Hard times at the British Museum

The retiring director of the British Museum, Dr. Robert Anderson, says that he ’ prefer[s] paternalism to populism’. The good doctor gives away too much by the phrasing. Neither paternalism nor populism is at issue in current disputes over the nature of the museum. The paternalist doesn’t give people the best he has, and the populist doesn’t favor a totally managed society in which “culture” becomes a personal lifestyle accessory.

What prompted the comment was Dr. Anderson’s concern that the very essence of the British Museum is now at risk because of declining funding and public support. The basic problem , as he sees it, is that:

there is waning enthusiasm for the traditional functions of museums. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport [!] … has plenty of money to give out, but collecting and interpreting the artefacts of human history is just not where it’s at. The museums that get money today are those that play to the new government agenda of social inclusion: running projects to improve self-esteem or reduce prejudice, or using new technologies to increase community participation. There is little support for the idea that objects and knowledge have a value in and of themselves.
The problem to which Anderson refers is not just a problem with Britain, government funding or museums. Throughout the organized arts community—foundations, government agencies, educational institutions, scholarship—the agenda of inclusion increasingly trumps everything.

Even those who continue to believe that there’s something in the arts that can’t be reduced to politics, sociology or entertainment have to go along to get along. Stage companies that present straight renditions of the classics feel obligated at least to engage in assertively nontraditional casting. No Ibsen household is now complete without at least one black member. I saw a rather good rendition of the Oresteia, the Aeschylus trilogy that dramatizes the replacement of the inarticulate female order of guilt, remorse and vengeance symbolized by the Furies by the public male order of justice, law and limit symbolized by Apollo. The three Furies had to include one man, and the Court of Areopagus one very pretty woman.

What’s going on? Certainly the situation shows the grip that PC liberalism has on our cultural and governing elites. However, it goes deeper than that. Elites don’t exist in a vacuum, and the problem is not simply one of arbitrary agendas adopted by foundations, government and other institutions. As Anderson points out, interest in what the British Museum and other traditional cultural institutions do really is declining, and apparently across the board.

The situation reflects genuine acceptance throughout society of a liberal outlook in which (as I’ve suggested elsewhere)

the requirement of equal freedom for [opinions and values] can be satisfied only by suppressing all of them. The problem is that expression is directed at others, so to express a view is at least to a degree to impose it on others and suppress their contrary views.
The result is that liberal ideology and views that support it become the only things that can be publicly asserted. They
are the inevitable content of public celebrations and holidays, of all education that is not strictly technical, of respectable religion, and of art, most notably officially-subsidized art that proclaims its own adventurousness. All other ethical, aesthetic and cultural matters must be kept strictly private or otherwise trivialized.
In other words, PC rules, and it rules for serious reasons that won’t soon go away. Not only our elites but the public as well has, by and large, accepted it.

So what to do? Every outlook has weak points, especially those that are as poorly rooted in the actualities of human life as PC liberalism. The people are usually more concerned with human life than ideology, so it is natural for counterrevolutionaries to appeal to them, their attitudes, and their habits. Nonetheless, the people are not the font of all wisdom. On some points they must be led, and in any event traditionalists must attack what opposes tradition from whatever positions of relative strength they can find. The incapacity of liberalism to deal with high culture in a satisfactory way is a serious point of weakness in its citadel, the knowledge class. Traditionalists should take that point very seriously, and in addition to whatever appeals to the people they make they should consider what common ground they can find with members of cultural elites—like the many who share Dr. Anderson’s concerns.
Posted by Jim Kalb at July 18, 2002 03:53 PM | Send


I think I agree with Dr. Anderson. I’ve long thought that conservatives should favor paternalistic “ministries of culture” like the NEA — provided they were run by the right men with the right ideas.

As to your last paragraph, you are right in that traditionalists err in appealing exclusively to the common man (if that is what you are saying). Contrary to the prevailing view, culture flows top-down as well as bottom-up. And since American politics and society are presently in denial about the role of cultural elites, with even these elites mimicking “low” culture as proof of their solidarity with our degraded proletariat, traditionalists are in a position to fill a void by appealing to what should be a natural constituency: the educated classes.

Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on July 19, 2002 2:48 AM

I prefer something like the British Museum to something like the NEA—it’s more limited and particular in its scope, and less likely to lend itself to notions that high culture can be managed or manipulated as a whole. Also, it’s more likely to stay true to its mission because its mission is better defined.

It’s difficult for traditionalists to appeal to the educated class as a whole today because institutionalized education is the training system and institutionalized expertise the mind of the managerial liberal state. Nonetheless, we can and certainly should appeal to intelligence, knowledge, and culture.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on July 19, 2002 5:01 AM

Mr. Kalb:

PC Liberalism is incompatible with the historic mission of publicly funded libraries, museums and other cultural institutions - including institutions of higher education - in a number of ways. Here are two.

First, they were all founded on a commitment to objective scales of value according to which some works of art or of literature were truly better than others, aesthetically and morally; that human life is made better and more worthwhile by genuine knowledge of real truth; that different kinds of knowledge could be ranked according as they were more or less worthwhile in themselves and correspondingly enobling to their possessors. But both the background claim to objectivity and these foreground claims asserting some things (and which things) are better and others (and which) are worse are no longer acceptable. The rejection of these is an essential part of the reduction of even “High Culture” to pornography and “prolefeed,” along with the rejection of liberal education in favor of professional training. That is, one rejects the scale that says, “this is high, that is low,” in order to embrace what is low, aesthetically, morally, and in every conceivable way.

Second, while decades of PC assaults upon them have made the political relevance of such commitments evident, they were neither publicly expressed nor privately adhered to for political purposes. Possible climber pretentiouness aside (what did Carnegie and his generation of “philanthropists” really think about all that?), it was a matter of honesty and candor in the expression of conviction as to truth. In contrast, PC rejects the very idea of truth, and is steeped in a mendactious contempt for the masses, and even for mankind, for which all public communication, and even non-technical education, is only so much propaganda. Here, too, the scale according to which truth is nobler than falsehood, candor nobler than deceptiveness , and honesty nobler than lies is rejected, and the lower is in each case willingly embraced.

As our civilization, built by Jerusalem, Rome and Athens, melts over time into a bath house from Sybaris, all the institutions that used to be devoted to what is high are being progressively brought into service of what is low. The “Last Man” and the “Mass Man” will rule all. Our rulers will not be “the Party” of 1984, but Mustafa Mond and his ilk. What am I saying? They already are.

Posted by: Marcus Tullius Cicero on July 19, 2002 9:49 AM

I agree with Tully’s points. Actually, the second is what I had in mind when I said Anderson erred in framing the issue as “paternalism.” The expession suggests manipulation, which is much more characteristic of the faux-populist PC approach. Offering people the best thing you know, something you consider authoritative for yourself as well as objectively of value to others, is simply not what’s meant by paternalism.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on July 19, 2002 11:10 AM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):