A few weeks ago I commented on an unfortunate gentleman called Jonah Albert. Mr Albert is a curatorial fellow at the National Gallery. He is unfortunate despite having an interesting job, because he is clueless about the function of art. Here is what he said in an article in The Observer:
You don't need a black face in a painting for it to hold stories relevant to black people. The paintings in the National Gallery deal with major life themes: love, loss, death, jealousy, betrayal, war, peace, power and many more ideas, all of which are just as relevant to black people as anyone else.
How fortunate that these "major life themes" are relevant to black people, then, because if they weren't then black people wouldn't be able to appreciate art, would they? Or to put it another way, Mr Albert ought already to have lost his job for an article so obtuse, patronising and demonstrative of his professional incompetence.
Unfortunately, he is not alone in this type of thing. There are teachers of English Literature who judge Shakespeare on similar criteria. The BBC reports:
Teachers have steered the Shakespeare curriculum for younger pupils in England away from Othello and Henry IV Part I in favour of lighter texts. After a poll, plays set for 13 and 14-year-olds in England could include Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It. Othello did not make the list because more than half of those questioned said the themes of sexual jealousy and racism were not suitable for that age. Teachers say the exam system impedes the enjoyment of Shakespeare anyway.
The BBC report (which is, incidentally, particularly badly written - note the common but crass use of "could" instead of "might") states further:
The idea of including Othello prompted the most objections - with 55% saying it was not suitable. Many teachers said the play should be kept for A-level study and that the themes were "too mature and sensitive for this age group". The report said: "Many stated that the topic of racism was not appropriate for Key Stage 3 study and the theme of sexual jealousy was widely felt to be beyond the experience of Year 9 children."
Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that adolescents of 13 and 14 haven't experienced sexual jealousy and might be bewildered by Iago's malevolent imagery of "an old black ram ... tupping your white ewe". Ought they not to learn about such common and destructive sentiments before they enter adulthood? But here I am accepting the utilitarian notions of the "teachers" who responded to the survey: we must teach what is relevant. That is an appalling notion. Literature gains its force not in describing a world we already know, but in illuminating enduring human concerns. Great writers see more and better than the rest of us. We gain experience through their art; we do not (or ought not to) fit the art to match our own experience. Anyone who thinks otherwise ought not to be teaching.