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Nov 13, 2011

Running down civilization - it's what intellectuals do for a living

Roger Sandall takes on Neil MacGregor's (Director of the British Museum since 2002) A History of the World in 100 Objects and it's premise of cultural equivalence between the primitive and advanced civilizations -


Now, as whittling goes, you’d have to say it’s not bad. And, personally, I like the palaeolithic—we all know that few walls in today’s commercial galleries look half as pretty as the walls of Chauvet Cave. But here’s what bothers me: after language like this has been used to appraise an ancient piece of fretted bone, how are we going to talk about Donatello & co.? Or take the example of music. There are people in Australia who uphold the virtues of the didgeridoo, an unprepossessing hollow log with a smallish bore. Composers earnestly write passages for it in chamber works. But again, if didgeridoos were really the equivalent of other wind instruments, and their monotonous woofling was written about in a way that exhausts the critical vocabulary of high musical esteem, what is there left to say about Mozart’s horn concertos? Returning to that old piece of bone: Does Neil MacGregor actually believe that Donatello, and what used to be daringly called primitive art, are in some way culturally equivalent? Is that where the argument is leading?


Also from long, long ago comes a rough stone chopper from Kenya, and we are told that “not only human beings but also human culture” began in Africa. As a beginning, this has its anthropological place. But the incessant reiteration of what becomes a wearing mantra seems odd, as is the statement that “every one of us is part of a huge African diaspora—we all have Africa in our dna and all our culture began there.” All our culture? Surely the thing about human culture is not how it began in the Stone Age; it is how it flourished afterward in several high civilizations around the world. On the whole, it seems to me a rather good thing that our ancestors did walk out of Africa 60,000 years ago (I’m certainly glad my family did, and one notes that people continue to walk or run or swim or fly out of Africa if they can), but it is what their descendants produced afterwards in Europe, India, China, America, and elsewhere that is the truly significant human story.

It’s almost as if MacGregor believes that no visitor should have his feelings hurt. Or thinks that everyone should feel better afterwards, and that the British Museum will have failed in its therapeutic duty unless that outcome is secured.

-- snip --

So is there anything new? Perhaps there is. When, in 1970, Kenneth Clark put the Apollo of the Belvedere alongside an African mask that had belonged to Roger Fry, he felt able to say: “I don’t think that there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilization than the mask.” That was then. Today, when Neil MacGregor rates the significance of Michelangelo, Donatello and Cellini alongside a collection of bronze plaques from Benin, he manages to insinuate that the bronzes prove that in the sixteenth century, “Europe and Africa were able to deal with each other on equal terms.”

Ah yes, now that reminds me—about those tusks. Inquiry confirms that they too are from the ancient West African city of Benin. You may read about them in a 1903 book by H. Ling Roth with the title Great Benin: Its Customs, Art, and Horrors. Not for the faint-hearted. And not perhaps what you’d want to build an identity around. But let the reader judge.
(emphasis mine)

The intellectuals' view of civilization

Running down civilization - it's what the intellectuals and cultural elites do for a living.
Do read it all.


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Neil MacGregor





                                    H. Ling Roth


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