New Technology Ancient Wisdom

I was having lunch with a Gen Y friend yesterday, and I criticised Facebook. Luckily coffee had just been served and lunch had not arrived yet. She pulled out her iPad, tethered it to her iPhone, and adjusted the shoulder pads on her 80s retro print dress, in which she looked great. She fixed me with a penetrating glare. I knew lunch was off to a good start.

It seems in my Gen X naivety I had gone about the Facebook thing in entirely the wrong way. Within days of signing up to Facebook, I had nearly 100 friends. I knew what several people I hadn’t seen for years, and had never had a conversation with, ate for breakfast. I had inspirational slogans, new age platitudes and conspiracy theories flashing before my eyes like some kind of Bergman nightmare sequence. I understood that Jane liked to share a fabulous little bottle of cab-sav with Eddie when he got back from overseas.

It’s not that I didn’t think about how to use the medium. I wrote a haiku in which I used Facebook as a metaphor for moments in time and the melancholy of seasonal change. In seventeen syllables. I got three comments. From the same person. Myra Wenttomyschool posted that her boyfriend had switched from imported beer to a local brand. She got 39 comments.

My inimitable Gen Y lunch date pointed out that light chat with friends doesn’t have to be deep, intelligent or meaningful. It began to dawn on me why I was never invited back to all those mother’s groups. But it also got me thinking about the potential in technology like Facebook, Twitter, apps, blogs, etc.

We are at an unprecedented time in history. What if we used this copious communications cornucopia we all carry around in our pockets and backpacks to enrich our minds and feed our starving souls? Imagine if we began sharing our feelings upon beginning to understand precisely how Aristotle differed from Plato and how that effected all of western philosophy?

Now, I’m sure I’m not the first person to ever think of this, after all, I failed rocket-scientist school. However, I don’t think I’m wrong in identifying a gap. In the “Age of Knowledge” how much of what we are sharing is actually knowledge? Does that fact that 20 thousand people read a blog entry mean that the fact that I sometimes put too much butter on my toast is relevant?

Humanitas Back to the Street

I wish to share with you an excerpt from a reading I was given during my second year studying visual art:

Can we ever regard the Icon seriously again? In every aspect iconicity appears a preposterous anachronism within the urbane disbelief of a vision now arrayed as “the culture of the image”. For the image has fashioned its own discipline and doctrine that are, strictly speaking, aesthetically iconoclastic. Adherence to the Image is founded on a renunciation of both the originality and the finality that consecrate a pictorial instance as an Icon. The Image is resolutely secular and practical; it invites reading not absorption; it does not elicit veneration but activates scrutiny. Ironically, this is because the Image insists on its superficiality and promiscuity to deface the propriety of the Icon, to undo its priorities, its articles of faith.

This was written by Edward Colless in 1985 and was given to me in 1996.

I think the author is saying that religious images are less worthy than secular images in the context of a modern urbane environment in which people see a lot of images every day. He believes that artworks need to be de-mystified after being mis-used as a source of religious meditation.

In the 90s in universities we were bombarded with this kind of pretentious academic writing. I don’t think things have changed much. After a while, students stopped asking questions and fell into passive trance states. The people we had entrusted with the shaping of our ideas regularly delivered this kind of material, free of context or background.

To be properly educated is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world. We need access to the ideas that have developed our civilisation, and therefore ourselves. The modern psychology developed alongside the modern world. In order to understand our psychology, we need to understand the world we are part of. We need to be able to locate ourselves in time and space, not just as an intellectual exercise, but to find harmony within our own beings.

Currently universities are vocational institutions where we are taught all we need to know to function in a workplace. Achieving cultural literacy has become the provenance of the elite. The remaining 99% of us have become content with the stingy offerings of the media to quench our thirst for meaning. We “get on with the jobs” we are trained for and leave the juicy stuff to the smarter types.

Culture belongs to all people, not only (and perhaps least of all) the minority that currently dominate these areas. One of the problems in reclaiming our heritage is the intimidating idea that anyone with the guts to put their head above the parapet and initiate a dialogue in this area needs to be 100% perfect in their understanding of the material. Therefore, if you can be found ignorant of one time period, or event, a date or an important artwork, you have no business discussing the arts at all.

It is my intention to create a venue where we can discuss what we need to discuss to become re-connected with our ancestral legacy using whatever language is most comfortable for us. We can expose ourselves by asking seemingly ignorant questions for the sake of curiosity. We can play with the ideas of philosophy and reinvigorate them by bringing them back to the street, out of the institutions where they are gathering dust.

The Art of Looking

When I was four we acquired in our house two red books that were a gift from a relative. They were part of a set of encyclopaedia. Our relative had tried to be fair by dividing the books between us and my father’s brothers. We acquired P to T. I have never figured this out, as my father only had two brothers. Something obviously went wrong in the accounting.

Luckily our lot included the “R” section, containing a piece about the artist, Rodin. In it was a small reprint of a black and white photograph of one of his sculptures. I had never seen anything like it. I loved it. I called it “The Man Without His Head” and I regularly begged my father to find it for me. I admired it for hours, gazing upon its muscular marble flesh. Eventually the page began to wear away, and The Man Without His Head began to resemble a page from an ancient text.

This was my first of many experiences deriving comfort and well-being from focussing my eyes and perceptions on a great work of art. I was yet to discover the existence of hundreds of thousands of cultural artefacts upon which to feast my eyes. The process of contemplating beauty is a profound meditation. When those artefacts are the product of the development of the society I am part of, the process gains both depth and breadth. Our western forebears, the Ancient Egyptians, invented the aesthetic that has dominated western art for fifty centuries (Johnson, 2003). They understood that the eye could bypass the brain and give us direct access to deeper truth. The love of looking is their legacy.

Right Eye of Horus, Ancient Egypt.


At the age of twenty-eight I returned from years of adventure overseas. While travelling I encountered galleries holding the most important and profound works in the world, and was also witness to the agony and suffering of the human condition everywhere I looked. My eye was saturated, but my soul was fragmented, and I was ready for formal instruction. I decided to entrust my journey to the best elders and wisdom-bearers western civilisation has turned out, the universities.

Naively, I believed that the highest institutions in the land were depositories of five thousand years of scholarship, and that they would bring this to bear in assisting me, and my fellow students, to make meaning of this montage of experience and find my place within it. What happened in actuality was that I became part of a dilemma, a dilemma much much bigger than us as we went about the business of photocopying “text” and trying to interpret the cryptic remarks of our academic instructors.

The dilemma, as I understand it, began in about 1650, the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. This is distinct from the kind of enlightenment some hope to attain by holding yoga postures for a long time. It was during this period that scores of intellectuals began to stand against the abuses of church and state that were based on beliefs that had reigned since medieval times. Many philosophers were willing to risk their own lives to call for accountability based on a shared understanding, or a universal truth. This meant relying on empirical means, which are based on observation and experience, rather than superstition or the decree of those with power. Many were oppressed and persecuted. Science was born and civilisation was changed forever with the invention of the printing press to disseminate the new truth. It was a heroic time (see Richard Tarnas “The Passion of the Western Mind).

With the magnitude of achievements in this era, so began the renunciation of thousands of years of magical rites and sacred texts, denounced as superstition. A new form of persecution was born. A long tradition of babies being thrown out along with bathwater was pursued with a vengance. It seems the crucible of the human psyche cannot contain the pendulum swing of opposite beliefs for long. A backlash was inevitable. What happened during the Enlightenment, and the backlash to it, caused a schism that has never been rectified.

Within one hundred years a backlash movement, Romanticism (or the counter-enlightenment), was in full swing. Romaniticism is still the dominant philosophy today. This movement has it’s intellectual foundations in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that the human mind is fundamentally incapable of knowing reality and is limited to a world created by the mind’s subjective filters. He declared the attainment of objective knowlege an impossibility.

As with any reactionary movement intent on the repudiation of a previous canon, the Romantics attempted to subvert the achievements of the Age of Enlightenment. Emotion replaced reason as the means to true knowlege. While previously education had been seen as a civilising force cultivating the animal nature of the “naked ape”, Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage” held that society and culture are a corrupting influence on the human psyche, which is born intact and therefore in need of no influence other than that of “nature”.

Fast-forward two hundred years to a modern university, and you will find these two competing, equally valid, ideas of human nature have never been reconciled. Like dysfunctional parents intent on repressing their fundamental irreconcilable differences, their offspring becomes confused and disoriented, unable to decide which parent to trust. We limp out of university into the world clutching our bits of paper and accept that the world is never going to make sense to the likes of us. With luck we have the means to make a living and this becomes enough.

This schism is reflected throughout society in many different levels, not just the education sector. We need to begin with the underpinning philosophies that are the unconscious road-map for our path through the world. They need to be examined and rectified in order to make sense of our past and create for ourselves a meaningful future. I believe all the information and experience we need to do this is contained in five thousand years of human art, culture and scholarship. It is my intention to take a look.

Read:

Johnson, P. (2003). Art A New History. New York: HarperCollins.

Tarnas, R (1997). The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books

We Need to Talk About Western Culture

This is what got me thinking seriously about the need for education within the arts of western society:

I was attending a workshop for adult educators. One of the facilitators was an indigenous Australian. Another participant, whom I knew socially from here and there, put up her hand and addressed the indigenous facilitator. She said:

“As an indigenous woman, you have thousands of years of culture to draw from in your teaching. As a western woman, I am bereft of culture. I have been displaced and dislocated from my culture, and feel a huge sense of emptiness because of this.”

I was shocked to hear this. The speaker was an attractive woman in her mid-fifties, with long red hair. I had seen her playing both guitar and flute at various events around town. I knew her to be an outspoken community leader, educated in psychology, a confident public speaker and excellent educator. No-one, including myself, commented on her comment. However, it got me thinking.

Western culture, as I understand it, includes five thousand years of scholarship and creativity. Why then would a woman, the recipient of the best of western learning, feel “bereft of culture”? What inspired her to express envy towards a woman of a cultural background that included displacement, not to mention outright cultural oppression, in it’s recent past?

I started talking to people, floating the idea of starting a website with direct links to education in the western canon. These are some of the responses I got:

“What western culture?”

“Oh, yes. Western culture. What a disaster.”

“Why learn about white people?”

It began to dawn on me that although I had studied visual arts for four years in the late ninties, at a major university, in a major city, in a developed country, I could not tell you anything about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the origins of the Italian Renaissance, or in what year the Romans had withdrawn from England (the country of my most recent genetic heritage).

Trawling through my old university reading list, there was not a single reading from a publication dated more than twenty years previously. In fact, we had been expressly informed that anything written before the advent of 1960-70’s feminism was “located in patriarchal and colonialist assumptions and subjugated by hegemonic concepts”. Therefore, no longer relevant.

I began to feel I had identified a gap. Definitely in my own learning, but perhaps in that of my similarly dis-educated peers.

So began a journey of discovery that has been the most fascinating, sustaining and meaningful process on which I have ever embarked. The path is well mapped and illustrated, guided the elders of my ancestral story, many of them geniuses. Along with knowlege I have claimed a sense of belonging, wholeness, and, perhaps, the beginnings of wisdom.

You are invited to participate.

Read:

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster.

Hughes, R. (1990). Caravaggio. In R. Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (pp. 33-37). Harper Collins.

Paglia, C. (1992). The MIT Lecture: Crisis in the American Universities. In C. Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture (pp. 249-298). Penguin.