In Defence of Art


Written by Kai H. Howie, at a time of stress as history burnt at UCT.

Artwork and photographs from UCT buildings are piled up and burnt. Many of the pieces are irreplaceable.
Artwork and photographs from UCT buildings are piled up and burnt. Many of the pieces are irreplaceable.

In the middle of last night (16th of February 2016), I woke up to the shocking news of art being placed on the sacrificial altar of decolonisation. My dearest friends joined me in expressing shock and horror at this act of barbarism. However, in fact, it is beyond barbaric.

Throughout history, barbarians have often co-existed alongside the remains of civilisation. The Goths, and even the savage Huns, did not make a concerted attempt to rid the world of classical masterpieces. This is more than that – these actions are inspired by malice and hate. However, it is not on that topic which I wish to comment, but rather on the allegation that the (relative) elite are placing the value of art above the value of human lives and dignity, particularly that of poor, black students.

Dare I opine that the allegation is true. I for one place the value of art above the value of life, even that of my own. Here’s why:

Ruskin once said:

“Great nations can write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their works and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last.”

As Kenneth Clarke wrote in Civilisation, “[art] represents spirits, messengers from another world – that is to say the world of our imagining.”

Even all the cruelty that existed in the Graeco-Roman world could not hide the consciousness man had of himself. The expressions of the ideal values of reason, justice, physical beauty, and wisdom, which found expression in myth, dance and song, philosophy, and art. Some the children of the classical imagination have been with us long after their creators have passed and have been the bedrock of civilisation ever since. From Apollo of Belvedere to Plato’s Republic, the bedrock of so much of contemporary society is built on that which we would, under moral relativity, consider repugnant. It is art’s ability to freeze ideas into immortality that we find its value. Can we understand ourselves and our origins, our narrative that gives us place in the world, if it is not for what we know of the past? How can we appreciate our enlightenment if we lack points of reference?

Human life is short and generally insignificant. This is an almost nihilistic conclusion reached by pondering on the true value of an individual human life. It is a rather disturbing conclusion for those trapped in our bourgeois and rather narcissistic paradigm. However, the vast majority of us leave no permanent mark on the future and offer no value for our future successors. We do not have any inherent value. While it is discomforting to see people struggling to exist in the world, their poverty is by no means a tragedy as great as mindlessly destroying our inheritance for future generations.

While I may be privileged enough to write off the everyday struggles of those ill-suited to the demands of the 21st century with surprising ease, I am conscious enough of our place in history to know that rather our art survive us than the tragedy of us surviving our art. That is, by definition, the end of civilisation.

About the Author: Kai graduated from Stellenbosch University with a Bcom LLB with Economics degree in 2015. He has a great interest in current events and is also an avid non-fiction reader.