Is the West Worth Saving?
The 2014 Winner of the Turner Prize: "It for Others", by Duncan Campbell
Sometimes the struggle to defend Western civilisation can seem dispiriting, even pointless. In December 2014, the Turner Prize was awarded to a film, "It for Others", by the Irish video-maker Duncan Campbell. The fact that this already discredited institution had plumbed new depths of mediocrity with Campbell's sub-Marxist agitprop prompted several critics to wonder whether the Turner should be wound up, or become triennial rather than annual. But the question now being asked of the Turner applies to much of contemporary Western culture: will any of it last?
The artefacts, music and books that are approved by the cultural establishment will certainly not endure. Compare the tedium of the pygmies who invoke Turner's name with a masterpiece by the man himself: Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino, sold by the Earl of Rosebery at Sotheby's last month for £30 million, breaking the record not only for a Turner but for any British artist before 1900. A couple of years ago, to be sure, the art market valued Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud at three times as much, while Damien Hirst is estimated to have made more than £200 million. From Turner to the Turner Prize: what a falling-off was there. If this is what Western civilisation has come to, is it still worth saving?
The answer, perhaps, is that the greatest achievements of the West have often emerged from periods of chaos. Some 750 years ago, the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, later celebrated as "Doctor Mirabilis", was commissioned by Pope Clement IV to offer him all the remedies that philosophy could provide for the dangers that threatened Christendom. What were those dangers? The Emperor Frederick II, who had dominated the Continent from Sicily to the Baltic, had died in 1250 and with him the dream of a united Europe, to be replaced by nascent nation states such as France and England. The Crusades had run into the sand, as the Mamluks — former slave warriors — reduced one stronghold after another and precipitated an early hostage crisis by capturing the French King, the later St Louis. Meanwhile, an even greater threat had arisen further East: the Mongols. Genghis Khan and his clan overran Asia and Russia, then surged into Europe and the Middle East. In 1258 they captured and depopulated Baghdad, then the largest city in the world — a defeat from which Islamic culture has never fully recovered.
Friar Roger learned a great deal about this from Franciscan missionaries such as William of Rubruck. Bacon's vast oeuvre embraced geography, mathematics, optics and much more, but he is remembered above all for his advocacy of experimental science. Together with Robert Grosseteste, his patron, Bacon is the father of Anglo-Saxon empiricism and with only slight exaggeration has been called the first scientist. Yet the historian Amanda Power, who has recently reinterpreted his writings for Pope Clement, argues that they were written in the expectation of an impending apocalypse, with Bacon mobilising the intellectual resources at his disposal to deal with the onslaught of Antichrist. The Tartars and the Mamluks, Gog and Magog, were to be confronted with the scientific arsenal of Christendom. His experiments include the first Western description of gunpowder and his geographical calculations made possible the voyage of Christopher Columbus two centuries later.