Art Essays

Newsletter 267

Published December 29, 2018
What I did in the holidays.. Gilgamesh

If it looks like I’ve been having a week off, that’s almost right. I’ve got a couple of weeks away from the art column, although there’s no break with the regular film reviews. Nevertheless, the smallest glimpse of a change of routine sent me into a few days in which – for the first time this year – I haven’t thought about writing anything – apart from this week’s piece on Cold War, one of the superior movies to be seen over the Xmas/New Year period.

Instead I’ve been reading books that are not directly related to the next piece of writing, which counts as a guilty pleasure. In fact I went back to basics, with Homer, Hesiod and the Epic of Gilgamesh. If I manage to continue in this vein every year at Xmas, I should have arrived at Shakespeare some time before 2050. But by then people will be saying “Who’s Shakespeare?” I imagine there are a lot of people out there who feel the need to keep shoring up their cultural literacy by reading or re-reading the classics, watching or re-watching great movies, but they are probably a dying breed, rather like professional art critics.

The latest kerfuffle about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed course in western civilisation, is a depressing spectacle. Not only did Wollongong University have to secure the funding more or less by stealth, but as soon as it was announced it has been greeted with anger and even a resignation. If the course were onlya course in western civilisation, from Homer onwards, it’s hard to justify such reactions. The perception, however, is that it will be a course in the superiorityof western civilisation,  and hence a throwback to the imperialist chauvinism of another era.

This suspicion remains to be tested and may be nothing more than ideologically-driven paranoia. It’s up to the course administrators to demonstrate there is no hidden political agenda, and that they will be open to a broad range of critical approaches. The Ramsay Foundation, for its part, needs to keep an arm’s-length distance and rid themselves of divisive, self-serving trouble-makers such as Tony Abbott. The electors of Warringah will probably show them the way in this regard.

The Ramsay detractors need to give the new course a chance. The proper goal of a liberal education is to produce critical, independent thinkers, not ideologues who see dangers in every topic that doesn’t conform to their own way of thinking. It’s a lot easier to simply dismiss vast swathes of culture as being somehow illegitimate, rather than take the time to understand them. Too often, a stridently held position is a mask for pure laziness and ignorance.

Any thinker worth his or her reputation will take the time to understand their opponents. At present, one wonders if many even understand the things they advocate most passionately. Those who are automatically outraged by a course in western civilisation should take heed of the so-called Socratic paradox: “I know that I know nothing”.

Happy New Year!