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.