by Louis Davidson
Art historian Sir Simon Schama is currently a professor of history and art history at Columbia University. A prolific author and documentarian, he has written more than 14 books, including Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, and Belonging: The Story of the Jews. He is perhaps best known to the public for the 15-part BBC documentary series A History of Britain. He speaks to Louis Davidson about the alt-right, conspiracy theories, and the public place of art.
ORB: I watched an episode of Newsnight where you were with David Starkey, and you said that young people today needed to be offered an alternative to the current decision between “fanatacism and shopping”. What do you think that could look like? Could there be a positive historical grounding for it?
Schama: The great narrative of free speech, Parliamentary constitutionalism – the sort of thing that draws a line from John Milton to John Locke – forms a heroic narrative that we take for granted. If you go to places around the world from the current state of Venezuela, to Brazil, to the Burmese persecution of Muslims, one should never take that for granted. I wish that that unapologetic narrative – that we’re kind of ashamed of, that we think of as old-hat – about the acquisitions of and preservation of those freedoms had a bigger place, and was something people were excited about fighting for.
ORB: Are the alt-right not also interested in their own “heroic narrative”?
Schama: The alt-right aren’t interested in those things at all. They’re interested in national self-interest, and a fetish of sovereignty.
ORB: But do they not invoke that narrative of “free speech” in critiquing identity politics and “political correctness”, silencing what one “cannot say”?
Schama: If identity politics actually silences free speech, in the interest of free speech, then it’s a perfectly legitimate liberal view to contest that – and if the alt-right signs onto it, I have nothing against the alt right actually invoking Milton! So that’s fine, it makes them less alt and less right.
I think what’s happened is the internet. The internet is very indifferent to the difference between reason and unreason, truth and falsehood – no-one has figured out what custodial apparatus can be brought to bear on this enormous incoming meteorite shower of both truth and shit! That is the terrible trouble, and “public intellectual” is a word that slightly makes me come out in a rash, which shows that I am not French.
The Twitter-sphere is a start, but you know there’s only so much you can do in long threads on the twitter-sphere. But you do have a chance, if you pursue the thread long enough to make a point, inside the cacophonous welter of a different kind of public discourse. It’s no good a Guardian op-ed writer or FT op-ed writer speaking only to op-ed readers.
ORB: Is it not possible that alternative, and indeed perhaps false, narratives can emerge from the internet – conspiracies even?
Schama: The rise of populism, which we’ve been skirting around, depends on conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are actually the kind of emotive and psychic driver for populism. One begins to think that someone, somewhere, the elite, the Jews, global corporations, have taken something away from you. Conspiracy theories, by definition, thrive on lies.
ORB: Have you experienced that as a Jewish presenter on the BBC?
Schama: Oh Christ, every other week I’m shared in an Auschwitz Uniform. I’m used to that by now.
ORB: I wonder what practical role broadcasting can play. Can it be rallied, GIF co-ordinated possibly, to bring those threads together and to stamp out populism?
Schama: You can but try. It would be nice to try, but of course broadcasting is running scared from all kinds of things. The obsession, for example, with balance means sometimes a balance between transparent meretriciousness and actually something which is empirically provable. Broadcasting is also going about its business with increasingly trembly hands.
ORB: Has there been a successful democratisation of the arts and humanities in general?
Schama: It’s absolutely true of art institutions, people still go in floods to the National Gallery and to here [the RA], but they also go to the Tate Modern, which is in an old power station. The democratisation of interest in art has been something. It wasn’t really like that when I was growing up in the 1950’s. My dad, and my parents took me round this place and round the National Gallery – and round the Cortauld, even – over and over again. But there has been a revolution in the reach of modern art and contemporary art to the public. The institutions have made themselves more open and more popular. Van Gogh was the one who wanted art to be the new church – he felt that the institutional church in the late industrial revolution had failed people. So he felt that art would provide that jolt of non-materialist illumination, a redemptive consolation for people.
ORB: Do you think that’s successful outside of London, or the American coasts?
Schama: Oh sure, galleries in Manchester are absolutely full. There are stupendous non-New York, nonWest Coast art institutions: Fort Worth, Texas, has four stupendous galleries, and there’s pretty damn good museums in Dallas and Kansas City as well.
Schama: Yes, there is a wonderful museum there but there are money problems. One thing that’s very good about America is that you get a tax write-off for whatever you do culturally, which should be the case here. People like me, we give tens of thousands to universities and cultural institutions.
ORB: Do you consider yourself an expatriate then? What was it like watching Brexit happen from the USA?
Schama: Well, I still only have a British passport, and I vote in London. But it is sort of horrifying, and quite tragic. The older you get, the more keenly felt is your primary allegiance which is to here, not the place I pay most – not all – of my taxes.
ORB: How did that compare to watching Trump be elected as a non-American?
S: Well, *laughs* both were pretty horrifying, I don’t know how one actually arbitrates between the two. But for a lot of us the very promising result was the midterms in America, which produced an absolute overturn of power, and a very lively one. A hundred and something women in Congress, 19 of whom are republican. It’s very important that the majority of power is not in Trump’s court but in the House of Representatives.
There is a sense that, in America, things are reversible. If it had gone the other way … if the same party, which is being taken over by Donald Trump and no longer remotely resembles the traditional conservative Republican Party, then that would have been worrying. Whereas what we’re faced in Britain with is something pretty irreversible for a long time.
This interview was condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
LOUIS DAVIDSON reads English at St. John’s. He reads the New Yorker – that is to say – he owns the tote bag.
Art by Abigail Hodges