Can Culture Save Us? The European Crisis of Confidence

by | Dec 16, 2015 | Features

Can the tastes and activities of powerful tastemakers of the 17th and 18th centuries tell us anything about how we got to where we are today, with Europe in crisis and possibly at breaking point, and more importantly, offer a way out of the mess?
The wider question is – what role, if any, can museums and other cultural institutions play in response to the various existential crises that face Europe today?

As we contemplate our relationship with Europe with the impending referendum, this was the timely big question asked by the V&A in a roundtable discussion convened to mark the reopening of the Europe 1600-1815 rooms following a £12.5m refit. The participants included a stellar roll-call of the European cultural establishment, including leading museum directors, economists, politicians, pollsters and writers.

It’s an interesting question. But just what can the Duke of Urbino’s writing desk, or a German nobleman’s porcelain table-fountain tell us about ourselves; and how can these beautiful objects of past privilege possibly help us out of our current European crisis? Some may even argue that museums like the V&A are in fact irrelevant and divisive; reminding us as they do, that there has always been an unbridgeable gulf between the very rich and grindingly poor, and that Europe has, until the mid 20th century, been an endless and bloody battleground.

Certainly there are few reminders in the V&A of the lives of ordinary people and plenty of reminders of conflict. The 215 year period of the Europe rooms was indeed characterised by extraordinary violence and turbulence. There were in fact no less than 90 episodes of conflict in this period, including the last of the malignant wars of religion the Thirty Years War, along with the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution.

The European Crisis of Confidence Madame de Pompadour

The Marquise of Pompadour. Francois Boucher, 1758, French
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The director of the V&A, Dr Martin Roth is himself under no fantastical illusion about the potential of our cultural institutions and admits: “The answers to the toughest political or economic questions cannot be found fully formed in the collections of Europe’s museums.” He is of course quite right. Museums and other cultural institutions will obviously be unable to resolve the euro crisis, and the systemic economic failures of the EU, the crippling inequalities of capitalism, the migration crisis, the threat from a resurgent nationalist Russia in the grip of authoritarian kleptocrats. Then there’s the further threat of jihadis within and without Europe, disenchanted European teenagers running off to fight for Daesh, the rise of anti-European and xenophobic extreme right wing parties everywhere, and a rising tide of anti-semitism and Islamophobia – and that’s before we even think about global warming, mass extinction and a population explosion chasing diminishing resources.

What cultural institutions like the V&A can do – with their rich and inspiring collections that were forged during other equally critical periods of our history – is to galvanise us to face up to yet another European crisis: The crisis of confidence. That is confidence in the liberal democratic values that set the Western world apart, and which are the best things that Europe has contributed to humanity – and which we seem so dishearteningly lacklustre in defending against a multitude of threats from within and without Europe.

“The answers to the toughest political or economic questions cannot be found fully formed in the collections of Europe’s museums.”

But just what can the Duke of Urbino’s writing desk, or a German nobleman’s porcelain table-fountain tell us about ourselves; and how can these beautiful objects of past privilege possibly help us out of our current crises?

Image: Table fountain, Meissen, modelled by Johann Joachim Kändler and others
Dresden, Germany, about 1745–7
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The European Crisis of Confidence Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

The European Crisis of Confidence Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller

John Locke (1632-1704) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

The Enlightenment and the forging of European values

And it is precisely during this immensely epochal period, known as the Age of the Enlightenment, that is – albeit only incidentally – celebrated by the V&A’s new Europe rooms, that our collective values were forged and the modern, Western view of the world was born. The principles that are at the heart of our values – individual liberty, progress, reason, equality, fraternity and tolerance – were born in the Age of the Enlightenment, and were to undermine the authority of monarchies and conservative religion, preparing the path towards the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. These principles have in turn led to the formulation of both liberalism and the democratic institutions that define our modern way of life. They have also produced the modern Western ideals of a universal, global, and cosmopolitan society that is such a central part of the Western imagination. Ideals that have given us international law and international human rights, the United Nations and the European Union.

It is truly remarkable that although so much has divided Europe over the centuries – including language and deep sectarian differences – a common set of values emerged during the ferment of the Enlightenment in many different centres, out of the shared Western heritage of the Athens of antiquity. Simultaneously, defining ideas were emerging in England, Scotland, France, Prussia, Russia, Austria, Italy and outside Europe in the newly emerging United States. The cosmopolitan nature of the European Enlightenment project is glaringly revealed by the list of names of its luminaries. A long list that includes Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Kant and the encyclopaedist philosophers D’Alembert and Diderot amongst many others.

Although there was much to divide them, it was the ordinary citizens of Europe, the leaders of European civil society – rather than governments or states – that forged a common set of civilising values. A few notable enlightened despots notwithstanding – eventually and quite remarkably, the tail was able to wag the European dog: as the powerful imperatives of these nascent Western values created an ineluctable force that swept aside the Kings, Kaisers and dictators to give us our open society, our democratic systems and the noble fraternity of the European Union. A union whose dream was primarily to end war between the mightiest powers on a continent that had spawned the bloodiest conflicts in all human history. The relative peace of the 70 years of the Pax Europaea is a powerful testament to the success of this long term but beleaguered and still incomplete project.

The European Crisis of Confidence Portrait of Montesquieu (1689-1755)

Montesquieu (1689-1755)

The European Crisis of Confidence Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

For the first time people came together to exchange information, ideas and criticism and the notion of ‘civil society’ as distinct from the ‘state’ was born

Emergence of the ‘Public Sphere’

But just what happened in the Enlightenment that allowed the civil society tail to wag the European dog? What was it about the period celebrated by the V&A’s European rooms that helps us to understand this extraordinary phenomenon? Dr Martin Roth reminds us that the 17th and 18th centuries saw the emergence of many of the things we now take for granted like “hot drinks, seasonal fashions, comfortable upholstered furniture, salon evenings in the home – even travelling shaving sets for fashion conscious men”. This may be true, but more importantly – and closer to home – it was also in the 18th century that most of our cultural institutions were founded, including national museums, art exhibitions, concerts, and national theatres, lending libraries, voluntary associations, debating societies that met in pubs, freethinking and classless gatherings in coffee houses, critics, journalists, newspapers, periodicals, political satire and novels. In short – this era witnessed the birth of our modern world.

The emergence of a nascent but strident middle class and the mass phenomenon of a ‘reading revolution’ led to the appearance of the ‘public sphere’. For the first time people came together to exchange information, ideas and criticism and the notion of ‘civil society’ as distinct from the ‘state’ was born. A whole class of economic, political, intellectual, and cultural actors emerged, who were no longer dependent on trickle-down ‘culture’ and ‘taste’ from a hereditary elite. On the contrary – court culture, as embodied by Louis XIV’s Versailles, was marginalised by this new ‘public sphere’, and the powerful actor of ‘the public’ that emerged in this period, has dominated European culture and politics ever since.

The tragedy is that today’s all-powerful European ‘public sphere’ appears to have lost its way and forgotten about the Enlightenment project; forgotten what our Western values even are, and lost all resolve to defend these hard won values – at the very moment when they appear most threatened. This is no surprise when one considers that these days pre-20th century European history is not even taught in British state schools. This serious omission invariably affected much of the story the V&A wanted to tell with their new Europe rooms. As Dr Roth puts it: “In just over two centuries of shifting power, we encounter the Thirty Years War, Louis XIV and the rise of France, Catherine the Great, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Napoleon and Waterloo – a swathe of history currently entirely absent from the British national curriculum. Consequently unfamiliar to many, it is vital to explore this period if we are to bring perspective to today’s difficult times for Europe, our new galleries could not come at a more important moment.”

The tragedy is that today’s powerful European ‘public sphere’ appears to have lost its way and forgotten about the Enlightenment project, forgotten what our values even are

The European Crisis of Confidence Voltaire Philosophy of Newton frontispiece

Frontpiece to Voltaire’s book on Newton’s philosophy, 1738. Émilie du Châtelet appears as Voltaire’s muse, reflecting Newton’s heavenly insights down to Voltaire.

Education Battle-Ground

Education is of course the vital battleground if we are to win the hearts and minds of young people in Britain today. Stories about teenagers running off to join Daesh and the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal – with schools allegedly being taken over by Jihadists, are only the most extreme example of a generational and cultural estrangement. The broader concern is that young people are becoming ever more self-absorbed and less civic-minded; a ‘me, me, me’ generation that is increasingly alienated from our collective Western values.

These concerns are only minimally addressed by the government’s initiative to promote ‘British values’ in schools. But even this tokenistic response is met with controversy as liberals debate exactly what British values are, and who gets to decide. There are those that ask if there’s a tension between the active promotion of ‘British values’ and the delivery of an open, knowledge-based education. These critics argue that the state should accept that values are best learned in the home and only incidentally picked up at school. Meanwhile some critics argue that by laying down what must be taught, new laws undermine the very democratic principles schools are being asked to promote. “It could be argued” writes a BBC journalist, “that instructing schools to be propagandists for anyone’s values is a thoroughly un-British thing to do.”

If we can’t even agree on what British values are – what chance do we have of accepting that these values are in fact wider European values? What chance indeed of finally creating a European ‘demos’, when we don’t even bother to teach European history in our schools? What chance of defeating the benighted enemies of the Enlightenment, if we threaten to leave the European Union as a negotiating tactic? And what chance of survival, if defending our common European values is believed to be a controversial act and one that bizarrely negates those very values?

And this is the tortuous liberal Gordian Knot we’ve created for ourselves. If we were to play a word game with ‘liberal’ today, what first comes to mind are not the noble values of the Enlightenment, but a catalogue of pejorative phrases that include ‘woolly-minded’, ‘wishy-washy’ or ‘bleeding heart’.

European Crisis of Confidence

Frontispiece in Vol.I of the Encyclopédie, France 1772. Truth, in the top center, is surrounded by light and unveiled by the figures to the right, Philosophy and Reason.

If God didn’t save us before, culture – on its own – isn’t going to save us now. We need to find the confidence to save ourselves

Culture isn’t Enough

And here’s another thing the 18th century Enlightenment – the ‘Age of Reason’ – gave us: having demoted religion with the increased secularisation of our society, we replaced it with ‘culture’. People like Johann Winckelmann helped to promote the new sacralisation of culture with which we are familiar today. Later in the 19th century, museums like the V&A were explicitly founded to serve as places for ethical and social improvement. The new cathedrals and churches of 21st century Europe no longer serve a transcendental God but the citizenry; and they are the modern Holy See of people’s galleries that include the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate, MOMA and the Pompidou Centre.

Museums and art galleries are undeniably valuable ‘human science’ projects, which in their exploration of history through objects give us optimism, identity and a sense of shared cultural heritage. But as politics and economics fail us, we are doomed if we think that this is sufficient. An interesting example of the futility of this aspiration was the well-meaning loan by the British Museum of the Ilisos – a naked, muscular if headless river god of the Parthenon Marbles – to the Hermitage in St Persersburg’s, at a particularly low point in relations between Putin’s Russia and the West. Did the British Museum really think that this incredibly esoteric gesture would succeed in reminding Russians of our core values – when it would be lost on many of us? It is more than a little depressing that some contemporary leaders of the European public sphere appear to believe that whistling in the wind from atop tall ivory towers is an adequate defence of our values, while others argue about the tune.

The noble European Enlightenment project did not end with the French Revolution. It is still ongoing and still incomplete. If God didn’t save us before, culture – on its own – isn’t going to save us now. We need to find the confidence to save ourselves. Isn’t that in any case what the Enlightenment was all about?


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