To Topple or not to Topple? … That is the question…

Contradictions lead forward. Statues and other symbolic representations need to expose contradictions, not ignore them – or worse, be made unaware of them. We need to ask questions.

220px-SaddamStatue

(by Tom Griffiths)

A few weeks ago I posted on Facebook a ‘shooting from the hip’ response, reproduced in part at the foot of this post, to the then new wave of statue toppling and attempted statue toppling occurring in the States and the UK, events that were riding the wave generated by the BLM movement and the murder of George Floyd. Not for the first time my guiding spirit in this response was Bertlot Brecht and his poem Questions From A Worker Who Reads, a poem that ‘accompanied’ me on a visit to Toronto Museum.

My gripe then, as it is now, is not so much the fate of individual statues – some ask to go, others to be daubed, scribbled upon or otherwise improved, while others ask for company to have their story told more honestly or completely. My gripe is how the story, events and processes of history remain distorted and misunderstood. And by misunderstood I not only mean in effect, through ignorance, but also through deliberate misrepresentation. This is not simply about who gets wiped from the account, but is about those not even considered important enough to be a part of the account in the first place – Brecht’s builders and masons responsible for the Chinese wall, for Babylon, the Seven Gate of Thebes …And if you are feeling bridled at women not making the account here, this too is another part of the missing story.

Churchill once wrote that history is written by the victor. Aside from the fact that he would and could say that, his individual history and his inherited history of being a ‘card carrying’ member of the British ruling class giving him what I could term bragging rights, he could also have added: and by those who rule or do the ruler’s bidding. Because ‘victor’ not only applies militarily, to interpretive cum ideological spoils of war, but more pervasively to the interpretive and ideological spoils of class warfare, the internal social dramas characteristic of all written history.

There is nothing to be gained in condemning these omissions – what’s happened has happened and the water we once poured into the wine cannot be drained off again, as Brecht once put it – but we need to understand them (to ask questions) to understand the social and economic forces that enabled, or forced, the great majority of people to be pushed off stage, or not even invited on it in anything other than the most servile and ‘meaningless’ of roles. I say ‘meaningless’ with a sense of irony because without them, without Caesar’s cook, Lima’s mason’s, the builders of the Chinese wall etc there would have been no stage for the ruling classes and associated flunkies to perform and preen themselves on in the first place. In saying this I do not intend to gloss over or deny the role or capabilities of particular individuals in history. I do suggest however that they and their achievements need to be seen in context and the context I am focussing on is the enabling, and in this sense the central role of the ignored, the hindmost.

One of the things about modernity is that it allows/enables these formerly ignored players to stick their heads above the parapet and begin to be noticed, both in terms of their emerging individuality and their contributions in all spheres of life. Do we condemn their wiping from the historical record in times past? No, we seek to understand history, the forces at play, what was possible and what needed to be fought for and achieved by future generations. Do we condemn their being ignored, downplayed or written out of recent history or of current events? Yes we do.

So, within this brief contextual framework let me first look at what we should/could do with statues that carry symbolic weight before ending by looking at a late C20th example of how history can be brought to life, enabling the complexities and emergent currents of class related struggle to be displayed in statue form, a form that not only remembers the hindmost, but honors them. And it is worth remembering here that this is not simply about the past, be that distant or recent, because in one hundred, three hundred, a thousand years hence, we will be history and the same questions will not only apply to us then, but, knowing that, apply to us now.

Let’s Topple…?

Above I suggested that some deserve and need to go and I will nominate a few to demonstrate the point. That being said it is not whether they need to go so much as the manner in which they go, a distinction I think is important.. Allow me to demonstrate the point with several examples, including one of a figure I admire. I will start with the most current and work my way back.

John Colston

From being an obscurity outside of Bristol to being catapulted to international infamy in the space of a topple and a dispatch into the river, the British 18thC slave trader’s statue is now where campaigners have long wanted it to be – gone. But not entirely gone. Retrieved from the river the statue’s destiny is now likely to lie as a museum exhibit where curators will have the opportunity of letting viewers know why and how the statue ended up before them. For inspiration on how to make this opportunity transformative they would be hard pressed to go past an exhibit I saw in Toronto Museum (see link above) of three century old native American figures in traditional garb (representatives of a bye gone and defeated past) radically transformed by the addition of a power drill, a camera and tripod and an ipod and the following caption,

We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future.”

Let us hope the Bristol curators are up to the task; if not, another campaign beckons.

While this is probably where Colston will end up, another option exists. Following Colston’s long overdue demise a resin statue of a black protester was put in his place and then removed by local authorities. It depicted a young black protester, her clenched fist raised. See Spiked article Who Would Black Lives Matter Erect a Statue To. This figure, or something like it, represents a big improvement on both Colston and on nothing at all. But it is incomplete. The irony here – and it’s a big one – is that what is needed to complete this public square statement is Colston’s statue, toppled and at the feet of the protester. This would tell a much more compelling and accurate story and would be a far more powerful statement.

The Arab Spring and the Toppling of Tyrants

While the Arab Spring has been stalled, remaining very much unfinished business, the statues of three former dictators, two of whom, Saadam Hussein and Gadaffi had been deposed, the other, al-Assad, sadly, dying in office before he could be overthrown, were toppled. Good riddance to bad rubbish we can say. But, so far as the statues are concerned, is that all there is to it? Or, rather, should that be all there is to it? Should they just be melted down or reduced to rubble and consigned to landfill or can they, as fallen idols, be used for progressive purposes (in dialectical jargon, be turned into their opposite)? My inclination would be to use them in an ongoing, symbolic and educative way. Left where they fell (bespattered, disfigured, pissed on….) they would send two clear messages, one to other tyrants, or those so inclined – “This is what awaits you” – the other a message of hope to the oppressed or to those who may become so, and that that hope is to be realized through resistance and rebellion – “It is right to rebel”.

Lenin Falls

In May 1991, following the overthrow of Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Miriam, a large statue of Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, was toppled with enthusiastic crowd support. Lenin is a historical figure I admire, but his revolutionary spirit and acumen has long since been ignored and his figure, actual in the case of statues, ‘expropriated’ or used to prop up fake revolutionary regimes. The statue had to go and had Lenin been around at the time he would have been urging the crowd on.

The Lincolns, the Douglas’, the Churchills, the…

The above examples belong to the obvious/easy to justify category, blatant examples of political propaganda in the service of tyranny. The Confederacy lauding statues belong in the same category – reactionary propaganda pieces erected to support the Jim Crow segregationist laws in the formerly Confederate States, after the Civil War. Politically they are low hanging fruit and if existing authorities in the UK and the US are too laggard to act they effectively invite others to act in their place. But these are not the ones that stir my interest that much precisely because of their being low hanging. It is the ire, the rage (fey or genuine) aroused by statues of Lincoln, Ulysses S Grant et al in the US, Churchill in the UK (or their equivalents anywhere) that is really interesting and which open up possibilities that Brecht’s questioning worker would have approved of.

The thing about any work of art – statues in this case – that either depicts a figure or an event, is what it intends to communicate to the observer. This includes whatever the artist or commissioning body wants to portray or whatever is portrayed in addition to (or in spite of) this. And this can become more clouded, or lost entirely, as time passes, a point not lost on Brecht’s worker. In my ‘farcebook’ post I cited a statue of Winston Churchill as an example. A heroic figure in the war against Fascism, (“… we will fight them on the beaches…we will never surrender.”) certainly. And this is the figure portrayed. The problem with this is not that this aspect is untrue, but that it is one dimensional, it does not portray anything like the “whole truth”, as former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, in relation to the Lincoln statue. It is not without reason that the coal miners of Wales and England remembered Churchill with hatred. How does history remember them, or more to the point how does history remember and portray his relationship with the miners specifically and workers generally? Varied answers can be found in libraries and online if one searches, but what about in the public square where he now stands? “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”, he wrote. And while others have written with a different bent (there has been some very good British historiography written) it is his depiction in the public square that interests me, and in that place Churchill needs the bronzed company of coal miners, of the Welsh Tonypandy ‘rioters’, of the 1926 strikers, of those who had no confidence in Churchill to ‘manage the peace’ after WW2. To treat their histories as separate is to grant Churchill the privilege of writing history and to dismiss and demean the Welsh and English workers by so doing. This is a contemporary example of workers, the ‘not the right kind of chaps’, being written out of history as this relates to the statue’s narrative.

 

The situation in the States is just as, if not more interesting, for there not only are statues valorizing the Confederacy coming down (and about time too) but the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington is now fenced off from attempts to pull it down. This statue, depicting Lincoln standing beside a former slave, kneeling and with chains broken, was dedicated in 1876 by Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist. Douglass’ view of the statue was extraordinarily astute and prescient. The statue failed to expose what Douglass termed the “whole truth”,  that enslaved men and women had resisted and rebelled, enlisted and taken up arms to fight for their own freedom. A few decades down the track, as revolutions swept through Russia, and  later China, we would call this a failure to identify and focus upon the developing aspect of the contradiction. .

His solution, nearly 150 years ago, was not that the statue needed removing, but that a partially true story needed completion. Archer Alexander, the freed slave who was the model beside Lincoln, needed to be seen having finished what he’d begun, standing as Lincoln’s equal. Nor need he be alone. The depiction in the statue is a moment of synthesis and being such it heralds the opening up of new and higher levels of struggle. Former slaves and activists like Douglass and Charlotte Scott, the woman whose idea it was and whose philanthropy began the campaign for the statue in the first place, are figures who straddle both sides of the emancipatory divide and should be seen standing with Alexander. But so could others who inherited the baton they passed on. Those who immediately come to my mind include Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Rosa Parks, Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King …. activists and fighters all. All are linked to the Emancipation Memorial and all have thrown into the ring invaluable contributions to an ongoing, emergent “whole truth”.

The “whole truth” involves a mighty big cast  many of whom are lost to us as individuals and who require symbolic representation.and I am aware that, in a numerical sense a single public square or park will have its limits with choices needing to be made no matter one’s political inclinations. But that should be a challenge that excites, not inhibits. …

Truth that aspires to the “Whole Truth”

Frederick Douglass had remarked, in his constructive criticism of the Emancipation Memorial, that no single statue could portray the “whole truth”. The sculptors, participants and supporters of Wrath of the Serfs, a series of 106 life size clay sculptures, completed in 1975, of serf life in Tibet – repression through to rebellion – were clearly reading from the same page when it came to portraying the “whole truth” through sculpture. The works were done by sculptors from the College of Fine Arts of the Central May Seventh Academy of Arts in Peking, a teacher from the Lu Hsun Art College of Shenyang and art workers of Tibet. Their ‘brief’ was to expose the evil of the old Tibetan regime and acclaim the serfs’ heroic struggle. There is a striking parallel here between this acclamation, the focus on the serf’s own role in struggling for liberation and Douglass’ astute criticism of the Liberation Memorial were the role played by slaves in their own liberation is not focussed upon and remains ambiguous (the former slave’s chains are broken, but by whom?).

The figures portrayed in Wrath of the Serfs,  are striking in their dynamism and their fidelity to lived experience. Aside from the skill level of the sculptors the main reason for this can be found in the preparation undertaken prior to the work being done. This “included more than 5,000 kilometres of travel inside Tibet for the purpose of study and investigation. The artists listened to the angy condemnation of past sufferings by a hundred liberated serfs, asked for suggestions from former poor and lower-middle peasants and herdsmen and improved their works on this basis.” There are two things we should note about this. The first is its unremarkableness – of course one would conduct research and were possible speak to those who not only represent the subject matter, but actually were the subject matter, Tibetan serfdom only being formally abolished in 1959. The second is its remarkableness, the fact that for the first time Tibetan serfs were considered important enough to be empathised with, to be listened to, to have their experiences valued and for them to be elevated to play the leading role in the drama of their former lives. Brecht’s hindmost were now the foremost.

Concluding remarks

I have gone to the bother of writing this because there is something simultaneously impressive and disturbing about the current spate of statue toppling. The concluding comments of my facebook post in late June summed this up and I will end this post with remarks I made following Brecht’s Questions From A Worker Who Reads.

So many questions indeed. Statue toppling/defacing on the one hand, and confused cum paralysed responses by authorities on the other. It’s also a reflection of serious historical ignorance, crap politics and an inability to deal with, let alone be aware of contradiction. (BTW, statues of contemporary creeps like Saddam Hussein deserved to be toppled). Churchill was right to say that history is written by the victors and Brecht more right (utterly right, actually) to draw our attention to those ignored, forgotten or deemed unworthy of attention (those he elsewhere referred to as the hindmost).

Spitting the dummy and demanding obliteration is actually the worst option, Talibanesque in fact. It not only removes or wipes clean the historical slate – and whatever else history is, it is never a clean slate – it out does the Churchillian ‘line’ by the proverbial country mile. It does this because every statue or other symbolic representation contains its opposite.

This is the truth that Brecht was getting at. Removal, wiping the slate clean, actually succeeds in doing what even the punciest, most egocentric or reactionary statue fails to do – it totally removes the unacknowledged, the exploited etc. along with the figure being revered. So a better solution needs to be found than ditching everything. I actually like the idea of – using statues as an example – bringing the hidden figures into the open in direct ‘communication’ with, for example, Churchill. The coal miners hated Churchill so their irate and critical presence would help onlookers ask questions. But he was also an important figure in the fight against Fascism and this aspect also needs open acknowledgement, not separately, but together.

Contradictions lead forward. Statues and other symbolic representations need to expose contradictions, not ignore them – or worse, be made unaware of them. We need to ask questions.

 

Happy 25 millionth! People are precious – and not the problem.

workers have no country

‘… only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations… ‘

–  Lenin, 1913

‘All the gang of those who rule us/Hope our quarrels never stop/Helping them to split and fool us/So they can remain on top’

– Brecht, Solidarity Song, 1929-1930

* * * *

 

Australia’s population reached 25 million the other day – way ahead of schedule. Experts thought it would happen at least a decade from now. The increase is mostly a product of immigration.

 

I’m all for mass immigration, primarily because it’s very good for immigrants. Of which my parents and I were three, in 1954. But even if I wasn’t one myself, I’d still be all for it. It’s also good for the locals, as it expands economic opportunity in the domestic market and enriches the culture and cosmopolitan sense.

 

At the time my parents arrived, Australia’s population was barely ten million. With more than double the population today, Australia is a much better and more interesting place than it was back then.

 

It makes me angry to hear politicians – sometimes ‘left’ and sometimes Right – suggesting or directly stating that migrants – ‘too many people’ – are to blame for infrastructure problems, unemployment and high house prices. How difficult is it really to run more trains in the cities at peak hour and to plan ahead? These are services that we are generally happy to pay taxes for.

 

Unemployment? The only way to reduce unemployment is by creating jobs, something the economy is meant to do. When we have the government actually creating the jobs, or even seeming to, we have an economy that is losing its mojo and acting as a restraint.

 

House prices? The great majority of people who own more than one property are Australian-born.  Stop blaming immigrants!

 

Let’s question capitalism rather than immigration levels. No wonder bourgeois politics is pretty much on the nose all over the advanced world.

 

Infrastructure expansion is a political question, as is the development of new cities and regional centres. Capitalism is such a backward system in countries where it has reached maturity and outlived its previous usefulness that rapid growth doesn’t happen and people – the most precious of all things – are regarded as a problem. What’s with a system that has always had a ‘reserve army of labour‘ – the unemployed – when there is so much work that could and should be done?

 

Don’t blame immigrants for the fact that capitalism is a sluggish moribund system, not dead yet but certainly unable to realize genuine, realistic, opportunities for all round development, and that the governments administering it can only do good things on the basis of increasing debt.

 

* * * *

 

Many years ago, possibly the early 1990s, I was at a party in a beautiful property in Sylvania heights, Sydney, overlooking the Georges River. The property was set on several acres of attractive native bush.

 

Among the guests was Tim Flannery, whom I had known very briefly at Melbourne’s La Trobe University in the mid-1970s. Tim told me, with characteristic earnestness and enthusiasm, that Australia’s optimum population was seven million. By optimum, I think he meant what ‘the natural environment’ could ‘sustain’, without being changed for the worse.

 

I politely told him that he needed to consider what kind of society Australia was when the population was seven million, which was in 1947. With a population of approximately 17 million, as it was in the early 1990s when we talked, Australian society was a much better place, especially for women, than it was in 1947.

 

I also pointed out to him that Canberra, where I had settled, was now a very lush green place with tree-covered hills and a rapidly growing population of almost 250,000, yet in the early 1900s, when the population was barely a thousand, the landscape had been mostly denuded of trees.

 

* * * *

 

What kind of times are these, when/To talk about trees is almost a crime/Because it implies /silence about so many/horrors?

–   Brecht, To those who follow in our wake, 1939

 

* * * *

 

Reactionaries adhere to an essentially Malthusian view that says resource development and food supply cannot possibly keep up with population growth. Malthus wrote that, ‘The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation’. (An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798, Chapter VII) This has been proven wrong – thanks to human ingenuity, democratic politics, science and technology. While population has increased to 7 billion, world hunger has declined greatly over the past few decades, as this data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation shows.

 

The Greens and some trade union bosses also tow an anti-population-growth line. The Greens want only ‘sustainable’ population growth, which logically must mean no population growth as more people will always strain existing infrastructure and require more physical space (which involves destruction of some ‘natural environment’). The union bosses warn against competition from foreign workers who, they say, will undercut local wages and conditions. Yet this happens when such workers are only allowed to work in Australia on restrictive temporary visae rather than on the same basis as everyone else.

 

The left has never fallen for such views. When it comes to ‘foreign workers’, we understand that there’s no such thing: the working class is a class not a nationality.

 

Marx appropriately said of Malthus’ population theory, which blamed the poor for their poverty, that he was ‘a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes’.

 

‘Utter baseness is a distinctive trait of Malthus—a baseness which can only he indulged in by a parson who sees human suffering as the punishment for sin and who, in any ease, needs a “vale of tears on earth”, but who, at the same time, in view of the living he draws and aided by the dogma of predestination, finds it altogether advantageous to “sweeten” their sojourn in the vale of tears for the ruling classes’.

Marx, Chapter 9, Theories of surplus value, 1861-63

 

* * * *

 

A final note: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Paul Ehrlich’s bizarre book, ‘The population bomb’. I read it back then and it made me quite worried about the future.

 

In 1970, in a magazine wrongly titled ‘The Progressive’, he argued that between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the “Great Die-Off.” Fifty years ago, this was extremist  stuff, more on the periphery (although ‘newsworthy’). Now it is thoroughly mainstream: a reflection of ongoing and deepening crisis.

 

In the 50 years since the first edition of his ‘Bomb’, the opposite has happened on most measures, from longer life expectancy through to greater education opportunities and women’s rights, better health and greater prosperity across the globe (with a few exceptions). Check out this excellent article from The Guardian for more evidence of just how wrong Ehrlich was and is.

 

And in that time, world population has doubled from 3.8 billion to more than 7 billion.

 

* * * *

 

Lenin’s words, from ‘Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration’ are still relevant:

 

‘Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.

 

‘Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. [A verst is a Russian measurement equal to about 1.1 kilometres]. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.

 

‘There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations…

 

‘The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. All the gang of those who rule us/Hope our quarrels never stop/Helping them to split and fool us/So they can remain on top. Brecht Class-conscious workers, realising that the break-down of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries’. enlightening them that the problem is not development, but ownership.

 

– Lenin, ‘Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration‘ 1913

 

* * * * * *

 

 

If Bertolt Brecht were in Alice (Springs)…

download

Many thanks to Tom Griffiths for this excellent poem.

For overseas’ readers, Alice Springs is a town in central Australia. The population is about 24,000, of which 18% is Indigenous. The town has very serious crime problems and is the ‘murder capital of Australia’. Domestic violence is especially bad.

The level of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities has been described as “out of control” by the Northern Territory Coroner. Women are taking the lead in calling for an end to violence.

Tom has been working in Alice with a family violence program run out of Tangentyere Council. The group program is for anyone but is overwhelmingly attended by men from the town camps or public housing. It addresses men and women of all ages who want to draw a line in the sand. The need on the ground and the adaptation of the original reminds us that art (of whatever form) must strive to do more than reflect reality, but must strive to change it.

 

Praise of Learning

Learn the simplest things. For you

Whose time has already come

It is never too late.

Learn your ABC’s, it is not enough,

But learn them! Do not let it discourage you,

Begin! You must know everything!

You must take over the leadership.

 

Learn man in gaol

Learn woman in the camps

Learn child roaming the streets

Seek out the school, you who are homeless!

Sharpen your wits, you who shiver!

Hungry man, hungry woman, reach for the book: it is a weapon.

You must take over the leadership.

 

Don’t be pushed around sister

Don’t be humbugged brother

Stand by your children parents

Stand up for yourself

And for others

You must take over the leadership.

 

Don’t be afraid to ask brother!

Don’t be won over sister,

See for yourself!

What you don’t know yourself,

You don’t know.

Add up the reckoning.

It is you who must pay it.

Put your finger on each item,

Ask: how did this get here?

You must take over the leadership.

 

* * * * * *

Toronto Museum – An exercise in ‘education’, irritation and Bertolt Brecht

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

– North American Indigenous exhibit, Toronto Museum

* * * * * *

(by Tom Griffiths)

Recently my wife and I had the opportunity of visiting the Toronto Museum at the invitation of a Toronto based colleague of hers, in order to see a Viking exhibition. Well, historical remnants and explanations thereof – if you want to see the long boats you need to go to the Viking Museum in Oslo. We did not expect this to be able to match the Viking museum, not a fair ask in any case and in this sense our expectations were met.

Before moving on to the purpose of this post, which is not really about the Viking exhibits, two comments about it, both positive, are worth making, especially since they affected my expectations (and disappointments) of what I would be exposed to in the rest of the museum, or rather those parts I visited. And these left me peeved and irritated with Brecht buzzing around my head. But more on this later.

The two positives, while modest in themselves, showed an attempt being made by either the curating bods at Toronto or Oslo to engage the visitor in the life and times of the Vikings. And having vicariously visited Valhalla courtesy of Dirk Gently’s adventures in The Long Dark Tea-Time of The Soul I was ready to be engaged.

The first positive was an obvious attempt by the curators to explain aspects of context, specifically social and economic, that helped shape the Vikings. As one would expect these days particular attention was placed on the place and role of women, making them visible. This aspect painted with a broad brush. The other positive was about fine detail. As one would expect after a thousand odd years many of the exhibits were showing their age and associated brittleness. One, a sword, made decrepit and fragile by rust, was partnered by a reproduction that had been placed in front of it. Above the repro was a sign saying Touch Me. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Briefly, for a fleeting second, I was able to imagine myself there. I will leave it to your imagination to decide whether ‘there’ was somewhere in the former Viking territories or in Valhalla.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that I was buoyed by this experience, it had certainly lodged somewhere in my head as my wife headed off to work leaving me to explore the rest of the museum. At this stage Brecht was, shall I say, keeping a low profile.

Whilst I did not ‘do’ the whole museum I did see three of their substantial exhibitions. In order of my seeing them these were an exhibition of 1stC to 20thC AD Korean sculptures and artifacts, a North American Indigenous section and a series of 16thC to early 20thC bed and sitting room furniture in ‘typical’ domestic settings. A legacy of European style as the Museum put it. Hint: the inverted commas serve as a warning. By the time I had finished Brecht was buzzing furiously.

Leaving Odin, Thor and their Viking worshipers behind I headed off to a Korean exhibition, the focus of which was mythology, mythological figures (the King of Hell, for example), furnishings and residential representations of the wealthy and … I don’t know what the collective noun is for numerous Buddha statues gathered in a small space is – a chill of Buddhas perhaps? – and a chill of Buddhas.

An O.D. of Buddhas- insouciance for all

I entered this exhibition curious but without any specific expectations. I left it Buddha’d out, having been through a Charge of the Light Brigade moment – Buddhas to the right, Buddhas to the left … The benefit of this over dose was it forced me to think and what follows is a distillation of that.

There were several aspects to this, the most immediately obvious being the historical, the retreat inward in the face of powerlessness. Whilst not true in any absolute sense the old boy himself and his many followers were, like the Stoics of ancient Greece and the Brahmin aesthetes, to name but a few, suffering an acute on chronic shortage of places to go with any dissatisfactions or grievances they had with the material world. And more importantly the people generally had even fewer places to go – they had no choice other than to put up with it and figure out ways to survive.

Hobbes’ dystopian description of the primitive world where life outside society was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ could also have been applied to the social conditions surrounding Buddha et al because life inside these societies wasn’t much better. From such materially and spiritually impoverished soil, “a heartless world” as Marx put it, sprang both need, “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and solution.

Withdrawing into the inner self was something they could do – and proselytise about – and they did. And yes, I know that proselytising about it is an external act and a defacto, if not intentional, political act but we moderns have Buddha et al at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to passing judgement on the value of what he or others were promoting as solutions to the miseries and injustices of social life.

So what is my gripe about confronting these ‘chilled out’ stone figures? None. As just mentioned, judging those times by today’s values and insights wouldn’t even make the grade as picking low hanging fruit; my gripe with the museum’s display is with how these concrete historical figures have been removed from their actual, material conditions and the human needs these ‘nurtured’ and gave birth to and rendered them abstract.

Museums all around the world, including Toronto, promote themselves as having an educative function. Unlike their Viking display, this was not education, but mystification. The saving grace, if I can put it that way, of the Buddas one can see in temples across South and SouthEast Asia – my favourites are the giant, recumbent Buddhas I’ve seen in Thailand and Sri Lanka, whose eyes peer lazily beyond, looking like they’ve just had a shot of heroin – is that they make no attempt to educate in a rational, secular sense; they are religious figures at places of worship.

There the term education takes on an entirely different meaning, one that is part of a religious faith’s ‘job description’. I disagree with the message but have no gripes with their honesty. I am unable to be so generous with the museum and this connects it with the following.

Another aspect is quite contemporary, a comment on the times. At the dawn of the modern era we see someone like Bacon revolutionizing philosophy by turning it outward, to the objective world of things. He took more than a passing swipe at medieval predecessors and ancient Greek philosophy alike for their looking inward and took a very direct swipe at Plato and Platonism generally: “when you taught us to turn our minds inward and grovel before our own blind and confused idols under the name of contemplative philosophy; then truly you dealt us a mortal injury.”

While not directed against Buddha or what his adherents stood for it could easily have done so. There was a world to conquer. The means to do it were emerging and these means were accompanied by and encouraged a spirit full of confidence and vision. This bullish spirit (or should that be Bolshie spirit?) of the young bourgeois revolution, so admired by Marx, is now in an almost apologetic retreat. Where once a critique of the shortcomings and hypocrisies of this revolution created elbow room for proletarian promise and daring do, there is now among ‘informed opinion’ and the broad spectrum of bourgeois ideology a de energised, timid state characterised by a sense of diminished hope and glumness if not outright funk.

And just when we thought things had reached rock bottom who should step, or rather who is pushed, onto the stage, but Buddha, eyes closed or glazed over telling us to focus on the inner self. Now in whose interest could that sage advice possibly be I wonder?

Tellingly, perhaps, my favourite figure in this section of the museum was the King of Hell, a diabolical little chap who at least displayed a sense of vitality. And here Brecht made his first appearance. As I looked and smiled at the King I was reminded of Brecht’s Mask of Evil: “On my wall hangs a Japanese carving/ The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer./ Sympathetically I observe/ The swollen veins on the forehead, indicating/ What a strain it is to be evil.”

As with my little ‘mate’ the King there is tension, there is contradiction, there is life. And thank heavens for that! Or should that be thank hell?
After entering this exhibit with casual interest I found myself relieved to be leaving it and without consulting the museum map soon found myself outside (and then inside) the North American Indigenous Exhibit.

The North American Indigenous section

It may be odd to say this but these exhibits had a certain familiarity courtesy of my childhood and adolescence watching westerns on TV and Saturday arvo matinees. That being said the exhibits were of interest and some attention had been paid (not enough as I was soon to discover) to explanation of context.

Then it happened, an exhibit that not only caught my attention (seized it was more accurate) but made me audibly laugh in surprise and approval. This was the highlight of the museum and demonstrates how the dead and buried can be made to live, for their living descendents to embrace the challenges of modernity without sacrificing their heritage and how easy this transformation can be. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

This exhibit was of three native Americans, life size plaster cast figures, two men and a woman, originally installed about 100 years ago. The male figure to my left was squatting and reaching for something with his left hand; in the middle, and standing was the female figure and to her left the second male figure in a semi squatting pose. An unremarkable exhibit of the past and a defeated past at that. Comforting for the victors perhaps, but not so for the vanquished and it was this discomfort (pissed offness is probably more accurate) that transformed what was before me into something exceptional. What I actually saw and what had given the exhibit life and relevance was the male figure to my left reaching for a power drill, the female figure holding a tripod and camera and the remaining figure wired up with a ipod.

After my initial ‘wow’ response my gaze fell to an explanatory note at the base of the trio. It said it all:

‘We do not want to be depicted in the way we were when we were first discovered in our homeland in North America. We do not want museums to continue to present us as something from the past. We believe we are very, very much here now and we are going to be very important in the future’.

European Style through the Ages

I left the Indigenous display in a buoyant mood and soon ended up, in more familiar territory, in the Samuel European Galleries where I was assailed and increasingly irritated by the ‘legacy of European style through the ages’ – the ages here meaning the late middle ages – the birth of the modern period – to the 20thC. I later discovered, courtesy of their website, that during the period covered, “Europe witnessed agricultural, social, economic and industrial innovation that would change how Europeans lived, worked, and viewed with the world around them” and was invited to “examine the influence these changes had through the lens of decorative arts development in central and Western Europe. Walk among period rooms and vignettes, including those of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Victorian periods, and discover the different stylistic signatures of each.”

Now, I need to disclose that I gained this information after my visit and after the irritation I increasingly felt as I walked “among the period rooms and vignettes” conversing in my head with Brecht as I went. Had I had this info with me at the time my irritation would have been greater.

The problem I had was not with what was there but with what was not. The period rooms and vignettes displayed were, not surprisingly, either the “stylistic signatures” of the emergent bourgeoisie (landed or otherwise) or of the decaying aristocracies of Europe. This fails to surprise on two levels. The first is that the display artifacts were made by skilled craftsmen using quality materials and these have a tendency to last and to be handed down across generations. The second is political, or ideological more broadly and ironically sits in the same camp as that identified and rectified by the Indigenous activists referred to above. In much the same way as the common working people – you know, the ones that actually make all the stuff and keep it working – are written out of history, the lens employed at the museum airbrushes them out too. The pity of this is that their signature appears in every single exhibit, but remains unseen and devalued. As I traipsed my way through the centuries, looking at these rooms with their ‘stylistic signatures’ the one signature that emerged as dominant was that of class, of ownership.

On the one hand this is all rather ho hum – what had I expected to see anyway? But on the other, consigning it to the ‘ho hum’ department is itself a problem because it colludes with the obscuring of social relations. The question that kept repeating in my head was ”where are the people?” And I mean all of them – the property owners, the quality sort of chap with his quality sort of wife, their servants (who cooked the meals? who changed the sheets and cleaned? who…?) the craftsmen who had built everything before me. Where were they? And what were their quarters like? where and how did the craftsmen live?

The Indigenous example – the power drill, the camera and the ipod – demonstrated how the past can be made highly pertinent to the present, how the gap between them shrinks and can be traversed. With curatorship guided by curiosity and social awareness and how these are shaped by the times, we can be given the opportunity of asking questions of history. We can tackle, like our indigenous friends, how we can bring these questions into the present and ask ourselves what aspects of this past remain tangled in the present, holding us up and what aspects have opened doors and propelled us forward.

But why Brecht? Why him in my head, needling me? Brecht is one of my favorite poets and the answer lies in one of them, Questions From a Worker Who Reads:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?
And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?
Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?
Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?
Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?
Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?
Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?
So many reports.
So many questions.

 

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