(Written 9 Nov 2012)
In the opening scene of the first episode of the BBC television series, Civilisation (BBC, 1969) Kenneth Clark is seen on the banks of the Seine with the Louvre in the background. After a brief discussion about the number of artists who have hurried to that famous gallery to study the works it contains he asks, “What is Civilisation?” Then he goes on to say, “I don’t know. I can’t define (Civilisation) in abstract terms. But I think I can recognise it when I see it.” This thought… that of believing that you can recognise civilisation when you see it, struck me quite forcibly recently while sitting on the lawn of the John Baxter Outdoor Theater at Wynberg Boys High School. (http://www.facebook.com/#!/Wynberg.Music)
The occasion was the School’s Sunset Concert and once again I marvelled at the care with which the music teachers ply their trade and I was impressed by the skill with which the pupils respond to their teaching. It has long been my view that one of the most civilising things in the world is the process by which people learn to play sophisticated music in concert; the other being schoolboy cricket in which the batsman is taught to ‘walk’ when they are out.
One the other hand, as Clark often remarks in the Civilisation series, “while it may be difficult to define Civilisation, it isn’t so difficult to recognise barbarism”, and so, as I sat there I juxtaposed this musical expression of civilisation with the expression of violence and graft to which we South Africans are subjected every day when we open our newspapers.
With that thought my mind went back to the sense of the truly sublime that I was able to enjoy with Keith and Pippa – that is them sitting behind me in the photo – when we saw Bernini’s Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius in the Eternal City. Apart from the magnificence of the work, the statue’s great symbolism of grandfather, father and son in the process of moving away from the destruction of Troy to the establishment of the new, greater Rome has a lot of meaning for me. The line from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome always comes to mind, “For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods” (Horatius). In a way, it represents brothers in an endless chain; overcoming difficulties, Supera Moras.
But sadly, as I said, at the same time as I was listening to this marvellous music I thought of the shenanigans of this country’s president as he loots the treasury, avoids corruption charges, and still manages to move toward re-election. I thought of the way in which the ANC is steadily attacking the country’s constitution through the proposed Protection of Information Act. In my mind I juxtaposed Bernini’s depiction of heroism with Hogarth’s 18th century depiction of electioneering and I was reminded how fortunate we are to have islands such as that at Wynberg where Civilisation is being fostered as a bulwark against the barbarism that has made Cape Town the Murder Capitol of the world.
It is when one attends concerts like this one that one gets hope. Hope that somehow, like Aeneas, the country will overcome the attacks and the blight of crime, corruption and government failure.