The other morning I listened to a fascinating programme on Radio 4 called The Art of Now: Identity Crisis in which, to quote the blurb in the Radio Times: “Writer and critic Sohrab Ahmari argues that the art world is being stifled by an obsession with identity politics which drives artists to create work solely about their own lived experience. The result is a bland wash of politically correct slogans as opposed to work that can drive societal change.”
It is fairly obvious that all artists (by which I mean writers, musicians and anyone who is creative) draw on their own experience to create. But Ahmari’s point is that good art is also universal. It may start from the perspective of the creator, but stretches outward to apprehend, wrestle with, and express something that transcends the merely personal. Or, as Balthus, rather more succinctly, put it “why express yourself, why not express the universe instead?”
Good art is not just the artist talking at the world, it is the artist wrestling with the world and possibly losing. That is why so much modern art is so hateful. It is not, as its trendy defenders would have us believe, that we hate it because it challenges us. We hate it because it doesn’t challenge anyone, least of all the artist who made it. It is self-important whining dressed up as something more profound.
The condition of much modern art points to a deeper problem in our society, which is the relentless rise of identity politics during the last few decades. Identity politics is characterised by people identifying themselves with certain tribes and asserting the victimhood and the rights of that tribe against the rest of society.
It must be pointed out that, to an extent, there is nothing wrong with fighting for your perceived rights. The business of politics is and always had been one of bargaining between competing interests and identities. But successful bargaining requires an overarching sense of a shared reality and shared rules of the game within which the bargaining takes place.
So, who makes the overarching rules? Who decides the rules of the game? The answer, which won’t satisfy a lot of people but is nonetheless true, is that in a free society the rules are established by custom and practice and broadly reflect the limits of the pragmatic and the possible. Put crudely, the ten commandments for the minimal successful functioning of our particular game (the game of Western, liberal, post-enlightenment capitalism) are, as far as I can tell, as follows:
1. The rules laid out below apply to everyone, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender or sexuality
2. There are such things as objective, scientific facts, and these things are more real than feelings and beliefs. Without this first rule, there is no basis for rational debate, negotiation or agreement within a free society
3. Everyone has a right to pursue happiness in their own way, but no-one has the automatic right to be happy and no-one has the right to trample on the overarching rules in their pursuit of happiness
4. Everyone – regardless of age, race, creed, strength or competence – has the right to be warm, housed, safe, fed, cared for when sick and educated to a level sufficient to allow them to earn a living. Everyone else has to put money into the pot to ensure this happens
5. Beyond rule number 5, the distribution of wealth is determined by the operations of the market and no-one is actually owed a living (let alone the feeling of being a success) by anyone else
6. Private property (the stuff left after everyone has paid into the pot) is sacred
7. People’s individual religious, cultural and sexual proclivities are very much their own business (that is, the system itself does not assume any moral superiority for a particular preference) as long as they are not harming or impinging of the freedoms of others
8. Everyone has the right to say what they want about anything, but no-one else is automatically obliged to listen to them or take them seriously
9. The whole system is managed by three separate powers, these separate powers being an elected government, an elected legislature, and an independent judiciary
10. These powers are further held in check by the operations of a free press and an open society
There may be other basic rules that I have missed, but these are the ten that strike me as most obvious – the point being that if you remove any one of these rules, the whole system will collapse and we’ll all have to start again from a position either of anarchy or of tyranny.
The problem is that the explosion of identity politics in recent years looks increasingly like an attempt to play outside these rules. Consider just two basic examples: many people argue for complete equality in society (breaking rules 2, 5 and 6) and many people argue for ‘safe spaces’ in which certain views cannot be expressed (breaking rule 8).
I could provide other examples but you get the point, which is that increasing numbers of often highly educated (and often young) people want to destroy our civilisation and oblige everyone else to start all over again building a new one.
Why is this happening now? Well, given that many of these people are apparently highly educated, some of the blame must be laid at the door of our education system. And here it is necessary to face a simple (if unpleasant) fact: the business of socialising children and young people always, to some extent, involves indoctrinating them (i.e. getting them to understand and eventually internalise the minimal shared rules of your civilisation). As Wittgenstein pointed out in On Certainty: “At the core of all well-founded belief lies belief that is unfounded.” To put it more accurately, at the core of any system of thought and action is a core of unprovable beliefs that are built on nothing more than pragmatic experiment and experience. These are what, for want of a better term, we can call ‘the rules of the game.’
So, one thing at least is clear, educational institutions must seek to indoctrinate children and young people in the rules of our game (our civilisation). I can understand why people may shrink from this idea, as no educator wants to feel like a brainwasher. But freedom is never an absolute thing, it is always a matter of degree.
The interesting truth is that if you want someone to think and act creatively the only gift you can (and must) give that person is a framework of meaningful limits against which to struggle. If the people you educate are intelligent enough, and well versed enough in the rules of the existing game, they may end up successfully challenging and changing the status quo. That’s great, but it isn’t my direct concern as a teacher. Socially, my only direct concern is to defend the status quo.
We cannot shrink from this task of indoctrination because it offends our instinctive sensibilities. The indoctrination of the young in the bedrock rules of our civilisation is our duty. If we shirk this duty the young will tear down our civilisation and then they, in turn, will be devoured by the revolution they unwittingly unleash.