Eamonn Kelly: Cancelling Culture’s Human Experience


From top: Arts Minister Catherine Martin at the Jack B Yeats exhibition in The Model in Sligo on last week; Eamonn Kelly

Leisure the Basis of Culture

One of the arguments frequently put to government by the arts fraternity when seeking arts funding is that the arts create revenue. While this is a good argument, it has the unfortunate effect of placing the arts squarely in the economy’s utilitarian tool-shed, making of the arts what Thomas Aquinas called the servile arts, as opposed to the liberal arts.

The difference between the two is that the liberal arts have no end but their own end, while the servile arts are those arts and sciences that are essentially appropriated by the state to achieve specific goals for the state.

In literary terms it is like the difference between the Soviet literature of socialist realism, designed to glorify the revolution, and Solzhenitsyn depicting awkward to explain hardships in the Siberian wastes.

The reason why the money-making angle seems like the only concrete argument to be made for arts funding is because the world of the economy is now so all-encompassing. We live in a time where every activity must serve the economy. As soon that happens, the liberal arts virtually cease to exist.

So, the argument that the arts is good for the economy, as a way of convincing hard-nosed and often ignorant politicians that arts funding is justified, has the effect of destroying the very ground on which the liberal arts is of any use to the common good.

Because it is precisely in their perceived “uselessness” that the arts are “useful”; but only if they are permitted to be “useless”. The point is, you can’t understand the value of the liberal arts by the yardstick of the economy, or, what the philosopher Josef Pieper calls the world of “total work”.

While right-wing enthusiasts of hard work for others like Leo Varadkar might claim that getting up early in the morning is a “good”, the book of Job tells us that “God giveth songs in the night.”

In this respect the coronavirus has thrown us a life-line, an opportunity to avail of Pieper’s “power of leisure” to maybe find a way of dreaming up some climate disaster escape plans.

Leisure and Culture

Josef Pieper’s book, “Leisure The Basis of Culture”, published in 1947 when the world was rebuilding after the war, provides a sustained argument which sets out to show that the modern world, the world of “total work” as he calls it, is actually having the effect of pushing the arts and humanities towards extinction.

His argument is, generally, that a concentration on utilitarian ends will have the effect of hollowing out the human experience, essentially creating a kind of rot in the culture.

The irony of this is, that in the ongoing degradation of the arts and other methods by which people use the power of leisure to gain perspective and transcend the workaday world, the ability to even perceive the prison walls that the world of total work creates, also becomes dimmed.

Evidence of this rot of culture he sees in the changed aspect of the academy.

Pieper writes:

“Perhaps the reason why ‘purely academic’ has sunk to mean something sterile, pointless and unreal is because the scholar has lost its roots in religion. And so, instead of reality we get a world of make-believe, of intellectual ‘trompe l’oeil’ [optical illusion], and cultural tricks and traps and jokes…”

It is exactly this type of intellectual trickery that informs post-modern argument and cancel culture. While the universities themselves, site of these linguistic games, far from being academies of free thinking and intellectual exploration are often little more than economic traps, where banks prey on youth to deceive them into lifetimes of debt.

In that regard, Pieper’s world of “total work” has already completely over-run the academy, turning free thought and intellectual exploration, and arts and culture in general, into commodities for the market to feed on, in a marketplace devoid of any pretense towards acknowledging the divine in cultural activity.

You Are Your Own Detective

In a New Yorker article from 1996, “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible’”, Arthur Miller distilled the essence of the problem posed to freedom of expression by both the Salem Witch trials and McCarthyism. In both cases, he said, it was never so much about actions being taken by individuals, as it was about the uncovering of hidden intentions.

This, ironically is also, according to Aristotle, the aim of art: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” It is as if cancel culture is a distortion of artistic aims.

The idea is also very similar to Orwell’s thought crime, where even the person committing the “crime” may not be aware of their own thought crime.

A similar idea is found in Milan Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel” when discussing Kafka’s “The Trial”. The black joke at the heart of Kafka’s novel is that K is never charged with a specific offence, but is left to guess what his offence might be. He must find his own hidden intention. His own crime.

These days however, we can’t even trust the accused to do that much. What if they don’t find their crime? What if they don’t even try and just continue along as before, brazenly saying anything they please?  What then? This is why, presumably, we must have a process of “cancellation”. Is that not like a euphemism for death?

Flawed Individuals

While thinking this through I happened also to be thinking about Heather Humphreys’ suggestion that artists should retrain for different occupations, and it occurred to me that this might simply mean sending them through JobPath.

The fundamental idea that JobPath is predicated on, that the unemployed must be “helped” to see what it is about them personally that has caused them to be unemployed – in other words the discovery of the personal “flaw” that is causing their unemployment – is similar to cancel culture’s fundamental idea that anyone who speaks against cancel culture or offers any criticism is only doing so for ulterior motives, and are most likely harbouring hidden misogynistic, racist or sexist intentions.

The point is, whatever the critic of an accusatory ideology might be, whether they are criticising Senator McCarthy or the crazed dot-joining of a witch-hunter, they can never be seen to be right. Because if the accused is right, then the accuser is wrong. But the accuser simply can’t be wrong, otherwise the entire edifice of the ideology collapses.

Denial is Guilt

So, like in Salem or in McCarthyism, everything a person says in their defence, once accused, intensifies the suspicion that they are merely hiding a negative intention.

With JobPath if you argue that automation or over-competition, or too few opportunities etc is causing unemployment, this is taken as evidence of your personal laziness. No cognizance can be admitted pertaining to the realities of the external world. The customer is always wrong. The system depends entirely on this one idea.

Similarly, if you critique cancel culture and radical feminism this is taken as misogyny. Again, the flaw is perceived as residing in the individual, who must then be “fixed”; and not in the ideology that is imposing itself on the individual.

It’s like the floating witch conundrum. If she sinks, she is not a witch. She is, however, unfortunately, dead, not to put too fine a point on it. It’s a lose-lose situation. As Senator McCarthy might have said, Of course you deny you’re a Russian spy. What else would a Russian spy do but deny the charge?

Ultimately the hidden intention must be dug out of you, as O’Brien digs the confession out of Winston Smith in 1984. And even then, it is not enough to confess in order to put an end to the interrogation. You must come over to the other side, willingly. You must abase yourself. You must be shown to be empty of meaning at the feet of the triumphant ideology.


What is interesting is that on this question of insisting that the individual is flawed and not the ideology, both right-wing conservatives and leftist social justice advocates, appear to be of one mind in the view that opposition to their respective ideologies is driven by a personal flaw or hidden agenda in those who critique their ideologies.

It is in the protection of flawed ideologies from scrutiny or critique that extreme right and extreme left appear to meet. But the situation closes down the possibility of development of an argument, since all arguments are ultimately perceived as fake or phoney, the very thing that ideologies tend to be.

Ideologies, no matter how different or politically opposite they may seem, are always opposed to rationality and creative thinking in favour of habituated systems designed to answer all questions, even before such questions are even asked. All the individual has to do is to agree that the flaw is in themselves, like original sin.

In this type of arrangement, creativity and free thinking are problems. Compliance is favoured.

It would appear that all sides, regardless of the political spectrum, are playing by the same fundamental rules. The goal is to discover those who are deemed undeserving of promotion due to personal limitations or potential hidden negative intentions.

The cause of these increasingly desperate selective procedures may be simply due to over-population and a consequent narrowing of opportunity, leading inevitably to conflict.

Much of the pressure and desperation could be relived immediately with the introduction of a basic income. It really is the only thing to do, and would have the effect too of freeing up the dreamers to go to work dreaming a way out of this fine climate mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.


Use it or lose it, they used to say, and in a world of granite ideologies there is no time or space for creative thinking. The ideologies supposedly have all the answers.

In the world of total work as described by Pieper, the capacity to transcend that world through the traditional methods of religion and the arts also atrophies.

But it is from these sacred places, as people commune with the divine in active leisure, that all the progress and technical perks of the modern world were initially dreamt up.

Pieper describes how we may even delude ourselves into settling for the fake.

He writes that worse than the extinction of spiritual and imaginative experiences that transcend the world of total work,

“is their transformation, their degradation, into sham and spurious forms…Religion can be debased into magic…prayer can be perverted into a sort of technique whereby life…is feasible…love can assume a debased form in which all the powers of devotion are bent to serve the ends of a limited ego…pseudo art and a spurious poetry, instead of bursting through the vault of the workaday world, merely paint deceptive ornamentation…these spurious forms combine…to close every window…and then man really is imprisoned in the world of work.”

Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.

Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet

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2 thoughts on “Eamonn Kelly: Cancelling Culture’s Human Experience

  1. Gabby

    The visual arts can be responded to on their own aesthetic merits regardless of the commercial values accompanying them. Fine. It’s just that in times of great economic stress, like now, hardnosed bankers, business entrepreneurs and government economists need to be talked to in their own language in efforts to swing extra public funding towards the arts sector of society. Art creators have rent and bills to pay. They depend on government-supported infrastructure to help them earn money. Most of them hold down day jobs in teaching and other areas. The unrecognized chainsmoking artist painting away in a fifth-storey atelier belongs to the romanticised history of European art. Even the long suffering Van Gogh was kept alive during his grimmer years of mental and bodily wretchedness through the personal generosity of his bourgeois brother Theodore. Art is good for the soul of society, but money hovers everywhere on the sidelines. Ars longa pecunia utilis.

    1. EK

      Gabby, the thrust of the article had a little bit more to say than that. Did you read past the first couple of paragraphs?

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