In the modern era there has always been a tendency to treat art as an instrument of political propaganda. In previous times movements as wide apart as fascism and communism promoted art that appeared harmonious with their outlook and suppressed art, which they decried as decadent or bourgeois. In the 21st century the main driver of the politicisation of art is the cultural politics of identity. Although identity obsessed cultural entrepreneurs do not wield instruments of violence they are no less zealous in the pursuit of their objectives as were their totalitarian brethren during the past century.
It seems that art has become a casualty of the culture war. Increasingly cultural institutions in the West, particularly museums have adopted the practice of judging works of art on the ground of their political suitability rather in relation to their artistic or aesthetic qualities.
Curators in cultural institutions and museums promote a script that attributes negative connotation to anything that is western and particularly objects related to the past. It was in this vein that last summer, that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London posted signs outside an exhibition on the history of British humour, stating ‘this display confronts uncomfortable truths about the past’. This phrase suggest that the exhibition is not about display old objects but confronting them as if they were in the here and now.
At a Paul Gauguin exhibition at London’s National Gallery, a trigger warning posted on the wall noted; ‘Gauguin exploited his position as a privileged Westerner [in French Polynesia] to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him’[i]. Significantly, following the imperative of the ethos of cancelling, an audio guide raised the question, ‘Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?’. The very posing of this question indicates that its not just monuments and statues but also objects of art that are potentially tainted by their association with western civilisation. And as recent events demonstrate one way of answering this question is by removing Gauguin’s paintings from sight altogether.
Nor is it merely words -offensive or otherwise – that have become the targets of therapeutic censorship. During the past decade. The content of books, evidence and other material produced during the course of a lecture or museum collections can be portrayed as offensive and therefore potentially traumatising. For example, a Paul Gauguin exhibition at London’s National Gallery, sought to protect those in attendance from psychological injury. A trigger warning posted on the wall noted; ‘Gauguin exploited his position as a privileged Westerner [in French Polynesia] to make the most of the sexual freedoms available to him’. Following the imperative of the ethos of cancelling, an audio guide raised the question, ‘Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?’. A BBC on-line story about a recently discovered Caravaggio masterpiece begins with the statement: ‘Warning: The paintings featured below depict a graphic image’!
If Gauguin can be portrayed as problematic it is not surprising that the history of western art is also regarded as a potential site of interest for the crusade against the past. Anticipating trouble ahead, Yale University acted swiftly. The Yale Daily News reported in January:
‘Decades old and once taught by famous Yale professors like Vincent Scully, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes. But [its cancellation] is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists’[ii]
Of course, in the current climate the Western “canon” is anything but idealised. On the contrary, it has become pathologized to the point that convenors of university humanity courses are constantly in search of new recruits to fill the gap left by cancelled western artists, authors etc. Cultural institutions are bending backwards to demonstrate their hostility and estrangement from anything that is remotely associated with Europe’s historical legacy.
That art has become subjected to the dictates of what can be most accurately described as The Political Correctorate is illustrated by the Inquisition launched by The National Gallery into its collection. In effect this important cultural institution has organised an investigation to discover the association of the artists it displays to the slave trade in the 19th century[iii]. Its report found that 67 individuals connected to the slave trade, including the founder of the museum, Julius Angerstein. Iconic artists, such as the world renowed Thomas Gainsborough was identified as one such culprit on the ground that he painted three portraits with slaver connections. Gainsborough is not accused of owning slaves or even of supporting slavery. He was identified by the report on the ground that he painted portraits with slavery links. What were these links? Apparently in two of the portraits, the sitters had links with the slave trade!
The idea that the act of painting someone with links to the slave trade can be used as evidence of possessing a connection with the slave trade is bizarre. According to this Kafkaesque logic virtually any public figure in 19th century England could potentially meet the criterion of having a connection with the slave trade. But why should an artist be judged on the ground of who he chooses to paint? And in any case, why should the work of an important artist like Gainsborough be assessed not on its aesthetic quality but in accordance with the political criteria outlined by the ‘Legacies of British Slave-Ownership’ project?
In Britain, one of the main targets of the Political Correctorate is the famous 18th century painter William Hogarth. Hogarth who was arguably the father of satire has been turned into one of the favourite target of cultural police. An exhibition at the Tate Modern of this important painter’s work highlights what the curators insist is ‘sexual violence, anti-Semitism and racism’ in his paintings’[iv].
The curators at Tate are not only addicted to sanctimony but also suffer from a humour by- pass. Take the way they exhibit One of Hogarth’s famous early works, ‘A Modern Midnight Conversation’. This painting depicts a group of drunken men enjoying their drink and their smoke. This painting of drunken debauchery is indicted in a label alongside the picture on the ground that people should not just view it as funny because ‘the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation and slavery’[v].
Literally every scene depicted by Hogarth is forensically inspected with a view to concocting a link with slavery. At first sight, when you view a self-portrait in which Hogarth sits on a wooden chair you could be forgiven for thinking that this piece of furniture does not possess a deep historical significance. However, according to the commentary written by the visual artist Sonia Barrett about this self-portrait there is more to this painting than meets the eye. She wrote that ‘The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?’[vi].
It is evident that the Tate’s curators of Hogarth have no interest in this 18th century painter’s art. They are animated by the impulse of de-legitimating a man who combined his art with satire and social criticism. The curators are totally indifferent to his role as a painter social critic in the 18th century because they want to indict the legacy of British art in order to promote a 21st century political project.
The Cultural Taliban Is Coming For The Western Classics
The political denunciation of a major artistic figure like Hogarth is driven by the project of rendering toxic the artistic and cultural legacy of Western civilisation The main narrative that supports this project is to associate this legacy with the evils of racism, slavery and xenophobia. That is why often objects exhibited in museums sometimes come with the health warning that they are products of ‘whiteness’ or of ‘white privilege. Even ancient art stands condemned because they fail to live up to the standards of 21st century Cultural Taliban.
In its wisdom, the Cambridge archaeology museum has decided to to display signs to highlight the ‘whiteness’ of the sculpture plaster casts The decision by the Classics Faculty to focus on ‘the role of classical sculpture in the history of racism’ may seem surreal and weird. After all why should a sculpture cast in white in Ancient Athens be seen as the symbol of racism? Because some members of this museum’s administration wish to recast Greek and Roman civilisation as the cradle of modern racism[vii].
The animosity directed against the sculptures exhibited as Cambridge University reflect a very visible spirit of hatred towards the classics. The classics are often denounced as elitist and very, very white. But it is also much more than that. The legacy of Greece and Rome are integral part of the foundation of western civilisation. That is why there is now a systematic attempt to call into question the legitimacy of this legacy. That is also why Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey are not just the foundational works of Greek literature but also of western civilisation is treated with contempt by cultural Taliban.
‘Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!’ boasted one Massachusetts high school teacher recently on social media[viii]. When an English teacher boasts that Homer’s Odyssey has been cancelled and expects her followers to give her signs of approval, it becomes evident that what is going on at Cambridge is echoed by sections of the teaching profession in the classroom.
The crusade directed at the classics is not unlike the sentiment that drove radical islamists to destroy ancient temples, statues and works of art in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. In Cambridge the sculptures have not been physically destroyed. Instead they have been morally tainted and the cultural heritage that they symbolise has been called into question. How long before Homer is reinvented as an insensitive racist or a homophobe?
That the Cultural Taliban is coming for the classics is not surprising. After all many of most important and enduring themes and ideals emerged in ancient Greece and Rome. The spirit of inquiry and experimentation of Greece, leading to science and the early, though partial formulation of freedom and democracy, are ideals that we cannot abandon. That is why we must counter the attempt to demean and vandalise the classics.
The targeting of hight art and cultured
It is not just paintings and sculptures that are in the crosshair of the cultural police. Western classical culture has always been the target of dogmatic radical Commissars on the ground that it is elitist, out of date, irrelevant and far too exclusive. Now these philistine arguments have fused with those promoted by advocates of identity politics. That is why the Welsh National Opera will run a series of lectures on Madame Butterfly to highlight issues of ‘imperialism and colonialism’?
Hostility towards Western classical culture is frequently justified on the ground that it is too old, too white, too male and far too homophobic. This point was emphasised recently by a participant in the Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit organised by the Australian Music Centre. Sonya Holowell, took great objection to the traditional meritocratic emphasis on quality in world of opera. She dismissed the idea that ‘quality comes first’ on the grounds that it ‘ignores the inherent privileges that many’ are afforded[ix]
Her solution is to ‘decolonise the high arts’. In praise of this form of artistic vandalism she asks, the ‘pertinent question to me is what do we want to leave intact?’ Judging by recent unrestrained attacks on classical culture, the answer must be ‘not very much’.
Often the classics are denounced simply because they are the classics, that is because they are too old. A few years ago, a group of more than 190 Australian composers, directors and musicians signed a ‘call to action’ to remove sexism and gendered violence from operatic works[x]. One commentator supporting this stand wrote that ‘Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past’. She took particular exception to the fact that even today the operatic canon is based on ‘dead composers’ like Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, and Rossini[xi]. Condemning composers because they lived a long time ago is a roundabout way of de-legitimating the artistic and cultural legacy on which western civilisation was founded and on which it flourished.
It should not come as a surprise that virtually every great classical composer, poet and writer is in the crosshair of the cultural jihad. Take the case of poor old Beethoven. Until recently some whacky supporters of identity politics claimed that this great composer was actually black! Six years ago, The Concordian, a student- run Minnesota newspaper denounced the ‘white-washing of this composer’s legacy. They described this composer as having a “wide, thick-lipped mouth, short, thick nose, and proudly arched forehead’[xii]. With the escalation of the culture war the argument has radically altered; the problem with Beethoven is that he is ‘too white’!
In recent times the animosity against classical music has acquired a thoroughly racialised dimension. In line with the current Black Lives Matter influenced zeitgeist, the classical music establishment has rolled over and has embraced the criticism that claims that its institution is irredeemably compromised by association with white supremacy. That is why the Sydney Opera House organised a conference on ‘How to be Anti-Racist in the Arts[xiii]. In the Anglo-American world it has become obligatory for the classical music establishment to apologise for their art’s association with white privilege. At times the classical music press appears to portray a love of this art form as a marker of white supremacy. Last year, writing in the NewYorker, the critic Alex Ross apologised cravenly for being a “white American,”. He described his world as one that is “blindingly white, both in its history and its present.” [xiv] As far as Ross is concerned classical music is compromised by its supposed ‘history of systemic racism’.
In the sphere of literature the targeting and even the cancelling of the classics has assumed an ubiquitous form.
A section of the American teaching profession organised around the slogan #DisruptTexts asserts that pupils shouldn’t have to read stories written in anything other than the present-day vernacular. In effect, detaching children from the cultural legacy that inspired one generation after another is the objective of a new breed of cultural Talibans.
In the cultural landscape projected by the likes of #DisruptTexts there is no room for historic literary landmarks like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Not only because it is not written in the contemporary vernacular but also because as the father of English poetry, he is likely to personify values that are antithetical to the promoters of the cultural politics of identity. That is why some academics support removing Chaucer from the university curriculum. His detractors have denounced Chaucer as a rapist, racist and anti-Semite[xv]. In January the University of Leicester reported that it would remove Chaucer from the English curriculum. Along with other problematic poets, he is to be replaced with courses on ‘race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity.
If they can cancel Chaucer is it any surprise that they are coming for Shakespeare? From their perspective, Shakespeare, who in many ways personifies English literature cannot be allowed to survive with his reputation intact. A section of the teaching profession in the United States has decided to wage a holy war against Shakespeare. They have declared that they are notprepared to teach Shakespeare on the ground that his works promote ‘misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism and anti-Semitism[xvi].
In her call to arms, young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman wrote in School Library Journal, that ‘absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric’. Her fellow crusaders have informed the School Library Journal that they were ditching plays like Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet in order to make ‘room for modern, diverse, and inclusive voices’[xvii].
It is easy to dismiss the recent outburst of attacks on western culture as merely a storm in a teacup. But classical western culture is not simply about fancy opera houses and poems written in Old-English. The values and aesthetic sensibility that it embodies have helped cultivate an imagination that has continued to be open to yielding to new experience. Generations have been inspired by its compelling beauty. No doubt classical western culture has its flaws but when everything has been said and done it has endowed the human spirit with a tangible quality that continues to enrich our lives. That is why we need to defend the integrity of our civilisational accomplishment from the barbarians inside the gate.
Nor is the politicisation of the cultural legacy of western civilisation simply a matter of defending the past. Contemporary Art can only flourish on the terrain constructed through contributions made by its artistic ancestors. Whatever the forms adopted by contemporary artists they are the inheritors of an artistic legacy which they can embrace, develop or reject. But even in the very act of rejection art cannot be entirely disconnected from what has gone on before. Art has its own integrity and its own way of expressing its truth and not even an army of Cultural Taliban can reduce it to a mere political instrument.