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April 2018, No. 1381 – Vol 160




It is an uncomfortable thought – at least it is to the editor of this Magazine, who was allowed to stay up past his bedtime to watch the programmes – that only people over sixty can remember the enormous impact of Kenneth Clark’s BBC television series Civilisation when first broadcast, in 1969. As Clark’s biographer writes, in words that are themselves a snapshot of a bygone age, ‘Evensong was rearranged in some parishes so the congregation could see the programme on Sundays, and Civilisation parties were held in the homes of those who owned a colour television’.1 It might also be observed that no other television programme in the 1960s was thought worthy of a twopage Editorial in The Burlington Magazine, only partly explicable by the fact that the then Editor, Benedict Nicolson, was an old friend of Clark: ‘it represents the mature response to things that matter of a man who is perceptive, sensitive and wise’.2

It seems unlikely that reports will come in of postponed Evensongs for the sake of the BBC’s new series Civilisations, broadcast in March and April this year. That is a reflection not on the quality of the programmes, but of the way that broadcast media are now consumed – the existence of on-demand online services such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer means that we can no longer use television as an excuse for not going to church. Civilisation was such an immense success partly because it had so little competition (there were then only three television channels) and because in the United Kingdom it was the first major documentary series to be broadcast in colour – the programme was conceived partly to persuade people to buy the very expensive new colour television sets.

In a multi-platform digital age, and without the advantage of showcasing a major technical advance, Civilisations was never going to achieve anything like the vast audiences who tuned in to its predecessor (nor can the accompanying publications hope for more than a tiny percentage of the multi-million sales of Clark’s Civilisation book). In the United Kingdom the series has been received with polite enthusiasm, although early indications suggest that the figure of 1.7 million viewers for the first episode has not been sustained. The most telling aspect of the critical response has been the way that the programmes have been compared in every detail to Clark’s, a measure of the hold that his account of ‘civilisation’ still has on the public imagination, and not only of those over sixty. The major difference is that in place of a single authorial voice, that of an eminent white British man who can never escape the label ‘patrician’, there are three very varied presenters. Simon Schama presented five of the nine programmes (Clark had thirteen) and Mary Beard and David Olusoga were given two each. In place of his chosen focus on western Europe and America theirs is a global vision that brings to bear on the story of art such issues as feminism and colonialism that were barely, if at all, evident in Civilisation.

Clark’s series had the subtitle ‘A personal view’ and the new series takes that approach further, for in place of his chronological movement from the Dark Ages to the nineteenth century, each episode is, in effect, an essay on a particular theme – ‘How do we look’, on the body in art, and ‘The eye of faith’, on religion and art, in the case of Beard’s two episodes. This approach gives focus to what would otherwise be an unmanageably protean subject, the global history of art. It also means, however, that the series eschews the over-arching themes that knitted together Clark’s programmes. His emphasis on the ideals of sanity and proportion as persistent goals for artists throughout history was evident to the earliest critics – Nicolson, for example, saw it as a result of a philosophy derived from Bloomsbury and E.M. Forster – and it is challenged in the present series by Beard in particular. In her programme on the body, for example, Beard includes a clip of Clark describing the Hellenistic ideal of harmony as embodied in the Apollo Belvedere, an attitude that she traces back to J.J. Winckelmann and finds ‘distorting and divisive’.

Clark’s programmes also emphasised the fragility of civilisation, a point explicable in part by the historical context in which his programmes were made, of not only Cold War and revolutions but also natural disasters – as when Clark stands in the cloister of S. Croce to describe the effects of the 1966 floods in Florence. Simon Schama opens the series with an even more powerful meditation on the frailty of civilisation, by describing the murder in 2015 of Khaled al-Asaad, Head of Antiquities for Palmyra, at the hands of ISIS. Yet the theme is not developed and Beard in particular seems dubious about the very idea of civilisation, concluding her programme on religion and art by saying that our admiration for the concept is simply another form of religious belief.

This comes quite close to stating that we substitute art for religion – a reasonable argument, perhaps, but it draws attention to one of the main contrasts between Civilisation and Civilisations. The first was written and presented by an art historian, the second by historians who write about art. The difference is perhaps more profound than has been acknowledged. Clark’s series was based on an intellectual foundation derived ultimately from John Ruskin, as set out in his 1877 book St Mark’s Rest: The History of Venice: ‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last’. Clark surveyed art and then deduced from it a history of human society. The new series does not support such an absolute value for art, which its presenters use primarily in the service of historically-based arguments. This poses the question of why a historian should look to art for evidence in preference to any other form of material culture. The new series deliberately replaces confidence about the importance of art with a form of cultural relativism. That will surely be a disappointment to most of its audience, and not just those who recall Clark’s eloquently persuasive certainties.

1 J. Stourton: Kenneth Clark, Life, Art and Civilisation, London 2016, p.340.

2 Editorial: ‘Clark on civilization’, the burlington magazine 111 (1969), pp.331–32.