They Are Coming For The Classics

https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/the-short-story-is-they-are-coming-for-the-classics/news-story/2699baac7a08e64bee70faf7004813a0

15 October 2021, The Australian




Why am I not surprised to read the Welsh National Opera will run a series of lectures on Madame Butterfly to highlight issues of “imperialism and colonialism”?


Because in recent years it has become increasingly fashionable to frame Western art and culture in a negative light. All its great inspiring figures, from Chaucer to Shakespeare through to Jane Austen face the charge of being “too Western”, “too white” or “too racist”. Classical music, ballet and opera are also dismissed in a similar vein. Western classical culture has always been the target of dogmatic radical commissars on the grounds it is elitist, out of date, irrelevant and far too exclusive.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.


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 the opera world. She dismissed the idea that “quality comes first” on the grounds that it “ignores the inherent privileges that many” are afforded


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. 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. 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.


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. 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. 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.


With the racialisation of classical music, the accusation of whiteness is sufficient to delegitimate its legacy. Philip Ewell, an American black music-theory professor, has been in the forefront of advocating the claim that classical music is irredeemably compromised by its whiteness.


Ewell has argued that white supremacy is evident in the teaching, playing and interpretation of classical music. According to this outlook, all the values celebrated in classical music are expressions of whiteness; they are all coded in a “white racial frame”, says Ewell. Ewell is particularly contemptuous of Beethoven, who he dismisses as “merely an above average composer”.


In the United States, the academic members of the Society for Music Theory responded to Ewell’s address with a standing ovation. The society – whose members are overwhelmingly white – loved what they heard.


Later, its executive board declared that “we humbly acknowledge that we have much work to do to dismantle the whiteness and systemic racism that deeply shape our discipline”.

In the sphere of literature the targeting and even the cancelling of the classics has assumed an ubiquitous form. There is now a concerted attempt to render invisible some of the most important contributions to the literary canon. Even Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey are not just the foundational works of Greek literature but also of Western civilisation is dismissed with contempt by cultural jihadists.



“Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” boasted one Massachusetts high school teacher recently on social media. 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 even the classroom has become a battleground on which the culture war is fought out.


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. In January the University of Leicester reported that it would remove Chaucer from the English curriculum.


long 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 US has decided to wage a holy war against Shakespeare. They have declared that they are not prepared to teach Shakespeare on the ground that his works promote “misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism and anti-Semitism”. 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”.


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.