Can culture survive the culture wars?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Saturday 9 October, Church House, London


Cultural works of value were previously understood to be those that proved themselves through the passage of time. Many people will be familiar with the defence of culture by Matthew Arnold, who described it as ‘acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit’.

But for some, the past is increasingly viewed as a dark and problematic place. Works from previous generations inevitably contain ideas and words that were of their time – some we might want to hold on to, and some might seem unacceptable today. And a growing number of contemporary critics now argue that cultural artefacts of the past that don’t align with modern sentiments and values should be forgotten – even removed – despite their aesthetic quality.

Censorship has long existed in the arts – from governments banning authors like DH Lawrence for his sexually explicit content to the BBC refusing to air Ewan McColl’s music because of his ‘communist’ sympathies. But many argue that today’s hostility to cultural heritage is different. Instead of conservative attempts to control the status quo by rejecting new ideas, today’s critics are focused on what has come before.

Both Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird have been removed from curricula and libraries in the UK and US, with critics complaining of the use of the ‘n-word’ and racist stereotypes in both books. Likewise, the Tate’s director, Alex Farquharson, has said that JMW Turner ‘mustn’t be idolised’ because he once bought a share in a Jamaican cattle ranch. There was uproar when the Royal Court staged a new production of Andrea Dunbar’s play Rita, Sue and Bob Too, with one critic arguing that a ‘a tale of grooming, underage sex and “slut-shaming”’ shouldn’t have been allowed in a post #MeToo era.

Channels like Turner Classic Movies and Disney Plus have placed content warnings on films like Gone With The Wind to inform viewers of racist content before they begin viewing. Similar moves are afoot in theatre, where a recent production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet featured trigger warnings about its depiction of suicide, moments of violence and references to drug use. Fans of such moves applaud the ability to make works more ‘relevant’ or ‘accessible’, while critics argue that these modern tweaks change the audience’s ability to come to their own conclusions about the meaning and intent of the play.

What happens when we judge the culture of the past by the morals of the present? Do we risk missing art’s transcendental or universal qualities if we focus on the political content of our cultural history? Who decides what is culturally acceptable, and what must face the chopping block? Is the war on culture righteous iconoclasm, or is this resistance to the past a danger to our appreciation of culture in the here and now?


Jan Bowman
artist; illustrator; author

Dolan Cummings
author, Gehenna: a novel of Hell and Earth; associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Jonathan Grant
chartered accountant; arts critic

Josephine Hussey
school teacher; theatre lover

Dr Philip Kiszely
lecturer in performance and cultural histories, University of Leeds; author, Hollywood through Private Eyes

Jane Sandeman
chief operating officer, The Passage; convenor, AoI Parents Forum; contributor, Standing up to Supernanny