Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lord Clark's CivilisationKenneth Clark's Civilisation was a 13-part BBC TV documentary originally shown in 1969 (there was also a companion book, shown in the photo above). The program was a great success at the time in Britain, and in the U.S. was shown on Sunday mornings to standing room only crowds at the National Gallery in Washington until the PBS network, which had previously rejected the series as unlikely to appeal to American audiences, picked it up, and it became a pioneering hit in this country as well. It continues to appear regularly on lists of the greatest and best-loved programs of its type. Despite all this notoriety I had been completely unaware of this project until a couple of months ago. It happened that I was reading a few chapters of a modern history, the premise of which was basically that very little of what has been passed down to us over the last several thousand years as History is either accurate or accurately considered, certainly not when compared with the version currently being presented. This particular book took especial issue with the traditional emphasis on the significance of the deeds of Great Men in our civilizational understanding of history, and this nowhere more than in the area of human endeavor broadly know as the Arts. It is not surprising that anyone living in this era, even a scholar, might naturally conclude that Arts of any sort are, and therefore must always have been, a remote and insignificant factor in ordinary people's lives compared to economic and social organization, which is perhaps true, though if so I think in the most prosaic sense of the word, and that is coming from a person who is practically the embodiment of prosaism in every thought or action he undertakes. The book itself was actually called Civilization, in part, the author, whose name unfortunately I cannot recall now, even acknowledged, to set itself in contrast with the Clark series and book and the patrician worldview which informed them. Though Clark was only referenced 5 or 6 times in this recent book it was evident whenever his name came up that the contemplation of his work gave something of a rise to the contemporary scholar; and as I found the approach and manner of this contemporary unlikable and dispiriting--there was not much hint of any sense of brotherhood with or affection for actual human beings, or even representations of actual human beings--I began to think that Clark sounded like he might be the kind of guy I like. Upon this intial consciousness, as so often happens, especially now when one can easily look anything up on the internet, I found that he was referenced all over the place, and in so many such places as I have been poking around for years that it is remarkable I should not have run across him before. At this point I was to beginning to become almost mildly excited, and the next time I went to the library I made a point of looking for the series. It was, indeed, checked out, but they had a copy of the book in storage, so I got that instead.

The book was enjoyable enough. While it is often touted as a "comprehensive survey of Western art and civilization" it actually narrows its focus pretty tightly upon a few examples, favorites of the author, in each epoch, but the choices are almost uniformly interesting, display excellent taste, and are legitimately great works of art or thought that have managed to remain relatively obscure compared with say, the Mona Lisa. Unfortunately I have had to return the book and no longer have it before me, but I remember especially finding the chapter on Bernini enlightening: I had not had a sense previously of what a gigantic as well as idefatigable figure he was in art history (the description of a contemporary opera noted that "Bernini painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, wrote the comedy and built the theater", all of course comparatively at or near the highest level of skill found in all these areas). The description of the Naval College at Greenwich, hardly one of the most famous buildings in London to the general public, and particularly its fantastic Baroque dining room, in which he declared that any society which thought it fit for military students to live in such a building and dine in such rooms must be acknowledged to have a high degree of civilization, also made a strong impression on me. The section on Jefferson and colonial American domestic architecture, of both which phenomena Clark was an admirer, being placed in juxtaposition with the Enlightenment from the European point of view, which is an angle from which I think it is often difficult for Americans to regard their own country, was satisfying if perhaps a little too neat for contemporary acceptance. Indeed most of the book has something of this quality of neatness--Clark states many times that he believes in genius, and I suspect that for him one of the qualities of genius is that it cleans and clarifies the march of history into some more sensible as well as elegant form that really is ultimately more significant than the messy life as experienced day by day. Above all perhaps the book gives the impression that being Kenneth Clark would be a most pleasant way to experience life. He is, as he more or less states in his book, free from much worry about whether his views on anything are 'correct' or not. He is Lord Clark. He is of the class of men that runs not only his own society, but that of a good deal of the entire world's. He has his own castle, he has been exposed to beautiful objects, brilliant people and a very high level of culture from the womb. If you want to take another scholar's or intellectual's word about the meaning or importance of all these things rather than his, his feelings aren't going to be much affected. He knows both the sort of men who made such works and the sort of men for whom they were made intimately enough, moreso certainly than most scholars and mediocre artists ever will. His confidence in his own understanding of that milieu cannot really be shattered in the bourgeois understanding of the word.

All right, I am going to have to do a second post on this. I wanted to get it done in one nice, concise essay, but I just can't do it. Not this week.

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