Who will speak up for civilisation—or should I say “civilisation”, since it is generally agreed by the enlightened these days that there is no such thing because it cannot be defined with exactitude. The word ought therefore always to be put in quotation marks to alert the reader to the unreality of the very concept.
It is only to be expected, therefore, that rational, intelligent and educated people will not speak up for what does not exist, let alone make any sacrifice on its behalf. It is only natural that objective realities such as social justice, equity, inclusion and the environment, should be the object of their deepest moral concern, and that actions intended to favour them should be welcomed.
Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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When young activists glue themselves to paintings or the walls of public galleries in order to save the planet, then, it is again not surprising that much commentary can be found in praise of their idealism and self-sacrifice. They mean well, therefore they do well. Moreover, the situation is so grave, the crisis so pressing, that almost any action is justified that alerts mankind to its peril and brings it to its senses. Poor old civilisation would not get a look in even if it existed.
Of course, one might question the activists’ choice of artworks to which to glue themselves. I personally would not claim the works of Andy Warhol, for example, as being among the finest products of Western civilisation, but I do not here wish to act as a kind of Lord Duveen to the environmentalist activists, advising them as to which works to affix themselves for most impact. I do not wish to encourage them in any way, for it seems to me that before long they will have to move on from reparable to irreparable damage if their protests are to continue to have advertising impact. The public soon grows inattentive to sensations that are repeated more than a few times.
I was struck by the argumentation of the two young women who threw a tin of tomato soup at Van Gogh’s picture of sunflowers in the National Gallery in London and then glued themselves to the wall below it. They were singularly unattractive young women, not so much physically as in their evident and humourless self-righteousness, which they managed to convey by the expression on their faces and the manner of their speech. They were, so to speak, the ends-justify-the-means made flesh, these female Savonarolas of climate change.
Their argument was as follows: that the protection of works of art was as nothing compared with saving the world from an increase in temperature or with improving the lot of that part of the population that lived in poverty. This in turn implied that we should devote all our attention and our expenditure according to a scale of moral concerns that was unequivocal and indubitable.
This is a very simple, as well as dispiriting, view of human existence, but one that seems to have become widespread among the tertiary-educated. It is a worldview that is difficult to refute by means of a soundbite or in the compass of a tweet, and any refutation is susceptible to easy rhetoric. If I say, for example, that preserving the paintings in the National Gallery is important from the civilisational point of view, one of the moral enthusiasts will return that it cannot be more important than the comfort and safety of the people the quality of whose lives could be improved by diverting the money expended on the preservation of the paintings to them. I think that an average audience would applaud such a reply and the supposedly compassionate feeling behind it. In philistinism there is true kindness: and still to stick up for the preservation and security of paintings would be taken as callousness or indifference to the sufferings of the poor.
Even disregarding the practical difficulties of diverting funds for one purpose to another, and the tendency of much of such money to be lost in the process of diversion; and even disregarding the utter naivety of supposing that if, say, you stopped paying footballers so much and used the money instead to fund neurosurgery, more and better neurosurgery would immediately result; the moral grandiosity of supposing that one had been vouchsafed a precise and simple scale of importance by which to judge all human pursuits is startling, and possible only to youth unhindered by experience of life.
Suppose that mankind had always applied its efforts strictly according to the most pressing needs of the time, that is to say according to the values of the contemporary equivalents of those who stick themselves to the walls of art galleries, what of value would it ever have bequeathed to subsequent generations?
Recently, I was in a bookshop (as is quite often my wont) and I happened on a book that was supposedly a corrective to the glorification of the Renaissance, and that pointed out just how awful life was in the Italian city-states, to say nothing of the life of the peasantry. The diet was abominable and insufficient, the tyranny oppressive, the epidemics both regular and devastating, and life expectancy short. We couldn’t have endured life in Renaissance Italy for a moment.
Of course, all this is true and none of it is false: but it comes as no great surprise to those who have considered the matter at all. Nevertheless, there is something mean-spirited about it, if it is meant to imply that the Renaissance and its monuments were not glorious. When you look at a portrait by Bronzino, say, you do not think that the sitter was plagued by lice, as he or she almost certainly was, or that in all probability he or she smelt horribly for lack of cleanliness.
Nor does one think, “What social security had they in those days? What relief to the hungry? Would not the artists who worked at such great expense extracted from the surplus value created by the half-starved peasants have been better employed on work that relieved them directly from their distress? Would it not have been more just? Should not the palaces of the Renaissance have been devoted to social housing and soup kitchens?”
If you say no to the last question, you could be accused of indifference to the conditions of the peasantry and the proletariat. If you say no, actually I am quite glad that the Renaissance cities were built as they were notwithstanding that there was so much human suffering and injustice at the time, you will reveal yourself as a monster of cruelty.
I am writing this on an eighteenth-century bureau. It has a little—not too much—fine marquetry. The man who did the marquetry devoted his full attention to producing it. It must have taken him hours, to say nothing of the training he underwent for him to be able to do it. How absurd! At the time, the life expectancy at birth of the population around him was about thirty. I remember reading M. Dorothy George’s London Life in the Eighteenth Century many years ago, half a century in fact, and two facts therein have remained with me ever since: that more than half of the children born in London died before the age of five, and that the city could have grown in population only by means of immigration from the countryside. The streets, of course, were filthy, there was no sanitation, and there were no remedies for the many diseases that cut lives so short—or none that were not even worse than the diseases themselves. And here was a man fiddling about with such things as marquetry and the veneers of furniture! Could you think of anything more frivolous or irresponsible?
So you are against progress, then, and accept all the horrors of the modern world in the name of preserving civilisation? You want to preserve paintings while the world burns?
One of the most extraordinary examples known to me of seemingly extraneous activity (from the point of view of matters of overwhelming importance of its time) is a book published in 1916, in the middle of the Great War, by the liberal Member of Parliament Sir George Greenwood, titled Is There a Shakespeare Problem?, a long, learned and dotty disquisition on the question of whether Shakespeare the playwright was really Shakespeare the boy from Stratford. How absurd, when millions were dying in the conflict! But is there not something magnificent about it also, that speaks of an undying faith in the value of civilisation?
Under his pen-name Theodore Dalrymple, Anthony Daniels recently published Ramses: A Memoir (New English Review Press); the collection Neither Trumpets Nor Violins, co-written with Samuel Hux and Kenneth Francis (also New English Review Press); and The Wheelchair and Other Stories (Mirabeau).