Why art is a dirty word
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
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
Furedi says the only way to combat dumbing down is by speaking
up. There has been a "loss of nerve by intellectuals in their
"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
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
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?
published in Sydney Morning Herald, 11 August 2005