Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Why art is a dirty word
Miranda Devine

Big Brother will be over next week but that doesn't mean popular television is going highbrow any time soon. Channel Ten's replacement ratings-puller, Australian Idol, has revealed in its first episodes performances of such woeful quality it's a wonder plasma screens all over the nation don't spontaneously self-destruct in horror.

But while it's fun to hurl brickbats at trash TV, Big Brother is a symptom, not a cause, of our creeping philistinism, says the visiting British sociologist Frank Furedi.

At a lunch in Sydney this week hosted by the Centre for Independent Studies, Furedi had bigger culprits in mind. Cultural institutions such as universities, galleries, museums and libraries, which are supposed to nurture the best of art and culture, have lost sight of their purpose.

They are so anxious not to appear "elitist" or make value judgements, so intent on being "inclusive" and "relevant" they have become meaningless. They "no longer challenge us or encourage us to question what we know. Instead they flatter us."

The reason, says Furedi, is that the state's increasing propensity for social engineering has transformed cultural institutions into mere vehicles to "improve society". He cites the example of British libraries. Where once they were all about books, now they are places of "inclusion", de facto homeless shelters and "chill-out zones" where young people can watch MTV. The result, he says, is that more money is being spent on libraries but less on books.

Similarly, in Canberra, when the $155 million National Museum of Australia opened its doors in 2001, apart from its Holocaust-themed Aboriginal exhibit, the most profound items in the collection were an upside-down Hills Hoist and Azaria Chamberlain's dress. The underlying message was that Australia's white history was either a joke or too boring to dwell on.

As cultural institutions flounder around trying to craft mission statements about being "relevant" and socially "inclusive", they become shallow and alienating, just as publications and political parties which rely on focus groups and polling to determine their beliefs wind up as empty shells spinning this way and that.

By spoon-feeding the masses pap we are assuming they are "too thick and too stupid to appreciate art for its own sake", says Furedi. "We are systematically disempowering people. The consequence is to change what people are about."

The Hungarian-born Furedi aims much of his criticism at Britain, where he teaches at the University of Kent. But the problem may be worse here, because of what Dr Barry Spurr has described as an ingrained "Australian anti-intellectual cultural prejudice against the lucid expression of informed and sustained ideas".

Spurr, a senior lecturer in English literature at Sydney University, made the point last year in Education and the Ideal, a book of essays bemoaning ideologically driven philistinism in our schools and universities.

He says it is politically incorrect now to rank a work of art based on artistic value because that would be "elitist". The result is armies of illiterate students entering university after passing an HSC in which Ginger Meggs is as valid a "text" as King Lear, the Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless is equal to Jane Austen's Emma and Bush Tucker Man videos preferable to The Grapes of Wrath. Shakespeare has to be Baz Luhrmann-ised before we trust our students with it.

At school, As and Fs have been replaced by the inoffensive phrases "Working Beyond" and "Working Towards". Everyone is gifted and talented, and "excellence" is a social construction.

Thus in last year's HSC, 99 per cent of students passed the English standard course, and a 63-word answer to a 40-minute question in Advanced English was deemed to be a borderline pass in a guide for markers.

Educators will claim they are trying to make a syllabus relevant to a generation weaned on Nintendo, short sound bites and with even shorter concentration spans. But Furedi says setting our expectations of students so low does children a grave disservice, denying the capacity of ordinary people to comprehend great ideas or great art and be transformed.

We are so intent on immunising our children from any challenge which might "traumatise" them we aren't teaching them anything of value, Furedi says. "We find it difficult to accept that choices must be made."

He points to the success of the Harry Potter books, with millions of children across the globe devouring the latest dense instalment. J.K. Rowling's creations resonate with their imaginations and demonstrates that children are the same as ever, perfectly capable of reading long books.

Furedi says the only way to combat dumbing down is by speaking up. There has been a "loss of nerve by intellectuals in their own beliefs".

"Both left and right have become estranged from what they really are," he says. "They no longer have a web of meaning through which we can interpret our lives … a sense of right and wrong."

For fear of being seen as old and uncool, or worse, socially conservative, those with a natural aversion to such cultural trash as Big Brother or Piss Christ avoid speaking out by adopting a libertarian, live and let live attitude.

Of course most of the intellectuals Furedi claims are too cowardly to man the barricades against philistinism have actually been too busy for decades destroying those barricades. Their cultural institutions didn't succumb by accident but by deliberate design - the "long march" of the left advocated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who died in a fascist prison in 1937. They were long ago captured by the idea that all art is political and has no objective value.

Therefore philistinism might be seen as a valid defence mechanism against destructive ideas, the consequences of which (70 million deaths) are catalogued in Jung Chang's new book Mao: The Unknown Story, just for one example.

Is it better not to think at all than to think destructively?

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 2005