Monday, February 09, 2009

Kenneth Clark's Civilisation

Kenneth Clark's vision of civilisation had a viscereal effect on me.

Not too long ago, I happened upon the 1973 BBC series The Ascent Of Man, a monumental dissertation by Jacob Bronowski. It is a scientist's view of the history of humanity, and Bronowski is very humanist and thoughtful - in both the philosophical and analytical senses - in his considerations. An intellectual pleasure to watch.

It was made as a complement to Clark's 1969 series Civilisation. Again, I happened on this - at the local library - and was interested in this art historian's view of history - also said to be monumental.

However, I found this work to be disturbing rather than thought-provoking. Clark had ideas and narrative too, and put a lot of thought into it. Yet he quite struck me as fascistic in his view of the progress of history. His was an elitist perspective, whereby the watchword was a specific romantic vision of the "hero" - a unique person in history who by force of will forged a part of civilisation.

This was not Bronowski's gentle but rousing celebration of achievement; more, a Nietzchean tale of the triumph of the spirit over mere mortals, while ignoring all those that provide the milieu in which the individual achieves. Not to decry the achievements of a Shakespeare or a Da Vinci, but a lack of celebration of the synergetics of a society is ignorant at best.

As a scientist, Bonowski knows the scientific dialectic is a marvellous example of the joy of collective achievement and the exciting exchange of ideas. Particularly insightful and imaginative individuals such as Charles Darwin are rightly lauded as leaving a full body of meaningful work. But we learn and foster ideas when we have a culture in which to express. And those who have contributed ideas that languish - such as Mendel - can be resurrected later when those ideas are discovered to contribute anew to the dialectic.

Clark's world is one in which an Albert Speer could have been lauded - if his creations had survived context. Success is its own justification; in this world, Carravagio could be seen as being rightly justified in torturing models to death in search of his muse.

On a personal level, I feel Clark has debased the legacy of some of those whose work I admire, such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. And better celebrations of history through architecture and art can be found.


Anonymous said...

What a load of crock.

Get over yourself.

Stephen Simmonds said...

An interesting way to make a comment. Have you seen either of the two tv series? What were you trawling for when you landed here to place this troll?

I'm certainly interested in having people disagree with me on this, an interesting juxtaposition.

But if you - and I'm only guessing here - subscribe to Clark's particular elitism, perhaps you can say what it is you appreciate about that work of his.

Adam said...

I disagree with your assessment of Clark's work. It's impossible to discuss western civilization without discussing, say, Michaelangelo and his works. Clark always presents these artistic heroes in the context of their time and culture, and criticizes their flaws as much as he extols their virtues. Clark's approach is hardly fascistic, and throughout the series he alludes to the threat that the Nazis posed to western civilization (as you may recall, the first episode is titled "By the Skin of Our Teeth"). Elsewhere in the series, he makes clear his distaste for authoritarianism and the art that it produces (see, for example, his criticism of what he calls the "cold and inhuman" French classicism during the time of Louis XIV). Clark is a cultural conservative, but I don't believe he is an elitist. In fact, the point of "Civilisation" was to popularize the study of western art. Thus, he clearly believes that his mass television audience is capable of appreciating great works of art and the philosophical principles that animated them.

Stephen Simmonds said...

Hi Adam,

Thanks. I'm happy to take on board your comments.

Yet I would have to seek another look at the series to properly respond to your specifics. Yes, I was left with a clear feeling that Clark's extolling of champions had a tone of elitism bordering on fascism - and I would say that this needs to be explained rather than simply explained away as cultural conservatism.

Certain aspects of this work reminded me of a [later] film called Architecture Of Doom, an exploration of the relationship of Nazi philosophy to architecture of the epoch. In some ways that comparison is unfair, as art under the Nazis (as under Stalin) suffered from official definition of appropriateness - and the consequent inferior results.

I would not pretend to argue against a Raphael, Michelangelo, or a Shakespeare. But I would argue against their shadows obscuring a full plethora of artistic expression and, rightly or wrongly, I was left with the feeling that Clark was too content with his champions.

Anonymous said...

I've not read Civilization. I picked it up in a bookstore, and read up to where Clark said that (and I'm paraphrasing here, this was many years ago--but the thought is intact) "..the reader may notice the abscence of Spain in this book. Were this book about the history of art, I would have to include Spain, but this is about the history of Civilization, and Spain has contributed nothing to the betterment of mankind." Any person who can be so close minded and hateful that he purposefully consigns an entire European society to the trash heap is indeed fascistic. He bears a striking philosophic resemblance to the Nazis, and has nothing of value to say to me. Yes, I'm a Spaniard, and my only regret is that I never met Mr. Clark. I think we would have spent many interesting nights in heated discussions!