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Shades of Kurelek 2

In the painting Harvest of Our Mere Humanism Years (currently on display at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s William Kurelek: The Messenger exhibition), the artist weaves several dystopian motifs current at the time of his working (1972) into a composition that is truly fantastical.

The giant hollow grasshopper, pile of books dressed in professorial garb, and green dish containing chocolate replicas of university buildings in the middle distance of this picture express Kurelek’s fear that higher education, though valued so highly by millions of Canadian parents, in fact did not aid their children’s search for individuality and significance. Here are echoes (albeit unconscious) of Ivan Illich’s trenchant criticism of institutional education in Deschooling Society (1971); and a premonition, perhaps, of Neil Postman’s The End of Education (1995), in which the author argues for the necessity of a sustaining narrative to endue education with meaning. The papers and television sets that people are glued to as they wander around the landscape, entirely oblivious to the danger represented by the chasm that has opened up in the ground, reference another motif, important to Kurelek, that was later taken up by Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves To Death (1985).

The people queuing around Toronto City Hall, their crowding becoming greater and their burdens heavier the longer they wait, and their waiting simply ending in death, comprise a strong statement of what Kurelek, a faithful Roman Catholic, saw as the futile ‘harvest’ of modern secularism – a restatement, perhaps, of the theme he had taken up in Behold Man Without God (1955). For Kurelek, as we noted last month, the ultimate symbol of this futility was the atomic bomb, here depicted hanging by a thread over City Hall, unnoticed by all bar one person in the throng.

Particularly in its critique of educational institutions, Harvest of Our Mere Humanism Years is reminiscent – to those of a certain age – to the animation sequences of Gerald Scarfe that were incorporated into the 1982 film Pink Floyd – The Wall, and from there into the music video for Another Brick in the Wall, in which teachers are memorably depicted as hammers marching in serried ranks, and school either as a meat-grinder into which students are pushed, or simply as a high, all-encompassing wall. With due respect to the work of Illich and Postman, Scarfe’s imagery has probably had a wider impact upon the thinking of a generation than any text of educational sociology. Kurelek was aware of the power of pop-art, and this is the idiom in which he chose to communicate his message.