a typical example of the result of such brainwashing. Indeed whenever her ideas diverge from those even of Shakespeare himself she does not hesitate to believe she is ‘automatically’  in the right.  That is because she actually believes a very high percentage of the cultural propaganda to which, at some point, she seems to have been dangerously exposed. Thus the Bard can, of course, only be right on almost any issue when he agrees with her.  Indeed, as Ms. Rice admits: “I have tried to sit down with Shakespeare but it doesn’t work. I get sleepy and then suddenly I want to listen to The Archers”.

In short the great playwright’s plays are apparently a bit too long, the language a bit too archaic and many of those who claim to enjoy him are now merely ‘faking’ it. Indeed, does not the description ‘new philistine’ begin to seem even rather mild and generous in the unusual case of Ms.Rice?

I also cannot help wondering whether such a familiar adjective as ‘timeless’ has any intelligible meaning at all for her? Yet it is precisely because the famous playwright’s human insights were and are so utterly ageless – as well as beautifully and tellingly expressed – that so many traditionally educated people continue to revere him internationally more than four centuries after his death. Like so many of her ilk Ms. Rice seems to lack even the most elementary grasp of the essential difference between truth and opinion. Indeed, all she does seem to have, for the moment at least, is the degree of power which she shares with a large number of other, oddly unsuitable-seeming people who run the arts in Britain today in the supposed name of ‘our’ nation.  In truth, the arts and culture in general have not ‘belonged’ to any normal members of our society now for some generations past. They belong instead to an unelected arts autocracy and its fellow travellers which has formed its very own, generally coercive and pseudo-revolutionary agenda.

Just how undemocratic, misguided and mad can we get? You may not wish to answer that question. Since Mr. Ahmari is apparently a recent convert to Catholicism I sense that truth in the singular is a notion with which he, by contrast, is both entirely familiar and comfortable.

To return to the basic theme of his book, I agree thoroughly with Mr. Ahmari’s right to feel thoroughly outraged. He expected something much better from Britain than an infantilisation of our once flourishing culture by power-mad followers of New Left fashions – to say nothing of its almost total degradation now via the forces of the state.

In the middle section of the book its author finds time for apposite historical, political and philosophical reflections until at last venturing forth into the uneasy realm of the visual arts. If Mr. Ahrami’s ventures into the Globe Theatre seemed hard for him to credit imagine his shock on entering the portals of a few of the heavily subsidised public outlets for visual art such as the ICA and South London Gallery. These and even stranger venues were formerly on my own regular visiting rounds.  Indeed at a massive international women’s convention held in the early 1980s at the ICA I once provided unintentional evidence of the once widely held contention by feminists that ‘all men are potential rapists’. This occurred when I embraced the only person there I thought that I knew: the wife of a close friend. However, it was not my friend’s wife at all but her identical twin sister – an ardent feminist – who I had greeted with such enthusiasm.

To Mr. Ahmari, as to me, there appears no good reason why a nation with a noted historic culture should by now seem so intent on destroying it. What unimaginable perversity of mind could possibly be responsible for such an action?

Fortunately for Mr. Ahmari – and every other inhabitant of Britain – a relatively brief and entirely credible answer does exist now to this question. This gem was luckily provided for me recently, in the course of a letter, by the editor of this very magazine: “State art is an invention of my lifetime.  I’ve watched it evolve.  It has successfully infiltrated and now controls every corner of contemporary art, funding only what it deems challenging, conceptual, minimal etc.. It is an outrageous travesty of what public funding for art should be. No artist should be excluded from assistance simply by virtue of a stylistic path, or the use of a medium, which officialdom deems misguided. State art discriminates against any traditional styles, favours the contemporary over the traditional and colludes in a sleazy manner with the marketplace. It has contributed to the ruin of the Fine Art college system, which now teaches practically nothing but the transparent pretence of ‘intellectualism’, and produces ‘artists’ only fit for the State Art treadmill. Artists excluded by State Art, a very large majority, must fend for themselves. Some do this successfully against the odds: but they will be denied acclaim, they won’t be collected by the state, they won’t have books published about them by mainstream publishers and they will be condemned to having their work reviewed only rarely because print and broadcast media are also on message with State Art.”

Should Mr. Ahmari require a concise answer to at least some of the questions he raises in his book then this single paragraph supplies it.  However, if he wishes to venture a step or two further he may also care to read a recently published book Culture at Crisis Point which has recently become available internationally via

Giles Auty
The Jackdaw