Believing that philistinism was not mere vulgarity but ‘the antithesis par excellence of aesthetic behaviour’, Adorno expressed interest in studying the phenomenon as a via negativa to the aesthetic.footnote1 But the project remained unrealized, and although he frequently made dismissive or insulting remarks about philistines, Adorno never bothered to investigate what, if anything, philistinism might be. In this respect, his attitude was characteristic of the discourse against philistinism that had been in circulation since the nineteenth century. But in his unfulfilled desire to study the philistine, Adorno opened the way to a revaluation of that tradition, for upon closer examination the philistine proves to be a figure of greater historical and intellectual importance than Adorno imagined.

On the face of it, the type of study Adorno had in mind should be relatively straightforward. A glance at the newspapers suggests that we are surrounded by philistines. To cite just a few examples from recent British publications: when David Hockney returned from Los Angeles for the opening of his exhibition at the Royal Academy in November 1995, he complained that British mps are ‘Philistines who are not concerned with beauty’. The police’s involvement in the case of a news-reader whose partner had taken photographs of a naked child was, he suggested, a consequence of the ‘philistine law on pictures’ that the government had instituted.footnote2 But it is not only Conservatives who are branded as philistines. A few days later, the editor of Tribune was quoted as saying: ‘There’s a new philistinism in Labour. It’s not interested in debate. If you talk to people close to the Labour leadership, they say all the Party wants is ideas they can sell to the Sun, Mirror and Mail.’footnote3 Yet philistinism is clearly perceived to extend beyond the realm of politics: in the following month, ten pages of the Literary Review were devoted to a ‘Cry Against the Philistines’, a litany of protests against what Tariq Ali, one of the contributors, called the ‘commercial philistinism which has swamped this country’s culture.’footnote4 According to George Walden, another contributor, ‘Philistines. . .are no longer barbarians encamped outside the Citadel of the Arts: now they sit atop it, benevolent-eyed, directing the cultural traffic.’footnote5

Perhaps such protests should lead us to conclude that philistinism is something endemic to ruling classes. This was certainly the view of one contributor to the letters pages of Opera magazine in1992: Julian Budden (of Florence), concerned about the lack of funding for opera houses, concluded that: ‘If there is such a thing as “the English disease”, it is, I submit, Philistinism in high places.’footnote6 But other readers of Opera were quick to point out that he had underestimated the extent of the problem. Ronald Crichton (of Eastbourne) responded that philistinism is an ‘affliction [that]is widespread, insidious and in outward appearance not always immediately recognizable’; philistinism is not confined to high places but is, he argued, an ‘infection [that]goes right down to the roots of English life.’footnote7 Nevertheless, those with a less parochial perspective affirm that philistinism is not merely an English disease: England may be rooted in philistinism, but by all accounts its full flowering has taken place elsewhere, in what Terry Eagleton recently termed that ‘extravagantly philistine country’, the United States.footnote8

Like Adorno, who believed that the philistine’s ‘antiartistic attitude verges on sickness’,footnote9 contemporary critics of philistinism treat the phenomenon as pathological. But what exactly is this disease whose symptomatology includes so many superficially unrelated problems? To answer this question it is helpful to employ a set of distinctions developed by Michael Thompson in Rubbish Theory. According to his analysis there are three types of object—those like antiques and works of art which are considered durable and whose value is expected to increase; those that are considered transient (that is, everyday objects whose values are highest when new and subsequently decrease) and those that have no value and are treated accordingly.footnote10 Thompson’s analysis allows us to define the philistine position more precisely. The philistine should argue not that existing objects are of temporary as opposed to durable aesthetic value, or that, although they may once have been or may yet become valuable, all existing objects are valueless, but that all objects are permanently aesthetically valueless. In consequence, any object whose value is derived solely from its classification as an art-object is fit only for recycling.

With this in mind, it is easy to see that certain positions that are sometimes described as philistine are not really philistine at all. For example, people who value popular culture in the same way as high culture, or who prefer popular culture to high culture, are just promoting the transient at the expense of the durable or revaluing the transient as durable. The position of anti-art movements like Dada is less clear. Dada certainly gave expression to the philistine impulse, but although its rhetoric was vigorously anti-aesthetic, what actually happened in the creation of a ready-made was that something that had the transient aesthetic value of a machine-produced object or was even an object of no value at all was then treated as though it were a durable of lasting aesthetic value. It is therefore misleading to suggest that the ready-made says: ‘art is junk’;footnote11 what it says is only that ‘junk is art’.