Reviewing John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization, Noel Malcolm discovers an argument that Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are evidence that our culture is less than civilized:
‘Civilisation’ used to mean not just material prosperity and advanced social organisation, but also a set of values, involving both art and life. To be a highly civilised person meant having higher interests, finer feelings and better behaviour than the uncivilised, however prosperous they might be.
John Armstrong believes passionately in that traditional concept of civilisation. Scottish-born and Oxford-trained, he is now ‘Philosopher-in-Residence’ at the Melbourne Business School. Presumably his role there is to persuade future Australian millionaires that there is more to a civilised life than just making money and spending it. If so, he is just the man for the job, an engaging and persuasive writer with a very non-technical approach to theoretical issues.
He has some fine turns of phrase: ‘a desire is a thesis about flourishing’; ‘nostalgia is a type of obscure knowledge: it offers us an insight into what we love’. His aesthetic sense seems strong and reliable: he celebrates, for example, the architecture of Edinburgh’s New Town and the still-life paintings of Chardin, while describing the works of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as ‘creations of a profoundly damaged culture that tells itself it is being clever and sophisticated and up to date for the wrong reasons’.