Not too long ago, I was not exactly immobilized but slowed down somewhat by a bout of periodontal surgery. To distract my mind from pain killers and a somewhat infantile diet, an Art Historian friend lent me her DVD set of Civilisation: A Personal View. It so happens that I had not actually seen the series when it first came out in 1969, and since the note accompanying the discs said, “Take your time—extended loans encouraged,” I have taken my time. Not in watching the series but in writing about it.
It still seems a somewhat Herculean task to attempt to explain, trace, or define what we mean by the word “civilisation.” The OED offers “a developed or advanced state of human society.” At best, that’s a little vague isn’t it? Rooted in the Latin civil civilis pertaining to citizens, the word connotes so much more than that. We tend to know what we mean when we define something as civilised or uncivilised. The term civilisation carries with it associations of a certain kind of refinement, of a particular aesthetic, of a mode of societal being.
In the first episode of Civilisation: A Personal View, Lord Clark, then still Sir Kenneth Clark admits, “I know I can’t define it in abstract terms, but I think I can recognise it now, and I’m looking at it.” The camera then draws back from Clark to show he is looking at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He moves on quickly to discussing a Viking long ship and the effect its presence in the Seine would have had on those who saw it as the bringer of devastation and the way we can see its beauty today.
The Rt. Hon. The Lord Clark OM CH KCB FBA remains a somewhat controversial figure. Was he an elitist snob or someone who brought art appreciation to the general public? Should he be remembered for keeping the National Gallery open during WWII and for working for ITV or should he be seen as someone ultimately out of step with the tenor of his times, especially in his attitude to contemporary art? Quick internet searches will reveal views both positive and negative.
What I couldn’t decide, and why it has taken me some time to write this post was whether I should focus primarily on what Clark has to say or on the effect of seeing the series over forty years after it was made. I found I was watching the thirteen episodes with a kind of bifurcated vision. One view was engaged with Clark’s ideas and the other with how the series revealed the aesthetic of a previous time and trying to disassociate myself from the nostalgia evoked by seeing that time on the screen.
Though the series isn’t a history of art, it does examine a great deal of art as well as architecture, music, and drama. Over thirteen episodes, Clark takes his audience from before the Carolingian period to the campus of the then relatively new University of East Anglia where he expresses a certain optimism for the future, given the liveliness and curiosity of the young. Those young students are now in their sixties, and Clark himself has been dead for over thirty years. One can’t help but wonder what assessment he would make of the way we are now. Has his guarded optimism been confirmed or would he see us overwhelmed by what he called “Our Urge to Destruction”? Being of an age with those UEA students, I must admit to finding myself increasingly ambivalent about the future. What in 1969 was my future and about which I must admit I felt if not optimism then at least hope has now become my past: a past that has at times, nothing particularly unique here, brought me both joy and disappointment. My ambivalence comes from the socio/political state of the world and a certain sense that many of the ideals of the sixties– and if nothing else we have to admit that the mid-twentieth century was an idealistic as well as ideological time–have in many ways been subverted and betrayed. Perhaps, like Clark, I am a “stick in the mud” (Episode 13: “Heroic Materialism”).
Be that as it may, in many ways what is so engaging about watching the series now is that it is so much a product of its time. We are so used to the television art or history series where a presenter talks to the camera and delivers commentary that we might be forgiven if we forget that this series was ground-breaking. Nothing quite like it had been achieved before. One of the special features that accompanies the four disc set is the interview with Sir David Attenborough who as the newly appointed Controller for the new BBC Two station had the task of persuading Clark to make the series. The idea was first mooted in 1966. BBC two was scheduled to debut in 1967. As we know, Civilisation ran in the spring of 1969. At that time, the majority of homes in Britain did not have colour television. It was still not that unusual for people to have no television at all.
So as I was following Clark episode by episode while recovering from my surgery, I couldn’t help but sense an odd parallel. My parents were one of those households without a television, and for most of the period the show was airing on British TV, I was either deathly ill in hospital or at home convalescing. Now here I was forty-six years later at long last catching up on what I’d missed, and in many ways looking back at the world of my youth.
How young Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart look in the excerpt from Hamlet (Episode 6: “Protest and Communication”). The streets and galleries of Rome and Florence that Clark is discussing in Civilisation are those that I had myself seen only a year or so before. The view from Assisi was where I had been standing in August 1966. Of course, the views remain, the streets remain, but they are more crowded than forty years ago. I also couldn’t help wondering what Clark would make of the cleaned Sistine Chapel. Even on the relatively small screen of my television, some works look grimy and merging on monochrome. How different the Sistine Chapel ceiling looks now that its colours are once again vivid. Clark didn’t have the experience of seeing the works after restoration. Time passes and society changes. In many ways, the series itself draws attention to this change covering as it does the development, I use the word advisedly, of western, perhaps I should say for the most part European or European inspired, culture. Even at the time, the series was criticised for its European focus. Perhaps it should have been called European Civilisation.
Other aspects of the series remind the viewer that it was made a generation or more ago. Clark talks of “man” and “mankind.” A sensitive contemporary presenter would be far more likely to discuss “humanity” or “men and women.” There are odd gaps, too, in his tracing of the western tradition. Spanish history, culture, and art are given barely a passing nod though much time is devoted to Italy. But then, the series is, as its subtitle indicates, A Personal View, and perhaps it is this very individual aspect of the series that ultimately decided me, as you have no doubt noticed, to root my response very strongly within the realm of my own experience.
This series is very personal even though a viewer today may find Clark to be less than extroverted. He doesn’t move that much other than to take a gentle walk through rooms or to stand looking out over rolling Umbrian hills or across a windy Cheshire plain. His tones are measured, his accent most definitely not regional. Michael Wood and Neil Oliver, for example, reveal more enthusiasm on screen, and compared with Waldemar Januszczak, Clark appears almost static at times. Of the current generation of what for want of a better phrase I might call television academics, Simon Schama probably follows most closely the line of descent from Clark in terms of screen presence.
Despite this somewhat understated persona, Clark nevertheless reveals strong convictions. In the last episode, where he describes himself as a “stick in the mud” he sums up and clearly articulates his moral centre:
I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. (Episode 13: “Heroic Materialism”)
By the end of the series, I was left with a sense of a man who was very clear about his own views on what he saw as Europe’s cultural heritage and who was unafraid of articulating those views. I suppose I might describe him as an idealist, and I can see why Marxist and later post-modernist critics, in particular, would take issue with him. I was also, as I said, left with a certain nostalgia for a time past.
Is this series still worth watching? Yes, I think so. No matter what one’s personal biases, Clark’s influence on art and cultural criticism in the mid-twentieth century cannot be denied. The DVD set comes with Viewing Notes written by Marcus Hearn that detail much of the background to the making of the series. Hearn quotes Julian Barnes writing in The Observer after Clark’s death in May 1983. Commenting on the series, Barnes felt that
if anything is going to date this series it will be its humane decency, its quest for the longer view and the golden thread, its admiration for the great artists. Such beliefs now echo strangely in a world of shrill pundits ignorantly confident about the nature of art and civilisation. (Viewing Notes 17)
Barnes’ view holds true today though I’m not so sure, notice my own doubt here, that we are quite so “shrill” or “confident” as we were in the nineteen-eighties. For Clark, “civilisation depends on man’s extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost” (Episode 1: “The Skin of Our Teeth). What does it depend upon for us? Clark also believed that in a civilised society institutions had to work. If nothing else, this series is worth re/visiting for the way it makes us consider the past and look to the future. As I said earlier, I am ambivalent about the future.
The photos are all my own, and, as you can see, a little like Clark, I’m a little over focused on things Italian.