Monday, June 23, 2014

Civilisation

One of the most interesting series I remember ever watching was Civilisation, developed and narrated by Kenneth Clark. I knew a lot about the history of Western civilization but wasn't particularly well-tutored about its art. The series, developed for the BBC, was an instance of what they did best, but, as the writer of "Kenneth Clark - Looking for Civilisation" argues, probably couldn't be done today. Amazon has the DVDs (I don't) and also the book that accompanied the series, Civilisation: A Personal View,  which is magnificently illustrated (I do have that). The book appears to be available only second-hand. From the New Criterion essay about a current exhibition in London at the Tate:
Clark is perhaps best known for his television series Civilisation, a Personal View (1969), a democratic exercise that introduced more people in Britain to the arts than any previous broadcast or, indeed, publication. The programs traced European culture from the end of the Roman Empire to contemporary times. They were serious, scholarly, and immensely popular programs and made Clark famous not just in Britain but in the sixty other countries in which they were shown. ....

Kenneth Clark saw John Constable as Britain’s greatest painter—indeed, as the only one who could be said to match the best of the Continental European artists. He shared Constable’s love of nature and respected his attempts to capture the ever-changing patterns of sky, clouds, and light, which Clark saw as a distinctly English speciality, one brought about by the turmoil of the local weather, in which the sky changes even as it is being looked at. It was Clark who purchased Constable’s great romantic painting Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames—Morning after a Stormy Night (1829) for the National Gallery. ....
It is fitting that there should be an exhibition celebrating Clark’s life and major achievements, for since his death he has had his detractors, many of them enemies of civilization, and of Western civilization in particular. A majority of them are equality-mongers, offended by Clark’s explicit view that the arts are “incurably aristocratic” and that aesthetic decisions cannot be made by a committee but require the connoiseur. If there were a remake of his celebrated television series, the politically correct mandarins of broadcasting in today’s United Kingdom would not employ an urbane presenter with a posh accent and expensive bespoke suits. .... [more]