Gallery highlights ‘male gaze’ in Manet masterpiece in ‘woke attempt to call out misogyny.’
Just a few years ago, I would have expected to read a headline like this in satirical magazines, but reality has caught up with satire faster than we can notice our white privilege. Hardly a week goes by without a reputable newspaper telling us that an artist’s masterpieces are racist, sexist, or best of all, both, and commanding us to re-evaluate our love of those masterpieces lest we be painted with the same brush.
The “problematization” of certain works of art has proven to be quite popular, creating a cottage industry of one-dimensional “scholarly” reinterpretations of these works. The result of these “reinterpretations” is that formerly mysterious, multi-layered works like Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère“ now languish in flat unambiguity as the zillionth representation of misogyny and white privilege.
Speaking of privilege: there is a new kind out there. Some of the greatest dead luminaries of our culture, thanks to their continuing popularity, have the dubious privilege of constant woke reinterpretations of their life and work. Ludwig van Beethoven would bellow in his grave if he knew how, after he himself had been declared black and gay already, the woke are now “reinterpreting” his work—as in the manifold new editions of his “Ode to Joy,” whose lyrics by Schiller have finally been replaced by “current” hymns to climate change, social justice, or other set pieces of progressive politics. These insipid attempts to politicize Beethoven’s famous music would certainly have sparked his infamous wrath.
Ironically, the endless rewritings of Beethoven’s work are proof of the enduring popularity of the classics—popularity that many a contemporary artist would do much to partake in, even penning a silly poem to pair with Beethoven’s timeless tune. But free-loading alone does not explain the condemnation of—and subsequent scramble to rehabilitate—the pillars of our culture. We are no longer surprised when popular works of the past receive a contemporary-progressive veneer, but the scale of the project raises the question of whether free-loading by artistic activists is the only explanation, or if there is something else at work. Above all, it does not explain why entire branches of the arts and even classical studies are facing existential threats, especially since they–unfortunately–often only occupy a small niche. Why so much effort to cancel something that hardly anyone is interested in anymore?
The first and most obvious reason is that the various forms of socialist currents–and that is what we are dealing with here–have never been able to avoid politicizing everything. Just as the whole of life is subordinated to the party, so everything becomes political. Where once “historical materialism” was the preferred method of analysis, today various shades of “critical theories” dominate, each of which subjugates the whole of reality to some characteristic: race, gender, the climate, etc. All critical theories, from historical materialism to the most avant-garde gender theories, have the same goal: to reduce complex factual relationships to a simple formula that ultimately supports some basic assumption (e.g., “Western Civilisation is inherently racist”). Facts that contradict this assumption (such as the existence of white slaves or the presence of slavery in societies around the world) must be suppressed in favour of elaborate deconstructionist penances. The fact that the West became a global model of success from the 16th century onwards is apparently reason enough to retrospectively view all the achievements of Western culture as a result of some injustice or other, even if all other major cultures are open to the same charges.
Currently, the Royal Academy of Music in London is considering removing some busts of Handel from the museum, since during his lifetime Handel made investments in an overseas company that was also involved in the slave trade. The extent of this involvement; the question of whether the whole of the company’s activities was known to Handel; the reality that this was the globally accepted norm in the 18th century; all these questions are negligible, because they distract from the central claim of the narrative: that Western culture is fundamentally racist. The same questions could be asked of a self-portrait of William Hogarth, which is currently under review because the chair on which he painted himself sitting might have been made of tropical woods, and apparently that alone demonstrates that somehow Hogarth should be convicted of some tacit support for slavery and racism.
Another of the impetuses behind this witch hunt against Western culture is simply the saying that “the friend of my enemy is also my enemy.” The preference in conservative circles for the great art and philosophy of the past means that for most progressives, these disciplines are poison… or, perhaps even more, must be made poisonous.
Culture is just more than just a refined way to pass time. For many conservatives, it is a wellspring from which they draw constantly. Poisoning this source, or at least making it harder to access, is a clever way to attack and weaken conservatism. Even if the conservative public does not care very much about character assassination like Handel and Hogarth are experiencing, public institutions, such as art galleries, orchestras, or universities, do care. If, out of fear of reprisals or withdrawal of funding, these institutions make access to this art more difficult, or at least “reinterpret” this art in a woke way, progressives have succeeded in cutting conservatives off from the source of their inspiration and stifle their ability to share their culture with future generations.
I think, however, that there is yet another reason for this crusade against our cultural past. Many may not even be aware of it, and yet it seems central. Just as the devil shuns the light, so do progressive cultural eunuchs shun the power and vitality of the greats of our past. The cultural achievements of the past do not only remind us that the West–despite legitimate criticism–has produced many great things, much greater than the shabby products of progressivism. Our dreary present, in its moralizing arrogance, believes it can judge countless generations of our ancestors, while refusing to even try to grasp the spiritual richness of our past.
The deeper we dive into the great art of the past, the more we recognize the sacrifices made not only by the artists, but also by their ancestors, to even allow for this level of artist excellence. But we also begin to ask ourselves existential questions about being human and about man’s relationship to the divine. All of this elevates the soul, but also humbles us. Great art can awaken questions in us to which there are no immediate answers. This mixture of humility and ambivalence is deeply repugnant to the modern progressive, indeed it goes against all his convictions, for to him ideology, which in contrast is proud and knows no doubt, is everything!
The fight against our classical art is the wrath of lesser sons. Every day the Homers, Shakespeares, Bachs, Rembrandts, Dantes, Monets remind us of what Western man was once capable of, but also of how far removed we have become from this ideal. These greats drive a blush of anger in the face of the impotent and envious progressive, because they reveal his own inadequacies. But he feels certain of his revenge, because he is surrounded by weak people who do not dare to contradict his indignant shouting. Thus he bullies his environment with his rage against all that greatness which offends his mediocrity. As he gains interpretive hegemony, he drags the greats of the past down to his level, tarnishing their achievements with his primitive ideological veneer of racism, sexism, and crimes against Gaia.
This is the case, for now. But the legacy of our ancestors does not only remind us of our shortcomings; it also calls us to action. Will we, too, prove to be lesser sons, or will we emerge from the comfort of silence to defend the true, good, and beautiful? We might not win the battles in the public squares; we might be driven out of universities and concert halls; but we can still turn our homes into temples of beauty, sharing the great achievements of our forefathers amongst ourselves and with our children. Let us share the unspoiled greatness of our culture with the next generation, speaking of it softly, like a precious seed that must be kept safe until one day it shall blossom again.
David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.