How often have you used that word as an insult, as a weapon in an ill-tempered argument? Oliver Mantell from The Audience Agency thinks we should stop …
A few times recently (and most often in relation to people who don’t support public funding of the arts) I’ve seen people referred to as ‘philistines’. The charge of ‘philistinism’ is a useful one for the arts in some ways. It presumes the importance of the arts and invokes shame, without having to dirty the hands by making an argument. Neatest of all, even if they say they don’t care if they’re a philistine, this just makes them an even bigger philistine: it’s the gift that keeps on taking. No doubt many feel that any tool that’s available to us is fair game, but I disagree.
It’s not, principally, out of a sense of historical injustice to the ancient people of that name, although I do feel that we should be better than recycling a fairly obvious piece of Biblical chauvinism. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if the Philistines were in reality an urbane and sophisticated bunch, as keen on a gallery opening and a piece of experimental drama as the next ancient tribe. Perhaps the Israelites taunted them with being uncultured precisely because it was the one thing that would most offend their delicate sensibilities (‘how very dare they: why, only yesterday I was admiring a particularly fine locally-made pot…’). It could also be because the Israelites went to war with them. It’s easier to fight people if you’re convinced they are somehow ‘lesser’. The references to the ‘barbarous Hun’ in World War One, with the fabricated tales of them killing babies, performed a similar role.
In some of these representations, the malign and beast-like figure is shown holding a club labelled ‘Culture’ (or ‘Kultur’, to be precise). But just as portraying others as monsters is itself monstrous, so portraying others as unfeeling brutes, who use culture as a weapon, does what it sets out to condemn. If you really appreciate art and believe in its value, why would you beat someone round the head with it? Who, apart from a philistine, would call someone a philistine?
If someone is missing out on what you believe to be one of life’s great pleasures, then by all means hint, coax, suggest or create opportunities for them to discover what they’re missing (although only if you’re equally prepared to discover amazing things you’ve overlooked too). But taunting them because they don’t get it? That would be nasty even if it wasn’t also tied up with the unequal distribution of money, education and power.
Also: some people don’t like art. And that’s fine.