The BBC has decided to attempt to rebut Kenneth Clark’s magisterial tour d’horizon of Western Art, the 13-part 1969 television series “Civilization.” This rejoinder on behalf of our contemporary Woke Multicultural Establishment begins appearing Tuesday evening in the United States on PBS.
Kenneth Clark singlehandedly took viewers from Greek Antiquity to the 20th Century, but correcting Clark’s Eurocentric emphasis on Dead White Great Men apparently requires three presenters: Classicist Mary Beard, the talented (but respectably progressive) historian Simon Schama, and (the Nigerian and therefore full-fledged representative of the viewpoint of persons and cultures of Color) David Olusoga.
Andrew Ferguson, at the Weekly Standard, has seen the series, and warns us what to expect:
[Civilizations] is kind of Clark-like â€”a catalogue of glorious creations followed by a vision of an art form in an advanced state of spiritual exhaustion. The difference is that the decline of an art form saddened Clark. Each of the episodes of Civilisations that Iâ€™ve seen ends with a celebratory profile of a contemporary artist. Invariably their work suffers in comparison with whatâ€™s gone beforeâ€”how could it not?â€”but the moments serve a summary purpose.
The episode called â€œHow Do We Look?â€ closes with Kehinde Wiley, the artist who recently completed the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama. The narrator describes Wiley as a practitioner of â€œthe modern art of the body,â€ which â€œdraws its powerâ€ from â€œchallenging the tradition of classical art.â€ Of course he lives in Brooklyn but â€œhe has traveled all over the world to explore the legacy of colonialism and the different ways we see.â€ Suddenly we see him in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, moving from masterpiece to masterpiece. A tinny ensemble plays Vivaldiâ€”a fusty reminder of the distant past. â€œI love the history of art,â€ he tells the camera. â€œI love looking at these beautiful images. But I also recognize that thereâ€™s something quite sinister about their past.â€
â€œSinisterâ€ sounds judgmental, doesnâ€™t it? So judgmental indeed that I donâ€™t think even Clark used it at all in his Civilisation. But it nicely summarizes the attitude toward the West that viewers of the new Civilisations will find unavoidable, even if theyâ€™re confident enough to find it unpersuasive.
Next to life-enhancing, the most important word in Clarkâ€™s account of civilization was confidence. Several things came together to make a civilization, Clark said: a measure of material prosperity, a sense of history, a range of vision, and a feeling of permanence, of being situated in a particular moment between past and future, that makes it worthwhile to construct things meant to last.
â€œBut far more,â€ he said, â€œit requires confidenceâ€”confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, confidence in oneâ€™s own mental powers.â€ His program was an effort to persuade his audience that confidence in their inherited civilization was well-earned.
In the closing moments of the final episode of Civilisation, Clark intended to strike a note of optimism. â€œWhen I look at the world about me in the light of these programs, I donâ€™t at all feel as though we are entering on a new period of barbarism,â€ he said. He shows us the campus of the then-new University of East Anglia. Apple-cheeked college students pop in and out of classrooms, labor over booksâ€”the baby boomers as Clark hoped they were in 1969. â€œThese inheritors of all our catastrophes look cheerful enough. . . . In fact, I should doubt if so many people have ever been as well-fed, as well-read, as bright-minded, as curious, and as critical as the young are today.â€
Watching at home, we can assume, was the 14-year-old Mary Beard, all a-tingle and raring to go to college herself, where she could use her curiosity and reading and bright-mindedness to prove the great man and his theory wrong.
A recent biography of Kenneth Clark and his “Civilization” series was recently discussed here.