‘Frontiers are the most porous parts of any polity,’ a beautiful bit of English heard on David Cannadine’s radio feature, ‘Civilisation, A Sceptic’s Guide.’
The programme is voiced by highly educated, presumably well-off middle-class English people, including women who decry British culture as something retrograde and lamentable. Along with Cannadine they believe that ‘civilisation’ cannot be judged by culture, and all western ‘progress,’ such as the Renaissance, was based on lies about Islam and fuelled by filthy lucre from the hands of tyrants like the Medici or based on murderous exploitation.
In the TV series, Civilisations, Prof. Mary Beard, decried the British love of Greek art. She said it had led to narrow Eurocentrism. According to this view what used to be termed our ‘Island Story’ was a vast detour away from appreciating other cultures, steeped in blood, slavery and theft, and little else. This belief is now taught right through our educational system, from University to Kindergarten, focussing on our national canon of work, from fine art to children’s books.
According to artist and critic, Alexander Adams, writing in the magazine, The Jackdaw, ‘Post-Modernists’ loathe our artistic canon for the way it accretes slowly and selectively, and because it cannot easily be changed for political reasons.’
They attack it anachronistically, for containing more white men than black women and because the canon is old fashioned in that it only rewards accomplishment, not identity. The representatives of identity politics, he says, ‘prioritise conformity, victimhood, and birth rights. They demand change and want totalitarian control.’
There is of course no need to force women or black people into the canon because it always has and goes on absorbing great art and disregarding the dross. The Marxist post-modern analysis also detests the art canon because they don’t believe in group consensus or that a story, other than a socio-economic one, can be drawn from art history. They contend that that groups and individuals from different eras finding consensus over aesthetics is an illusion concealing oppression, collusion and exclusion. Instead of an understanding of the past there have been calls to pull down statues and for art works bought by patrons who funded slavery to be excluded. Manchester City Art Gallery recently removed the Victorian painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, as the seven curators at the gallery, all women, decided its display of naked girls was ‘offensive.’
Art history was always a rather dry subject, it is now almost unintelligible as well. Forget Bernard Berenson or Lord Clark, students who love Leonardo or Degas now have to dive into ‘critical theory’ derived from the Frankfurt School of philosophy and French anti-humanism, based on Kant, Hegel, and Marx.
This gobbeldy-gook chiefly derives from deconstructionists such as Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida writing in the 1960s, who saw all art as a form of semiotics, and art as fragmented with no specific meaning. Students will be introduced to ‘the politics of ownership,’ which sees traditional art as a kind of polluting off-shoot of high capitalism.
Those who long to get their hands on canvas and paint will not escape the emphasis on theory. Chelsea College of Art, as a typical example, advises students in its prospectus:
‘You will look at the impact on contemporary art practice of feminism, post-colonialism, philosophy, psychoanalysis and political theory and examine art practice from different theoretical perspectives and critical debates in the field. You will be supported in identifying thematics and practices that are relevant to your studio practice and assisted in contextualising your work.’
This Marxist cultural perspective has held sway in art education for years. In 1998 when I was studying for an Advanced Painting Diploma, I was surprised to have to provide constant essays which hardly mentioned painting, and I was told by our teacher, ‘If I catch you painting still life again, you will fail this course.’
So put those paints away or do it in secret. School children specialising in the arts will also find that their curriculum has been ‘purified.’ Last year art-history A-level was scrapped because of its low take-up. After a campaign it was reinstated but the new course has brought ‘critical theory’ into our schools for the first time. No one will be learning about the great artists of Europe.
‘Students won’t just study the work of dead white men,’ said Sarah Phillips, a graduate of the Courtauld Institute, the most elite place to study art history, who has designed the new syllabus.
‘They will have the opportunity to study Islamic architecture and work by men and women of all colours and creeds,’ she said gleefully.
Eng. Lit is undergoing a radical correction. I’ve tried to find out what has happened to 19th century novels on the A Level English syllabus, why no Dickens or George Eliot? There have been a variety of answers from teachers, most depressingly that young people can no longer manage to read them as they are too long, and they can no longer write sustained essays about them either.
In the most telling answer one teacher told me, ‘teachers are free to choose whatever texts they want. They don’t choose 19th century authors because they prefer to teach more progressive texts.’
In her staff room there was obviously nothing contentious about the word, ‘progressive’ but it took me back to the ‘Progressive book-shop’ once run by the Soviets on the Charing Cross Road. For her and other teachers of arts subjects, it goes without saying that Margaret Atwood is to be preferred to Eliot, with her Christian-humanist dilemmas, or Dickens with his long metaphorical extravagances, and their lack of concern for socialism.
Then we get to smaller children. Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, told a child-care conference last November, ‘it’s a great shame,’ that they are no longer learning traditional nursery rhymes. Ms Spielman’s view is unusual. She was a controversial choice for the job and already disliked by the Left after saying children were being, ‘denied the chance to develop resilience and grit’ because of ‘barmy’ health and safety policies.
They’ve never heard of Humpty Dumpty, who possibly stereotypes the fat community, no longer sing traditional songs and certainly not hymns. The story books they read are now under very close scrutiny from teachers and publishers.
The BBC’s Open Book programme on Radio 4 last week tackled this issue as if there was no argument about it. Lucy Mangan, author and Guardian journalist, and Maz Evans, a writer and campaigner for better access to books in schools said they were both book-worms as children and as Evans put it, ‘reading is cool.’
But they now regard the books they enjoyed as eight- year olds as woefully inappropriate because they were all from the ‘white middle-class canon.’
‘All in the tradition of children’s literature,’ Mangan confessed, from, ‘The Victorian white middle-class,’ whom she said rather mysteriously had, ‘fewer and fewer children so they had all this money to spend on literature.’
(History may not be her strong subject. Women who married in England in the 1860s bore an average of more than six children while their granddaughters who married in the 1910s bore fewer than three children, as the national birth-rate moved towards its nadir in 1933.
Big families or not, she made their interest in children’s books sound like a vice. They agreed that until the 1990s diversity was not part of the canon of children’s books.’ And as in art, it sinned by ignoring women and minorities.
‘I remember people of colour saying to me, who do I dress up as on Children’s Book Day?’ said Evans piteously. Perhaps children no longer dress up as animal characters.
The two writers were reassured now that there are, ‘huge moves,’ in children’s publishing to encourage ‘writers of colour’ and, ‘there is now a lot of discussion about, ‘cultural appropriation.’ That means, the ‘theft’ by white people of other people’s art and culture. Picasso is attacked for taking influences from African masks and Mark Twain for writing a black character. No male writer is safe anymore creating a woman.
Also called ‘neo-colonialism’ this is the hottest topic in children’s publishing. Ignoring the fact that over half of British eight to eleven-year olds are not reading anything at all, this is the issue most fervently discussed; questioning what is appropriate for writers to write about. As Alexander Adams remarked, the new learning is very much about control over what creative people produce and who receives it.
Mangan then described our children’s literary canon as, ‘A hell of an oil tanker to turn around, but she promised, ‘There are so many decades of stuff to undo.’
For deconstruction read destruction. It is not clear whether Winnie the Pooh, that cultural snob, was white, he was surely more of a yellowy colour, but he was certainly middle-class, and Tigger was just a paper tiger lackey of the bourgeois, don’t even mention Peter Rabbit and his antics, which recently evoked an apology from Sony Pictures for his non – pc behaviour towards a member of the allergy community. Not to worry, their days of counter-revolutionary activity are numbered. They will soon be as dead as dead white male poets and painters, and Little Black Sambo, the mention of whom might even carry a custodial sentence.[pullquote]
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