Remember Kenneth Clark’s magisterial tour d’horizon of Western Art, the thirteen-part Civilization documentary television series that appeared on the BBC in 1969 and in America on PBS in 1970?
The New York Review of Books is reviewing the 2016 James Stourton biography, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, just being released now in the U.S.
Kenneth Clark is an interesting biographical subject, a talented and fortunate fellow who lived a rich and glamorous life devoted to the appreciation and explication of the Fine Arts. But I was even more struck by the reviewer’s, Richard Dorment, a former Art Critic for the British Telegraph, bald opening discussion of just how far contemporary academic fashion has left behind Kenneth Clark and the Civilization he so brilliantly described.
Once the most celebrated art historian in the world, Kenneth Clarkâ€™s star began to fade in the 1980s when a new generation of scholars rejected the object-based scholarship he epitomized and began to study works of art using Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytical theory. When Clark placed a painting or a building in its historical setting it was to understand more fully how and why it was made, and what it meant to those who first saw it.
Theory-based art history takes the opposite approach: broadly speaking, the scholar is interested in the work of art not as an end in itself but for what its making might tell us about the society that created it, particularly its attitudes toward subjects like race, gender, and social inequality. This kind of art history is taught in most universities on both sides of the Atlantic today. The scholarship Clark represented survives mainly in some museums and exhibition catalogs. Whereas his books were once required reading in undergraduate courses, many are now out of print. Civilization, the television show that introduced millions of people around the world to art history and lit the spark that led to the mass popularity museums and galleries enjoy today, is largely forgotten.
One shudders in horror to realize that it has come to this, that it is our fate to live in such a time, when the enemy of Civilization is not only within the gates, but occupying all the leading academic chairs and in control of all the leading museums, cultural institutions, and even the book reviews.
Kenneth Clark would shake his noble head in annoyance, then smile ruefully and say: “Oh well, after all, this, too, shall pass!”