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Cultural Heritage Ethics

Constantine Sandis

I. Meaning and Memory

3. The Meaning of the Public in an Age of Privatisation

Benjamin Ramm

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And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.
W. H. Auden, ‘Paysage Moralisé’

1In an interview with The Sunday Times in 1981, Margaret Thatcher declared her intention: ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul’. The culture of competition that drove the New Right’s revolution may not have altered our souls, but it did change how we perceive ourselves, at least in relation to our fellow citizens. This chapter will explore how aspects of civic culture have taken on radical meaning in the age of neoliberalism, and consider how we can rediscover the ‘civic soul’.

2To diagnose the crisis of the public, it is necessary to understand why, in recent decades, the private has become the dominant sphere of meaning. The radical ideas harnessed by the New Right were incubated during the social upheavals of the twentieth century, prompted by democracy and catalysed by technology. As trust in elites declined, the civic notions associated with Victorian society, such as duty and sacrifice, came to be regarded as (self-) deceptions: at best naïveté – the ‘delusion’ of altruism – at worst coercion, the reinforcing of existing social hierarchies. The notion of a ‘public’ consensus was rejected as an imposition of elite order, inculcated by an educational system based on deference. Instead of nurturing curiosity and critical thinking, schools were accused of narrowing and disciplining; of creating subjects – ‘another brick in the wall’– rather than citizens.

3Against this austere and conformist public culture, the ‘private’ represented a realm of sincerity and self-expression. Auden himself had pined for an Age of Intimacy: ‘Private faces in public places/Are wiser and nicer/Than public faces in private places’. Moreover, it was becoming clear that bureaucracy – the promise of a rational public system, in Saint-Simon’s words, ‘replacing the government of persons by the administration of things’– had failed: state socialism and state capitalism alike had proved not to be a political science. Bureaucracy promised to liberate society from the unpredictability of politics and the drudgery of a mechanised economy, but its systems created their own unforeseen irrationalities, and a degree of alienation and monotony as extreme as that produced by the unregulated market. Against the ‘hegemony of the public’, embodied by an oppressive state architecture, the private became the domain of the human: individual and consensual.

4The term ‘revolution’ is overused in the political context; rarely does it signify ‘the world turned upside down’. Yet in relocating meaning away from the public realm, the New Right overthrew the central tenet of Enlightenment thought: that we find meaning in our interaction with, and commitment to, the civic. The historical development of the ‘public’, a sphere of free association and exchange, altered the perception of individual identity and emphasised the social aspect of liberation: far from being a solipsistic pursuit – the monastic cultivation of the soul for salvation – self-realisation demanded civic emancipation. At the core of this vision was a generational optimism, formulated by Hegel and celebrated by Trotsky:

  • 1 Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1924), ed. William Keach, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago, (...)

Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.1

5This renewed interest in the civic drew the theorists of the Enlightenment back to the classical models from which citizenship derived. For the ancient Greeks, declining to take part in public life was a mark of dishonour and a sign of immaturity. The word ‘idiot’ is derived from the Greek διώτης [idiōtēs], denoting ‘a private citizen’, one concerned primarily with his or her own affairs. (Pericles, the great leader of democratic Athens, famously castigated this self-centred attitude: ‘We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all’). The public is itself a vehicle of maturation: to go ‘into society’ is to mark a coming of age, in which we learn to negotiate our desires, to mediate our self in relation to other selves. As consumers, however, we behave privately even in public, seeking to satisfy our particular taste. The universality at the heart of the civic ideal does not appeal to the consumer, for whom individuality (or at least the perception thereof) is preferable to uniformity. The New Right succeeded in transforming this desire for individuality into an ethic of individualism. By conflating ‘equality and regimentation’, Thatcher was able to argue against the central tenet of the Enlightenment – universality – by employing the rallying cry of the Enlightenment: liberation. With the crisis of capitalism of the 1970s, both the New Right and the statist Left set up a dichotomy – the state against the individual – that elided the role of the civic:

  • 2 Interview with Margaret Thatcher, ‘Aids, education and the year 2000!’, Woman’s Own, 31 October 19 (...)

They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.2

6Ultimately, Thatcher’s radicalism was less about the privatisation of public amenities than the suppression of the civic imagination. In 2009, Editorial Intelligence – ‘an intelligent knowledge networking business which runs an agenda-setting opinion former network’– launched an annual ‘residential experiential’ weekend event called ‘Names Not Numbers’. This ‘thought leader symposium’ bills itself as ‘a private ideas festival’, the buzzword of which is ‘individuality’. The notion of a ‘private idea’ would have disturbed the Enlightenment mind, with its commitment to what Kant called ‘the public use of one’s reason’. But for the organisers of this event, the general public – those counted only as ‘Numbers’– are insufficiently bespoke: ‘Names’ are a discerning elite. (Sponsors of the festival include Jaguar and The Groucho Club). So it is with audacity, and seemingly without irony, that one strand at the 2013 festival was titled: ‘How Can Politics Reconnect to People?’


the dark backward and abysm of time.
Shakespeare, The Tempest

  • 3 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), ed. A. J. P. Taylor, trans. Samuel (...)

7Previous ages romanticised the old, whereas ours lusts after the new. Planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence have accelerated our ever-increasing appetite for technology, and transformed our attitude towards production: that which is new is regarded – by the very nature of its newness – as superior, as if new culture, like the technology it produces, had incorporated all the wisdom of the old. In a culture in which knowledge is reduced to the status of information – data, to be sorted according to its utility – earlier civilisations are viewed as merely unplanned obsolescence, whose extinction is a mark of their irrelevance. If capitalism has, in Marx’s words, ‘accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals’, it has also ‘drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation’.3 The baggy, messy civilisations of the past are co-opted into the market of things, but fail to compete with modernism’s zeal for creative destruction:

  • 4 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ (1909), in Mary Ann Caws, Mani (...)

Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!.. Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!4

  • 5 William Shakespeare, King Lear, II. ii. 453-56, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Arden, 1997), p. 255.

8The cultural violence of neoliberalism is not akin to the iconoclasm of Futurism, or the coercive brutishness of Stalinism. Instead, it is realised in the worlds it prevents from being born, in the monuments and artworks to which it pre-emptively shrugs ‘What’s the use of this?’ Thatcher’s Benthamite utilitarianism, with its governing triad of ‘Economy, Efficiency, Effectiveness’, reduces all behaviour to ‘egotistical calculation’, thereby failing to comprehend the nature of culture, which is a social life made possible by the fulfilment of basic needs (‘Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous:/Allow not nature more than nature needs,/Man’s life is cheap as beast’s’).5 Civic culture is a challenge to utilitarian assumptions because it knows that use is not the same as value: indeed, culture has value in part because it comprehends a world beyond use, where truths are uneconomic and inefficient. That which has little utility may have great value: ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, wrote Auden, but it is ‘a way of happening, a mouth’.

9The term ‘Capitalist Realism’ has been coined to describe the triumph of TINA – ‘There Is No Alternative’– and the capture of the civic and political imagination by consumer capitalism. In the ‘knowledge economy’, with its division of ‘intelligent’ [useful] and unintelligent [useless] knowledge, the non-capitalist world becomes a museum, and museums are regarded as relics, curiosities. Yet it is precisely this ‘irrelevance’– the assertion of non-exchange value, outside the profit-motive – that transforms the museum into a potential locus of radicalism. At its best, the museum offers an imaginative alternative to the totalitarianism of ‘Capitalist Realism’, which dismisses other ways of organising and valuing the world. The museum is an epistemological affront to capitalism, as it validates the ‘useless’ and offers an encounter with objects that cannot be bought, that lie outside the realm of economic aspiration, that have taken on a value – incomprehensible to capitalist assumptions – beyond their rate of exchange. The museum rekindles a civic aspiration for acculturation rather than acquisition, against the New Right’s appropriation of ‘self-improvement’ as solely material advancement. It provides a rare public space in which the individual behaves primarily as a citizen rather than a consumer, and in which s/he recognises citizenship as a shared identity. It is for this reason that entry charges ought to be resisted: museums contest the privatisation of value, and should seek to minimise the degree to which citizen relations are mediated by money. If, as Adorno argued, art imagines a totality that the fragmented world cannot – a utopian possibility in formal perfection – then the institutions of culture must offer a glimpse of a society unfractured by inequality.

10The dissolution of a civic ‘consensus’ is a key aspect of the culture of postmodernity, and a primary cause of scepticism about curation. This is understandable: curators, as gatekeepers and educators, have been responsible for telling a selective story of civilisation. But in an age of consumer democracy, curators can be invaluable: we need their cura (‘care, heed, attention’) in navigating the flood of knowledge from the digital world. Consumer democracy purports to offer ‘choice’ but its market parameters are often mandated by monopolistic corporations, which scupper diversity and accentuate simplicity. ‘Choice’ remains the clarion call of the New Right, whose populism conflates the notion of cultural elitism – ‘the best which has been thought and said’– with an elite. (A different elite, of course, than the financial class created by the New Right’s reforms). The corporate calculator assumes the lowest common denominator of Benthamism, which can only comprehend value in terms of instant gratification:

  • 6 Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward (London: John & H. L. Hunt, 1825), p. 206.

The utility of all these arts and sciences – I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity – the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of pre-eminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.6

  • 7 Peter Jenkinson, ‘Regeneration: Can Culture Carry the Can?’, RSA Journal, 5494, 2000, pp. 32-39.

11In contrast, museums affirm the virtues of enrichment: a slower, more arduous process, but one with the prospect of sweeter fruits. Yet museums often seem reticent about asserting their cultural importance, wary of making value judgments in a climate of relativism, and instead justify themselves in terms of social utility. As Peter Jenkinson, the founding director of Creative Partnerships, claimed: ‘Suddenly we are able to think that museums and galleries are not sad, marginal locations of dust and decay and heritage gloom, but alive and connected and critical to the futures of communities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom’7. This self-justification shifts the focus away from the exhibited items onto the visitor, whose attention must be ‘targeted’. But this corporate emphasis on personalisation does not allow room for the growth or discovery inherent in the idea of Enlightenment, because it aims to capture consumer preference at any particular point, and it makes individuals, with their unique appetites, seem further away from each other than they are. The civic approach – universalist curation – adopts a ‘veil of ignorance’, which is not prejudiced by the perception of (constructed and malleable) tastes.

  • 8 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflec (...)
  • 9 Letter to Walter Benjamin, quoted in Eli Friedlander, Water Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait (Ca (...)
  • 10 Quoted in Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), p (...)

12‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association’, wrote Adorno, and for all the virtues of global museums, their acquisitions are intimately bound up with the history of conquest. How can these institutions offer an alternative vision to exploitation when they are born of the original sin of colonialism? How can they counter hegemony when they celebrate civilisations? For in the words of Walter Benjamin, ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.8 How can these museums claim to be a refuge from ‘getting and spending’ when they direct us, at almost every opportunity, to the gift shop, and when major international exhibitions – already burdened by diplomatic and ethical challenges – are sponsored by the Bank of America? The corporate attempt to appropriate civic spaces for consumerism at least acknowledges what capitalist logic had dismissed: that citizens still value the ‘un-profitable’, and have an appetite for ‘useless’ knowledge. Perhaps a greater concern is the commodification of curation, in which objects are evacuated of their history and ‘hollowed out’.9 In her novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy describes this transformation from ‘History House’ to ‘Heritage Hotel’. History is vital and contested – a story of conflict, coercion, rebellion, failure and martyrdom – whereas Heritage is a rarefied, sterilised ornamentation. Heritage offers gift shop trinkets as tourist souvenirs – ‘remembrances’ in the French – but their remembrance is also an act of forgetting, an eliding of History. This ‘reification’ (the hypnotising effect of commodity fetishism) represses the memory of production: as Adorno wrote to Benjamin, ‘every reification is a forgetting’10.

13All Enlightenment ideologies dedicated to liberation are confronted with the question of how to respond to their cultural inheritance. For Mao Zedong, it was necessary to destroy the Four Olds – Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits and Old Ideas – for the New to be born. The spectre of civilisation could not be allowed to haunt the socialist imagination: the Cultural Revolution would ‘Sweep Away All Monsters’. (Capitalism, Mao confidently asserted, would ‘soon be relegated to the museum’). For Trotsky, by contrast, workers must ‘master all the culture of the past’, so that it can be incorporated and transcended:

  • 11 Leon Trotsky, Culture and Socialism (1927), trans. Brian Pearce (London: New Park Publications, 19 (...)

The art of past centuries has made man more complex and flexible, raising his psyche to a higher level and enriching his mind in many ways. This enrichment is an invaluable conquest of culture. Mastery of the old art is therefore a necessary prerequisite not only for the creation of a new art, but for the construction of a new society, because for communism, people are needed with a highly developed psyche. Is the old art capable, however, of enriching us with the artistic cognition of the world? Yes, it is. And it is precisely for this reason that it is capable of nourishing our feelings and cultivating them. If we were to indiscriminately renounce the old art, then immediately we would become poorer in spirit.11

14The curation of ‘civilisation’ compels us to reassess our understanding of the relationship between power and culture. (‘Art never lies’, declared Waldemar Januszczak in his BBC Four series The Dark Ages, but we can deceive ourselves with it, often in ingenious ways). Intelligent curation is able to reveal a hidden history of civilisation:

  • 12 Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Worker Reads History’ (1935), in Selected Poems, trans. H. R. Hays (New York: G (...)

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? …
Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?12

15Curation can broaden as well as narrow; it can frame Alexander as a leader among men, at once inspired and fallible, while at the same time acknowledging the loss for civilisation of the library in the city that bears his name. The Dark Ages that followed its destruction may not have been an abysm – indeed, they may have been ‘the darkness of the womb’– but we are incalculably poorer for the loss of Alexandria’s treasures, even if sealed with the names of kings.

16In the permanent collection of the British Museum there is an Aztec mirror of pure black obsidian – in composition it recalls the iconic monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mirror is wondrous in its obscurity: it purports to reflect, but shows us nothing of ourselves. What excites the viewer is its otherworldliness, its indifference to our narcissism. Perhaps understandably, in an age vigilant of racism, we have become wary of the concept of ‘strangeness’, and the awe and awkwardness that comes with the encounter is regarded as the product of ignorance or parochialism. In addition, globalisation has proved to be a force for cultural homogeneity, creating an alphabet of shared (corporate) symbols and a political economy that restricts civic experimentation. We have become a civilisation in love with its own reflection, always demanding to know the ‘relevance’ of that which it does not recognise. But museums must be careful about being too familiar – they live by curiosity, and should seek to nurture it by being suggestive, imaginative, challenging, humbling, inspiring. Against consumer capitalism’s assault on memory, a museum offers evidence of alternative ways of organising society, and in so doing plays a crucial role in ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’. Ultimately, it is the duty of public institutions to challenge the complacency and introspection of the private. Private domains and networks can limit our room for growth, as they tend to reinforce habit and opinion: by encountering other individuals and ideas – by participating in the public – we can evolve the ‘heart and soul’.


Engines bear them through the sky: they’re free
And isolated like the very rich
Auden, ‘In Time of War’

17The island paradise is the dream vision of neoliberalism: the idyll of the private, a haven from taxation and the burdens of society. Where ‘hell is other people’, heaven is a luxurious retreat, a perpetual indulgence of the self. It’s an uninspiring vision, largely because it doesn’t re-imagine our social world, and denies our interdependence – that each of us is ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main’13. Unmoored from one another, we have become privatised in temperament and habit, but the perspective of the distance allows us to rediscover the radical promise of the civic. What salvation for the lonely rower, lost in the sea of his desire? We must be saved, from ourselves, by each other.


1 Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1924), ed. William Keach, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2005), p. 207.

2 Interview with Margaret Thatcher, ‘Aids, education and the year 2000!’, Woman’s Own, 31 October 1987,

3 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), ed. A. J. P. Taylor, trans. Samuel Moore (London: Penguin, 1967), pp. 82-83.

4 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, ‘The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ (1909), in Mary Ann Caws, Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), p. 188.

5 William Shakespeare, King Lear, II. ii. 453-56, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Arden, 1997), p. 255.

6 Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward (London: John & H. L. Hunt, 1825), p. 206.

7 Peter Jenkinson, ‘Regeneration: Can Culture Carry the Can?’, RSA Journal, 5494, 2000, pp. 32-39.

8 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 248.

9 Letter to Walter Benjamin, quoted in Eli Friedlander, Water Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 156.

10 Quoted in Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), p. 229.

11 Leon Trotsky, Culture and Socialism (1927), trans. Brian Pearce (London: New Park Publications, 1962), p. 12.

12 Bertolt Brecht, ‘A Worker Reads History’ (1935), in Selected Poems, trans. H. R. Hays (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. 108.

13 John Donne, ‘Meditation XVII’, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624),



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