Culture War Aesthetics

This essay was originally published by The Critic.

My grandfather liked to complain about cultural change. To his ears, opera was singing its own demise. What passed for ‘new writing’ in the theatre was a betrayal of language. And architecture was so confused that it was a wonder that buildings weren’t collapsing. He knew the reasons, too: young people lacked the discipline and respect for established norms that his generation picked up during the war. An urgent intervention was needed. Yes, something had to be done, or else we might end up in some kind of war again.

Were I not merely a child at the time, I might have challenged this fatalistic theory that held the lost love of Wagner and armed conflict just a little too closely. Today, I concede that my grandfather was inadvertently right: we would get a war but we would confuse it with culture.

I plan to bore my future grandchildren with battle tales, too. 2023 will be a rich source of anecdotes as the year in which culture wars entered a new phase to the soundtrack of overnight country star Oliver Anthony’s Rich Men North of Richmond. Something has changed in the balance of politics and culture: the culture wars become culture itself. 

Before 2016, heated societal debates involved politics. The emergent cancel culture followed in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement and concerned itself mostly with breaches of the law. Liberal art institutions were making political banners but they had done that for decades. We were all up for the culture war draft by virtue of having the vote but it still seemed possible that that vote could be cast in the service of politics.

Perhaps memory is already failing me. But there was recently a time when the culture of culture wars was an abstract concept. Brexit and Trump were aesthetic cyphers for one political faction, but they stood in for ideas like the plight of the working class or national sovereignty. The opposing side had less catchy symbols and spoke of phenomena like fascism or the post-truth. These are the matters of sociology and political science, not art criticism.

But come 2023, the landscape is different. Politics is out and art is now the site of conflict. With depressing regularity, singers, fiction writers, and artists find themselves in the middle of controversies previously better aired on Today in Parliament. And when their opinions come under public scrutiny, it is as though the wrongthink was also aesthetically encoded in their art.

At this stage of the culture war, calls for the cancellation of singer Róisín Murphy’s tour in retribution for her milquetoast statement on child gender medicine become indistinguishable from curating a Spotify playlist. When the writer Emmalea Russo had her poetry collection pulped in May because someone objected to the company she kept, the destruction of her work looked like a judgment on the quality of her verse. At this rate, it may as well have been the craftsmanship of Michelangelo’s David that got the principal of a Florida school fired. Nobody remembered to check Roald Dahl’s views before rewriting a chunk of his oeuvre.

Situationist International in 1961

This confusion between politics and culture has long roots. In the gallery, avant-garde artists like Guy Debord and the group Situationist International made art synonymous with political activism already in the 1950s. The 1993 Whitney Biennial in New York was the vehicle by which identity politics entered the public sphere. Since the financial crash of 2008 which shook the contemporary art world from a brief period of bourgeois complacency, it has been a given that all art is political. 

Meanwhile, conservatives championed a rational, neoliberal logic of free markets and the law. In the process, they lost sight of the culture my grandfather mourned. Thus when the right-wing journalist and Tea Party idealogue Andrew Breitbart pronounced that “politics is downstream of culture”, he set off a chain reaction. The alt-right peppered its manifestos with words borrowed from a cultural studies lexicon, made some memes, and began the invasion. 

One day, I’ll tell my grandchildren the story of Marxist cultural critique turning into ‘cultural Marxism’. At the end of it, progressives believed that they had a monopoly on culture and merely doubled down on their rhetoric in response to the right’s advance. This tactical mistake determined the fate of culture itself today. There is a difference, to paraphrase the film director Jean-Luc Godard, between making political art and making art politically. The cultural establishment lost sight of the distinction and ended up with bad art that obscured the holes in its politics. That’s why when the right walked onto the cultural field, it found it undefended. 

But the right’s gains were short-lived. There are only so many times we can pile on a school principal’s woke tweets or sneer at photographs of Karens in blackface. These games are no good to an electorate who years on faces the choice between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer. The culture war promised to breed a new politics but it appears that we forgot how culture does that. The ‘weaponization’ of cultural expression thus looks more like a shoddy cover-up than a political strategy.

This is the dead end of politics at which the culture war became culture itself. When even a disaffected bystander is called on to take a stand on the politics of Harry Potter, cultural artefacts can no longer bear up as metaphors for the increasingly complex demands of contingent political formations. No wonder that even among the most committed cultural warriors, morale is plummeting.

Artists once played their part in conflicts by entertaining the troops. Oliver Anthony did precisely that and briefly galvanised the American right. But when he changed his mind and denounced the established political factions, they refused to take him at his word. Many thousands of much louder words were since written by an army of pundits, as though to drown out the songs.

Dissecting Anthony’s lyrics in search of not-so-hidden messages would have been a poor substitute for political activity anyhow. But could it be an act of musical criticism? The question exploded in the Guardian’s five-star review of Róisín Murphy’s album Hit Parade which was released days after the musician apologised for making her ‘controversial’ views public. The critic Laura Snapes found writing the piece “a challenge” because while she loved the music before the furore, she doubted that the public today could feel the same.

This write-up is a prime exponent of culture war aesthetics, although, in fairness to Snapes, there was no other way this newspaper could have reviewed this artist. Snapes wants you to hear Murphy’s cancellation in the music she loves because cultural politicking is the only art form that’s left. But, tragically, the same is true for Murphy’s political supporters: the Guardian review got reviews of its own which could be no less political. Somewhere in this game of ping-pong, the discourse has fully overshadowed its subject.

The final step for the critic is to performatively turn away from the art in disgust. Progressives defiantly drape everything in rainbow pride flags even though such sensory overload must give them migraines. Conservatives spontaneously recite passages from Keats which they swore they hated at school. It’s a culture-jamming kicker that drowns out everything other than itself. 

All this is even more exhausting than my grandfather’s rants. In this phase of the culture wars, live-tweeting about Wagner’s antisemitism while listening to the Ring Cycle is the only way to feel anything at all. Political discontentment detached from political action subsumes the aesthetic. Not only is this damaging to culture, it is also the nail in the coffin of politics.