Review: Is Art Civilised?

The role that art and culture play in society seems a particularly pertinent question at present. Last fortnight, Minister for Schools Nick Gibb announced that the EBacc is set to become compulsory in secondary schools, a qualification that includes English, Maths, Sciences, History or Geography, and a Language. The performing arts are conspicuously absent, not being ‘sufficiently important to justify reducing the time available for the existing subjects in the curriculum’, according to Gibb.

This is quite a different perspective to the one offered yesterday evening by Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones. Speaking at the MCS Arts Festival, he argued that the creation of art — and the study of it — is a prerequisite for a civilised society. In a talk that spanned artworks from the Renaissance to the 2008 Fucking Hell by Jake and Dinos Chapman, he concluded that you ‘can’t have art that isn’t civilising’, and that the transmission of cultural values is a basic tenet of civilisation.

The lecture was prompted by the imminent BBC remake of the 1969 series Civilisation, originally presented by Kenneth Clark. The presenter of the new series has not yet been announced, but Jones, as author of books on Renaissance art and art critic for the Guardian since 1999, is acting as a consultant for the series. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Jones seems to have a similar view of “civilisation” as Clark: namely, a Western, liberal, democratic ideal. In making the claim that art is a civilising force, he did not stop to clarify whose idea of civilisation he was referring to, taking it as assumed that this ideal could and should act as a model for all. Judging by the questions at the end, this seemed to be something of an oversight and a miscalculation of his audience. Both this, and his grandiose statements that art should have a “powerful moral undertone” and that we are currently living in the “most civilised civilisation” ever seen, rightly came under scrutiny from various audience members.

Within these constraints, however, Jones’s talk was thought-provoking, asking what it means to say that art is a civilising force. He argued that the greatest works of art encourage the viewer to contemplate both the Dionysian (physical) and Apollonian (mental), using Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as examples. Both, according to Jones, contain elements of the “savage”, an element which offends the reigning moral mores of the time in which the paintings were created. Titian’s mythological lovers are framed by satyrs who hold aloft the severed legs of goats, their bestiality counterbalanced by the symmetry and elegance of the characters to the left of the canvas. Les Demoiselles caused outrage when it was first exhibited in 1916, due to both its content and style. Depicting a brothel scene, the prostitutes are shown in a contorted and angular fashion, a brazen challenge to the established conventions of the day. On the other hand, the blue drapes at the back of the scene reference the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco, and the careful composition of the painting clearly lies within an established tradition of Western art.

Picasso 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'
Picasso ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’

To be able to recognise something as art is, Jones argues, a profoundly civilising thing. To evaluate, talk about, and admire even art that is seen as questionable or offensive is indispensable for Jones’s conception of civilisation. Integral to this, then, is the centrality of education. According to Jones, art is both symptom and cause of civilisation, and if you want to learn about a society, you turn first to their culture. He used the example of parents taking their children to art exhibitions — in doing so they are being taught about the values of a society, and perhaps more importantly, how to question and challenge them. In light of this, I asked Jones if he considered the move to eliminate the arts from a compulsory curriculum as an uncivilised act. His answer came back, simple and clear: ‘Yes’. Pause for thought indeed.

Leah Broad

For upcoming events at the MCS Arts Festival, please visit their website.

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