Can we teach ethics?

Not so long ago – and shortly after the introduction of the named subject of ‘ethics’ to the practice of police management and leadership development at the centre for higher police training – I began to create an ‘ethics for police leaders and managers’. However, my attempt to make the subject appeal to senior police officers in the UK was not entirely successful. All along, I knew that the subject of ‘ethics’ was really unlike any other subject and that ‘teaching’ ethics was fraught with difficulties. On top of this ‘Police ethics’ is itself a deeply challenging subject – and my sense was (and is) that an acute sensitivity to the realities of policing is necessary to grasp fully the nature of the challenges. Over the years I have often thought about how anyone might approach the teaching of ethics (successfully) and recently I found myself ‘beginning at the beginning’ with the question, ‘Can we teach ethics?‘ I did this because I was studying the philosophy of education and I encountered James Conroy’s chapter which asks exactly this question. In this short note I shall provide a brief summary of Conroy’s consideration of the basic and profound question, ‘Can we teach ethics?‘ As he addresses the question he makes four fundamental points.

First, and perhaps most importantly, he emphasises the way in which teaching ethics is not equivalent to the teaching of virtually any other subjects (and, most plainly, the teaching of mathematics and calculus). He illustrates how ethics is concerned with our ‘being’ – our manifest being of a certain sort of person – whereas the teaching of other subjects is more concerned with different types of knowledge; in the case of calculus, for example, it is concerned with teaching a learner how to do that which is necessary in certain specific situations. (One way of thinking about the challenge of teaching ethics is to consider how the ‘word’ may be made ‘flesh’.)

Second, he makes the obvious point that in order to teach ethics the teacher needs some clear idea of what ‘the good’ is and, similarly, what ‘goodness’ is. However, the history of ethics reveals that there have been significant shifts in identifying and defining ‘the good’ and Conroy’s chapter outlines some of the complex major developments in ethical thinking. He begins with the ancient Hebraic stipulations that the ‘good’ is that which is laid down by God and then explores how, through the Reformation and then the Enlightenment, the word of ‘God’ was displaced by the primacy of human reason; in short, we (as humans) had the power ourselves to think through the problem of identifying the good and the bad as well as ‘right’ conduct – and this was exemplified in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. (He focuses on Kant’s famous categorial imperative as an exemplar of the use of human reasoning in determining justified ethical thinking and the rules for conduct.)

Third, Conroy then focuses on the contemporary world – which is now characterised by far less certainly about the possibility of any moral absolutes. Here it is worth quoting him directly. Of our situation he writes: ‘… we are the inheritors of a legacy which questions the very existence of any binding objective law which determines how we are to conduct ourselves …’ and he follows this up with a comment about what I take to be the reality facing teachers generally and teachers of ethics particularly:

There is [now] disagreement about the basic claim that there is such a thing as absolute right and wrong and this disagreement is mediated to children in myriad ways every day. Indeed the moral culture of the school and the home may be entirely at odds …’ (Conroy 2012: 66)

He thinks that the contemporary mood of moral uncertainty was largely instigated by both Freud and Durkheim who thought that our morality was a projection. In the case of Freud, God was theorised as the disguised manifestation (the projection) of father-son relationships whilst in the case of the more sociological Durkheim, morality was the crystallisation of a collective conscience – that is, with ‘the social glue’ that held society together and assured communal survival and security. But if Freud and Durkheim were central to the emergence of our present situation it was Nietzsche’s damning ‘Twilight of the idols’ that had a far more destabilising effect. This is mainly because Nietzsche had the temerity to regard all ethical schemes as suspect – and riddled with hypocrisy. (He thought that what deeply characterised human being was a ‘will to power’ – and that the various ‘moralists’ were more concerned about hanging on to their positions of power rather than acting in accordance with any of their moral prescriptions.)

Fourth, given the backdrop of such moral ambiguity and notably the work of Arendt who recognised the ‘banality of evil’ (the evil that was brought about by people just doing what was expected of them and following rules) Conroy considers, in some detail Kohlberg’s theory of moral development with its emphasis on levels of moral reasoning – and then, without returning to answer, explicitly, whether or not ethics can be taught, he concludes his chapter by referring to the emerging post-Aristotelian focus on ‘virtue’ and virtue ethics; he ends with the observation that, for Aristotle, the best way to cultivate virtue was to practice virtue.

In the light of Conroy’s consideration of the question, ‘Can we teach ethics?’ it seems fair to argue that since ethics is about being – and being a certain type of person – the patient and painstaking emphasis on self-development that characterised certain approaches to what may still be called the education of the ‘whole person’ might actually hold out the promise of helping people to be consistently decent, honest, sympathetic, respectful, as well as happy in (and with) themselves. Some anthropological frameworks – such as that outlined by Bourdieu and his concept of the habitus – might be deployed to help ‘install’ the frames of mind and dispositions that are ‘ethical’. But the teaching of ethics has ultimately to be concerned with making a deep and lasting intervention in the very fabric of a person’s being. And this is something very difficult to achieve. Moreover, the problem is that the world – and especially the world of achievement, acquisition, status and self-interest – ‘takes over’ and often counters the narratives of ethics.

There’s only one table and only one chair

As I became older, I could see more clearly how language and image worked together to create the forms of reality that, without doubt, determined much of how I had both come to live and how I was continuing to live. In short, I had come to be increasingly aware of the stories and their associated imagery which underpinned and determined my values, my conduct and preferences; for good or ill, I understood how the ‘film’ of imagination stood between myself and the more basic texture of the world.

Sometimes the words and images were provided by songs: for example, a long time ago I listened to a particular song entitled, ‘Tonight will be fine.’ It featured on a long-playing record (the second album by Leonard Cohen) which itself was called ‘Songs from a Room’. The back cover of the album featured a photograph – a truly attractive photograph – which has been the subject of a number of affectionate commentaries: in a black and white informality, it shows Leonard Cohen’s muse, the famous Marianne, wrapped in a towel and seated on a chair at a table upon which is a single typewriter. The setting is a simple room on the Greek island of Hydra. Of the photograph one such appreciative writer takes the viewpoint of Leonard Cohen himself as follows:

You look out from your house on the Greek island of Hydra. The sun is shining and you can actually hear the sea in the distance. There are some birds on the cables of a telephone mast …You walk to the bedroom. Marianne has just woken up and is sitting behind your typewriter, just for fun. You grab your camera and take a picture of her. Life is perfect, not a shadow in sight.’ (Gerrit-Jan Vrielink 2021)

Another notes:

Hydra promised the life Cohen had craved: spare rooms, the empty page, eros after dark. He collected a few paraffin lamps and some used furniture: a Russian wrought-iron bed, a writing table, chairs like “the chairs that van Gogh painted.’ (David Remnick 2016)

And when I first listened to the album, ‘Songs from a room’ I also imagined how wonderful it would be to ‘take off’ from the overcast skies of the United Kingdom and write poetry on an, as yet, unspoiled Greek island. (It was, after all, the late 1960s) But I also always associated the photograph of Marianne with the song, ‘Tonight will be fine’. And this is because, in imagination, I unwittingly adjusted Cohen’s original lyrics and substituted the lines: ‘And I choose the rooms that I live in with care, there’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer’ with: ‘And I choose the rooms that I live in with care, there’s only one table and only one chair.’ There was something perfect about a simple room with only one table and only one chair.

I still try to ‘choose the rooms that I live in with care’ and recently I managed to recreate something of the atmosphere and ethos of the past whilst I was in Crete: in the old quarter of Chania I really did find myself staying in a room that had only one table and only one chair. And in response to their inspiration, I began making notes, in pencil, in a tiny book with blank pages and a red cover. I wrote not so much about anything romantic or sentimental but more about the darkness that may befall us. But all along I was fully aware that the album, its songs and the back cover photograph made for something I referred to during my travels in Crete as a ‘Leonard Cohen moment’. I still live through some of the literary and image-laden forms of reality that were bequeathed to me throughout the 1960s.

The photograph shows the table and chair in my room in Chania. I appear in the reflection of the mirror

Heart of Darkness

In the dazzling, relentless, white light of Crete I had the chance to read, carefully, Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. The brilliance of the text matched (or even surpassed) the gleaming sunlight.

I made a number of notes as I read the narrative and acknowledged the several ominous warnings that it contained. Amongst them, for example, is the recognition that our human being is marked forever by vulnerabilities and limitations – and that we are always susceptible to expressing the darkness in ourselves.

On page 100 of my copy, Marlow, the narrator, makes a telling observation about the most that we can ever really expect to achieve in our lives. Of ‘life’ itself he concludes:

… the most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – [but] that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets …

Note: It is difficult for me to disagree with Marlow.

There’s nothing weird in Fine Art

After completing my MA in Fine Art in October 2021 I decided to focus my attention on both a study of the philosophy of education as well as reading some classics of literature. However, I was recently invited to a symposium in Fine Art that was to be held in the same institution where I had completed my MA. I decided that it would be a of good idea to accept the invitation. And so, on Monday 23rd May I had the well-nigh indescribable experience of attending the MA Fine Art symposium in UCA Farnham. (It was part of the MA course requirement for all the MA students who were pursuing the MA in Fine Art.)

It was indescribable because, whilst it successfully rekindled my sense of surprise and pleasure at encountering the strange conventions, performances and manifestations of advanced art, it also evoked for me a complex flow of disparate emotions: these ranged from regret to resentment, from feelings of loss and disappointment to disturbance. (I was also the only male present.) The audience in the room numbered 10 (including me.)

Of the symposium itself, five female students presented; one was English, one was Taiwanese, one was Chinese, one was from Chinese Hong Kong and one was Japanese. Each student had organised their presentation under a heading. They were as follows: ‘Glitch Me: An Exploration of Sexual Escapism, Literature & the Digital Self’; ‘Journey into Nature’; ‘Life Journey’; ‘Feminism and Social Relations’ and, ‘To the Intersection of the Line: An Exploration of Identity and Manazashi’.

I made notes during each presentation even though I could barely make sense of what was being said; none of the presentations was particularly straightforward. There was the de rigeur addition of ‘ideas’, ‘quotes’ and the occasional piece of abstruse theory to the visual entities that were chosen to be shown; as usual, the audience displayed a certain reticence towards saying anything once the presentations were over. I asked some questions but I am not sure that they were either understood or welcomed. The work looked pretty good – but I am used to things looking digitally ‘good’ when they are presented in a cinema and on a large screen. However, some of the questions and issues that the artists were pursuing were really worthwhile. There was, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme to do with gender and identity. (Whilst no one named it – ‘sex’ crackled, like electricity, around the edges …)

Overall, I thought the depth of thinking and the innovative ways of manifesting works of art shown by the five different presenter/artists went someway towards doing justice to an MA in Fine Art. 
The gap between words and things remained as vast and unbridgeable as ever – and, in certain respects, contemporary Fine Art remains intrinsically if charmingly obscure; it reflects an adherence to the forms of art defined by the conventions of the contemporary ‘look.’ There is, as one established artist put it, a ‘sami-ness’ to the large amounts of whatever it is that falls into the category ‘Advanced’ Fine Art. (The symposium illustrated why I would have enjoyed my MA course far more and would have derived far more benefit from it if I had experimented more. The constant sense of being assessed, judged and evaluated compromised, for me, the whole, experience.)

In addition to the symposium I also twice – in the last few weeks – visited the dedicated studio spaces in which I began my studies for the MA in Fine Art. But, as I entered the actual campus I felt a strange frisson of anxiety – and a definite sense of the unheimlich. (Older people, like me – and who look like me – don’t really belong. ‘Advanced’ Fine Art culture is exclusionary.) On both occasions the original spaces were deserted. Those parts which appear to be allocated to the current students were almost without content. There is a kind of absence of presence. However, one or two students were making good use of their studio space and, in a way, it was (and is) very revealing to see the ‘back-stage’ of their work.

Since the course, I have been cross with myself for having been far too concerned with the assessments and the evaluations. I enjoyed the recent symposium precisely because a majority of the artists were exploring personally significant ideas, basic or difficult questions and were ‘trying things out’. One of them had made a work in relation to the sentence, ‘When I see me.’ Her art had a clear and consistent emphasis on her (and other’s) gendered identity. I liked this. I responded to her by saying: ‘Well, when I see me, I see deterioration.’ I then invited her to imagine what the opposite male sex might be inclined to say in response to the words, ‘When I see me.’ (I don’t think the audience approved of this – I just had a feeling that they did not.)

Since the MA course I have also been establishing proper foundations for serious thinking about the philosophy of art. I have completed two paintings and I have been featured as a kind of dysfunctional character in an hour-long anthropology and art film. I would like to make some films – perhaps in the mood and style of Kenneth Anger.


The presentation of identity: an archive

One of the recurring themes in contemporary advanced Fine Art concerns the issue of identity. Part of this is probably related to the fact that any student of Fine Art finds him or herself asked questions that inevitably relate (ultimately) to his or her ‘self’; the questions oblige the artist either to give an account of that which underlies his or her work – or to make explicit his or her values and preferences. On top of this, it may well be that a cultural ethos pervades ‘modern life’ – an ethos of individualism and self-centredness. It would be unrealistic to imagine that a developing artist can somehow be immune to this ethos. In one way or another, I too, faced questions related to the person I had become. Whilst far younger artists grapple with the problems of ‘image’ I, by contrast, have lived a life and can take stock of the different themes that permeate and define my identity. In fact, doing the MA process and in may ways, I had begun long meditation on death. I may not live for that much longer.

At the beginning of March 2021, as my final MA Fine Art project was launched, I began preparing an archive of my writings, drawings, photographs and paintings – as well as one or two mixed media pieces. I was obliged to prepare the archive in the computer application, ‘InDesign’. This is a remarkable resource and those trained in either illustration or graphic design are well placed to make excellent use of the ‘InDesign’ programme. Their achievements are often breathtaking. By contrast I was (and still am) a relative novice to ‘InDesign’ and so I knew that my work could never achieve the fabulous presentational values of the skilled user. However, I devoted one month to each of five volumes with the goal of expressing a form of self-portrait. In March, volume 1 focused on ‘poems and stories’; in April I sought to locate myself in an anthropological context; in May I tried to outline the extent to which I was a distinct individual, whilst in June I faithfully reproduced many aspects of my own sensibility; and, finally, in July, volume 5 was devoted to the ‘dark’ side of my being.

Taken together, the ensemble really does go someway to outlining the themes which make me who I am. (They ‘describe’ and profile an ‘identity’.) Of course, I don’t expect anyone to read the various pieces of writing: (I am tempted to say, ‘Why should they?’); and even when, for example, I showed one of the volumes to a family member, she just quickly leafed through the pages and commented briefly on a few of the pictures. In effect a month’s worth of work was ‘consumed’ by her in less than three minutes!

But it was a fascinating experience to try and produce an accurate summary of both the ways I ‘see’ the world and how it infuses and has created my identity. It is relatively obvious that if someone were to look at the text and images they would see that my being is historicised and can only be understood through the kind of anthropological framework that Martin Heidegger or Pierre Bourdieu provides.

One curious result of preparing the archive became apparent in Volume 4 – the volume in which I explored my sensibility; it turned out that I had unwittingly taken on a slightly inauthentic way of experiencing art: Most of it – and even the recognised great works – were not by any means entities that I really liked: I had, in fact, persuaded myself that I did ‘like’ them (and I would make an effort to ‘read’ into them all sorts of meanings) but now I have come to realise that ‘art’ has become conventionalised and I had simply been seduced by the norms of the connoisseur and the whole network of people who have the authority to define what counts as ‘art’. That was a genuine revelation and I feel much better now that I know my own truth. The particular moment when I had this illumination was afforded by the pleasure I experienced in seeing the beauty of a painting by Alfred Sisley in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Dijon. It sparkled and (after Heidegger) even suggested ‘the power of insignificant things’. What a great relief it was to see a part of the world that was fit to house or avail itself of the human spirit!

The photograph shows the covers of 4 or the 5 volumes.

Satan is not necessary

Primo Levi’s book, ‘The drowned and the saved’ is an account (an analysis really) – of living through horror: he tells us of his and others’ experiences of surviving terrifying incarceration in a concentration camp. He reveals the chilling aftermath of those experiences. He cannot ‘forgive’ that which was done to him but he refuses to countenance the vice of hatred.

In the final chapter of his book – a conclusion – Primo Levi considers what might be, for him, the most appropriate way of communicating such a devastating and ominous warning from history; he wants the young to know what happened and he wants them to know this vividly. But he is pessimistic; he notes that even by the 1980s the events he wants people to confront were ‘matters’ now associated with their grandparents: such matters were already ‘distant’, ‘blurred’ and ‘historical’. The contemporary young were besieged, in his view, by ‘today’s problems’: the nuclear threat, unemployment, technologies which are frenetically innovative – and so on. He was not sure that he – or others who wish that the knowledge of the horrors should not be diluted or left to wither and die – would be ‘listened to’. But nonetheless and despite his reservations Primo Levi thought that people like himself and similar others have, as he put it, ‘a duty’ to tell their story and a resolve that they must be heard. He asserts that ‘we’ collectively have been the witnesses of a terrible and unexpected event that happened in Europe – in a country, Germany, that had just experienced ‘the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar’: it was a civilisation that came to follow the figure and violently seductive performances of Adolf Hitler. He, Hitler, was obeyed and his praises were sung by such a civilised people right up to the catastrophe …

In the wake of the Nazi disaster that befell Europe, Levi recognises that it can happen again, and it can happen anywhere. And it has. Levi writes:

… it is not very probable that all the factors that unleashed the Nazi madness will again occur simultaneously but precursory signs loom before us. Violence, ‘useful’ or ‘useless’, is there before our eyes.

And he continues:

It only awaits its new rendition of a Hitler (there is no dearth of candidates) to organise it, legalise it, declare it necessary and mandatory – and so contaminate the world. Few countries can be considered immune to a further tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties … political fanaticism and racialist attritions …

His words foretell what has happened to Ukraine and its people.

But as Levi says, ‘Satan is not necessary.’ And he continues his concluding remarks by countering the notion that somehow war and violence are inevitable. He writes:

… there is no need for war or violences under any circumstances. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved around a table, provided there is goodwill and reciprocal trust; or even reciprocal fear.

I think he must be correct. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved through the hard work and moral resolve which can sustain a ‘good will’ – and which is allied to some basis of trust. However, the best humanistic psychologists recognise that there are, amongst us, people who really do live through the darkest regions of the human soul. They live in the realms of the sadist and the cold cold psychopath. They are unimaginative people who successfully overlook – or are immune to – the suffering of others. They are versions of Nietzsche’s iconoclastic ‘human, all too human’. And this wretched condition appears to be ‘at work’ in the leadership of Russia.

Foot note: In John Heron’s (1986) revised publication, ‘Six Category Intervention Analysis‘ he provides a comprehensive overview of the different types of ‘intervention’ that people may make in relation to others. For example, we can be, in our interactions, supportive, or confronting or prescriptive. But at the very end of his book he provides an account of what he calls ‘perverted interventions’. These he thinks are ‘quite deliberately malicious’. Of this type of intervention he goes on to say that ‘any systematic analysis’ of them would entail an excursion into the ‘black intervention arts’. And this is ‘the domain of the spy, the secret policeman, the political agent provocateur, the interrogator, the torturer, the brainwasher, the propagandist and the professional criminal.’ Interventions of this type are immoral by any standard – and plainly, in one way or another, they characterise the sheer malicious nastiness and cruelty of the Russian leadership.

This is not war anymore …

This is not war anymore,” said, Dmytro Gurin, a Ukrainian MP.
This is not army against army. It is carpet bombing. It is Russia against humanity.”

My mother was born in Teplitz – an attractive town – that is now in the Czech Republic. Her first language was German. However, when the Nazi troops entered the Sudetenland in 1938 she and her parents knew that they were in danger. Then – and not long after – in 1939 – they became refugees. They lost everything and found a kind of refuge in the UK. My mother never really recovered and I was brought up in the dark shadow of her underlying, unceasing trauma. (I have never been persuaded that anyone can ever quite understand what it is to be made a refugee and ‘lose’ everything.)

Now, another catastrophe has been inflicted on Europe. Now more than a million souls – innocent, harmless souls – have, like my forebears, been made refugees.

But I am very angry. I have had to listen to a truly deplorable set of senior politicians in the UK who have shown an appalling lack of empathy and imagination concerning the reality of the Ukrainian refugees. I can scarcely believe it possible that they are so mean-spirited. I wrote (yet again) to my local MP – simply to set out exactly what I thought of the current Home Secretary’s unconscionable response to the crisis. This is what I wrote:

I am one of your constituents in South West Surrey and I am shocked and appalled by the Home Secretary’s response to the dreadful humanitarian crisis that has befallen millions of people in Ukraine. I have been left almost speechless by the failure of the Rt. Hon. Priti Patel to fulfil the most basic obligations, duties and requirements commensurate with her role. I am afraid that she has both misjudged the public mood and ignored the basic ethos of decency, consideration and compassion that is supposed to characterise our democracy. Like many of my friends and neighbours we implore you to demand that she waive the visa requirements and allow so many desperate people to seek refuge in our country. I cannot overstate how strongly I feel on this matter.

I do thank you for the efforts that you – along with a number of other senior conservative MPs – have already made on behalf of people like myself; notwithstanding I do think the Home Secretary should jettison her dogmatic and cruel stance. But, surely, we can do better as a nation … can’t we?

In my own mind, she has ceased to be Priti Patel. Instead, she is Priti Cruel.

Post Script: I think we need to rid ourselves of the unprincipled leadership of the Conservative party.

Footnote: The photo shows an excerpt from a large art work concerned with ‘conflict’. The excerpt makes a reference to the unspeakable and evil leader of Russia.

Art and conflict

Not long ago, I received a ‘call for papers’ message concerning an inaugural conference to be held in the newly establish ‘Centre for the Study of Art and Conflict’ at the University for the Creative Arts. The conference would be convened to address the question: ‘what is the role of artistic practice in transforming individuals and societies in contexts of conflict?

I thought seriously about the question and then submitted an outline of a paper I wished to give. Although the conference organisers received a copy of my proposed paper I heard nothing more from them. I was not invited to give my paper! Since then a few months have passed and now, precisely because of the context of the real conflict in Ukraine, I updated the outline of the unwanted paper. Here is what I proposed, albeit unsuccessfully, to present to the conference:

Title: ‘From dematerialisation to de-radicalisation: an excerpt from a philosophical critique of art’.

Overall, it is now fanciful to believe that art has anything more than a peripheral role in ‘transforming’ individuals and societies in contexts of conflict.

Not so long ago it was possible to identify certain practices and manifestations of art that appear to have played a successful role in achieving such transformations. For example, in opposition to the class-based, oppressive and limiting culture of post-war Britain, the ‘counter-culture’ – with its striking new forms of art, theatre, films and literature – assisted in effecting forms of ‘societal’ liberation – such as the women’s movement, gay liberation and a more generalised freedom of expression. Although it is possible to think that these new forms of art were in the avant-garde of the social transformations it is not clear what was cause and what was effect. The radical arts may have actually been provoked by social, technological and ideological forces that preceded their manifestation.

Moreover, as Heidegger had already presciently noted, the dominant metaphor with which to characterise those emerging times was in terms of mining; everything was becoming ‘seized upon’ and mined for what it might yield. And, in no time at all, art and artistic practices were themselves being seized upon to further the interests of power, efficiency – and ultimately – the emergence of a more of less full-blown neo-liberalism – now identified by anthropologists as a global phenomenon. The arts – and especially ‘advanced’ art – were increasingly enmeshed in the market system. Worse, their role in the aestheticisation of reality, the proliferation of image-saturation, and the deceptive seductions of media culture constituted a departure or rupture from flesh-and-blood material reality. If anything, art has now come to consolidate, accentuate and collude with the differing nuances of neo-liberal practices and culture. Rather than catalyse significant individual or societal change it serves to sustain superficiality, deception and diversion.

Any number of case studies illustrate this thesis but here I mention just three: First, Elena Ferrante in her ‘The story of the lost child’ concludes that any so-called radical ‘art’ if not backed by organised power and collective struggle ‘is just performance’; Second, Adam Curtis in his brilliantly persuasive ‘Can’t get you out of my head’ finds installed a new ‘counter-ideology’ – an ideology that is sceptical of any ‘progressive programme’ – or of any genuinely ‘subversive’ art – an ideology that is marked by pessimism and nihilism. Third, the rise and fall of the ‘International Times’ – the radical ‘alternative-culture’ publication of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated, ultimately, the hopeless belief that ‘somehow the old power structures and forms of social order would just disappear.’ In truth it is the power nexus of the political/economic order that really matters.

Unless of course, I am wrong: maybe the arts are now usefully and very successfully rendering people, as docile and distracted, as entertained and info-tained beings – and is thereby effecting a de-radicalising transformation: People are now mesmerised by their screens, are rendered the subjects of iconico-mania, and, de facto, are the unwitting recipients of countless environing ‘vessels of affect’ – keeping all of them (all of us) sufficiently happy and pleasured. In other words, the arts are, in the social context of conflict, enabling an anti-revolution – in large part because they turn ‘reality’ into an alluring social spectacle.

However, by way of redemption, Heidegger also posted a tantalising proposition. He held that we are all dimly aware that, as he put it, the world is ‘ungrounded’; there is no reason why we should do what ‘one does’ – i.e. why we should conduct ourselves as we do. God has not ordained it nor does our nature require it. And, for me, this is the psychological and physical space in which the artist can always move; in so doing, who knows what truth he or she will reveal? Who knows what transfigurations may come be actualised? Plainly some artists do use their talents, media profiles and performances to transform the consciousness, ideologies and belief systems of individuals – and even societies. Most recently for example, as a result of the appalling and evil invasion of Ukraine, some well-known figures in the field of Ukrainian music – such as Slava and Korolova – have done their utmost to foreground the realities of the conflict and to counter the false narratives that have become installed in various peoples’ minds.

So, to the question, ‘what is the role of artistic practice in transforming individuals and societies in contexts of conflict?’, I think it is worth revisiting Iris Murdoch’s belief that, although art is in fact a very different form of practice compared with philosophy, both are truth-seeking and truth-revealing activities. On her account it becomes relatively easy to insist that art necessarily plays a role in transforming individuals and societies in situations of conflict because the truths that they can reveal have the power to change minds, promote specific values and influence conduct. It is likely that some forms of art may be more effective change-agents than others: Music – and the moving image as well as forms of documentary – may stand a far greater chance that the sheer obliqueness of so much Conceptual art. And, just as Dostoyevsky pointed out that psychology is a double-edged sword and can be used by whomsoever to commend or condemn a person, so the arts, too, can be used to unsettle and radicalise or conversely to sustain repressive values. They can expose that which is morally and politically deplorable or they can serve the ‘oppressor’.

I shall conclude this brief essay by referring to a first-hand account which rather highlights the de-radicalisation of a form of art that was once considered replete with transformative potential. It is the case of ‘advanced’ art – the kind of art that finds its way into the ‘leading’ museum and gallery spaces of ‘Fine Art’. Just as I was beginning an MA in Fine Art Practice in the autumn of 2019, Will Gompertz was responding to the glamour and pizzazz of the Venice Biennale. This is what he wrote:

This week’s invitation only ‘Private View” of the Venice Biennale (which opens today) was one weird affair. It was like being dropped into the middle of a Wes Anderson movie. The place was heaving with characters. Artists, posers, dealers, curators, billionaires, bureaucrats, fakes, freeloaders, snobs, journalists, pseuds, hustlers, and narcissists all cramming themselves into tiny spaces and noisy halls to get a glimpse of some box-fresh contemporary art.

They are not a hip crowd like you might find at Coachella or XJAZZ in Berlin. They are more clamorous than glamorous. Art is a shared interest but not the thing that truly binds them. Money and status are the currencies that count. You don’t need both, but you sure as hell need one or the other.

All this means that the artist – if he or she is serious – has to have a very sophisticated knowledge of his or her value system, their ideological stance – and, on top of this, to have absolutely clarity about their underlying intentions. They have to have a deep level of personal insight – and that’s not easy …

Post Script: The word ‘dematerialisation’ was chosen by Lucy Lippard to characterise the shift in art that took place in the 1960s – and which referred to the fact that art was now supposed to be as much, if not more, about provoking ‘thinking’ and not just ‘looking’.

End note: I was moved to revisit the outline of the paper because I noticed that, despite the intense media coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, the University for the Creative Arts campus in Farnham seemed almost oblivious to the crisis. I had, at the very least, expected to see some posters about the conflict or expressions of support for the people of Ukraine – but none were on display. I had the distinct feeling that the ‘creatives’ were happily detached or insulated from a profoundly disturbing reality. I asked one young artist why there was not one single reference to the events in Ukraine. ‘To tell you the truth,’ she replied, ‘I don’t watch the news.’

Refugee blues …

How strange are those different moments or episodes in our past that somehow remain intact and which, for any number of reasons, remain forged and fixed – as if embalmed in the amber of our memories. How strange, too, that these precise memories are so varied in nature and so faithful a companion.

I can still recall, clearly, an unfolding moment on a summer’s day outside a Jacobean mansion during which a police officer declared to me that, ‘principles don’t pay the rent’; Or my father opening his newspaper and showing me a photograph of a burnt-out tank and the charred head of an Iraqi soldier: ‘Look at this poor blighter,’ he said. I looked. Or, a colleague standing in front of me in my study at work simply asserting that I was ‘damaged goods’. I remember particular moments from my school days – such as the remark made by my maths teacher on seeing that I had a black eye: ‘Did she scratch you as well?’ he joked. Or an elegant, strangely poetic, passing move in a football match in which my older brother came to score a goal. Or the moment I more or less successfully stained the ear-drum of a locust during a Zoology exam at University.

Yes! A great number of specific disparate ‘things’ come to be etched in memory. A greater number of details are forgotten.

One very clear memory I have concerns an evening to which parents were invited at the Weydon Secondary School in Farnham, Surrey. Weydon School was (and is) a large comprehensive school – a typical, rather utilitarian school, which, at best, had (and has) a limited aesthetic appeal. That didn’t matter though: it achieved good academic results. (Both my daughters attended the school.)
The long-ago evening featured a show by the pupils of art and drama and performance. (The English are very creative and very strong in these forms of cultural expression and the pupils at the school were impressively good. )

At some point in the middle of the show, a boy, aged about 16, silently walked along a dimly lit central catwalk that jutted out and into the audience. His style of walking was resolute; somehow, he looked determined but resigned. He looked into the distance. He stopped at the end of the catwalk – a lone figure. Now he was lit by a single spotlight. He paused. He made a defined – almost emphatic gesture – that was deeply ambiguous. His silent gesture struck me forcibly.

Then, unaided and completely alone, he recited the poem ‘Refugee blues’; It was stark, remarkable, desperate and telling. His recitation was perfect. At the end he paused; he looked down, turned around – and then left. At no point did he look at the audience. The audience remained silent. It was a perfect performance.

Here is the poem.

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jew

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

Of course, day by day, the news tells me and shows me that there is a deadly thunder rumbling in the sky. It is an unspeakable thunder. The thunder rumbles over Ukraine and its cities. And there are streams of refugees who hear the verse:

‘Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

A conversation with Rosalie

I first met Rosalie almost 3 years ago. She was studying for a Master Degree in ‘Language and Culture’ at Goldsmiths University in South East London, and she was specialising in bilingual learning. In her case, she was particularly focused on the learning of both Chinese and English. She wished to draw from my experience in anthropology – in part to consider the contrasting approaches to education in both China and the UK and because of my approach to ethnography – and so we began a series of lengthy conversations that lasted until she had completed her degree.

I learned a great deal from my encounters with Rosalie. In fact, I began to realise that she was quite unlike me: Rosalie is a relatively young mother, born and raised in the city of Zhong Xiang in Hubei Province, China. She described Zhong Xiang as a ‘small city’: however, it has well over 1 million inhabitants: so, from my point of view, that makes it a rather large city! But it was the enigmatic nature of her psyche – a psyche always mysterious and unfathomable – that made her, in some deep sense, unknowable. Rosalie, though, impressed me. She struck me as a determined and resolute person – who was not afraid to come to the UK and confront the challenge of studying for a very demanding Masters degree. After successful completion of her studies (and when travel became possible again), she returned, with her 9-year-old daughter Emily and new-born son, to China. Not long after this she resumed conversations with me via Zoom. She declared that she missed aspects of the English educational ethos and wanted to continue supporting her children’s bilingual development.

Our most recent conversation returned to the theme of education. Immediately prior to this we had touched on the subject of our values – and then we moved on to consider the contribution that we had (or had not) made to society. At this point Rosalie then said:

The person who I think contributes a great deal to society is Zhang Guimei, a woman of Manchu ethnicity, who is a Chinese educator and the founder and principal of Huaping High School for Girls.’

I replied: ‘Rose, I have not heard of Zhang Guimei …

To which Rosalie said:

She has recently been honoured in China. The school she founded is located in a poor mountainous region in Yunnan province and it’s China’s first and only free public high school for girls.

But who, exactly, is Zhang Guimei?’ I asked.

And Rosalie went on to tell me something about this remarkable and inspirational woman who had done a great deal to improve the lot of disadvantaged girls: I learned that Zhang Guimei was born in 1957, the twelfth child of a family within which she endured hardship and the loss of both her parents by the time she was aged 17. However, after first working for the Forestry Bureau, she moved into the education sector; she began teaching in Huaping County National Middle School in Lijiang and was soon promoted to the position of head teacher as a result of her excellent work. But, it was in this part of China that she discovered the fact that ‘many girls just disappeared before finishing their studies.’ They were often either forced into work or obliged to marry at a very young age.

Until she had mentioned it, I not heard of the city of Lijiang nor did I have anything but the slightest idea of the geography of Yunnan province. Rosalie told me that Yunnan is a landlocked area in the South East of China and borders Vietnam and Myanmar (it’s also thought to be where the drinking of tea originated!). Then, she explained that: ‘Lijiang lies in the shadow of the great Jade Dragon snow mountain,’ and she went on to make reference to a study by Zhu (2020) who noted that the region had ‘long been influenced by backwardness and patriarchal thinking. Therefore, girls’ right to education had not been well realised.’ In response to this, and to the fact that she saw ‘destitution everywhere‘, Zhang Guimei committed herself to bringing about change; She set about the task of providing a valued and lasting education for the otherwise deprived girls. And so began her lifelong devotion to improving female education in China.

As our conversation continued I learned that, in order to raise the funds for establishing a school, Zhang Guimei spent her summer and winter holidays on the streets of the provincial capital city Kunming, asking people to donate money. However she only managed to accumulate a very small amount. Happily, though, her story became known in Beijing and her ambitious dream to start a school for girls was drawn to the attention of the public. In due course, the governments of Lijiang and Huaping county allocated sufficient funds for her to open the Huaping High School for Girls.

Again, Rosalie referred me to Zhu’s (2020) study of the development of the school and quoted him as follows: ‘At the beginning of the school’s establishment, the school faced difficulties – such as poor teaching facilities, difficult living conditions for teachers and students, and a lack of money for students’ living expenses.’ However, both through Zhang Guimei’s committed educational leadership and help from the Huaping County Government (in the form of financial assistance) the female high school students were able to enjoy a free high school education. What is more, Zhang Guimei insisted that tuition and accommodation fees would all be free.

Rosalie highlighted the fact that the school effectively challenges the current education system. Girls can enter the school based on their ‘will’ without the entrance examination. What is more, the students have achieved impressive and outstanding outcomes and Rosalie moved on to summarise exactly why she thinks so highly of Zhang Guimei:

It is for two main reasons that I think Zhang Guimei has made a valuable contribution to society. First, because of the school, she has dramatically transformed the life chances of many young disadvantaged girls in one part of China.‘ Then she paused for a moment or two before continuing by saying: ‘Second, she herself is an example of ‘triumph over adversity.’ She’s a tigerish woman – who insists, to this day, on very strict discipline (for example, every girl in the school has to have the same uniform haircut) but, she’s an excellent role model for girls and women; she’s not only inspirational but she also demonstrates remarkable fortitude: for example, although she suffers from a number of diseases she sustains an exceptional daily work-routine – which begins in the early morning at 5 am and lasts until 12:30 am at night.

Rosalie told me that it was through her own studies in education that she learned about Zhang Guimei’s work – and her example was so powerful that she, too, wished (when her family circumstances permit) to work in educational settings.

I subsequently discovered that, not surprisingly, Zhang Guimei (who has long been a member of the Communist party) has received many awards in recognition of her pioneering achievements. Most recently, in 2020, she was honoured as a ‘Moving China Person of 2020’ by the China Media Group and then, in 2021, her outstanding work saw her receive the esteemed ‘July 1 Medal’ from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In the light or her lifetime’s dedication to improving the life chances of less privileged girls these awards are thoroughly deserved. She is often quoted as saying: ‘A girl can influence the next three generations. An educated and responsible mother will never let their children drop out of school. My goal is to prevent poverty from passing down from generation to generation.

Reference: Zhu, H. (2020) Hope for Girls’ Education in Poverty- Stricken Areas: The School-Running Experience and Process of Huaping Girls’ High School in Yunnan, China, Science Insights Education Frontiers, 6(2):653-667

Footnote: The ‘July 1 Medal‘ is a decoration of the People’s Republic of China awarded by the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, party leader and state paramount leader. It is the highest award given to the Chinese Communist Party members, constituted on July 22, 2017. The ‘July 1 Medal‘ – established by the Communist Party is bestowed on party members who have been seen to make outstanding contributions to the practice of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics.