Monday, November 17, 2014

A review of Kenneth Clark's “Civilisation”

"Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others. But of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last."

John Ruskin, a 19th-century art critic

So I recently finished watching Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" (spelled the British way), a documentary series about the history of Western art. Before I begin my review of it, I should give a disclaimer that I know virtually nothing about visual art - I have never taken an art class, nor a photography class, nor an art history class. I play a little piano and do a little writing, so I have some experience with non-visual arts after a fashion; but I know next to nothing about the more visual arts. I don't even particularly like looking at most art, lacking an appreciation for it; and in my adulthood, I found out the reason why: I have, quite simply, very little visual intelligence. When taking tests of my intelligence, I scored in the medium range for math and in somewhat higher ranges for language - scores which corresponded to my later scores on the GRE's - but I tested in the bottom 1 percent of the population for visual-spatial intelligence. This would explain why I've never been that interested in scenery, or why I didn't like my geometry class in high school - I am just not a visual person.

I am, however, a history buff; which is what attracted me to this series. I thought I'd shore up this intellectual weakness of mine by learning about art history, which is an excellent prism for talking about the history of mankind generally. Kenneth Clark opens this series with an interesting quote from John Ruskin, the 19th-century art critic, who said: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others. But of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last." This may be overstating the case a little bit - I often find words a trustworthy way of understanding people, and deeds even moreso. (In the admittedly cliché words of an old saying: "Actions speak louder than words.") But nonetheless, you can find out a lot about a people by studying their art. It tells you a lot about their values, their ideas, and their culture; and art history is thus an excellent way to gain insight into a people.

In eleven hours of television, Kenneth Clark helped me to shore up this intellectual weakness of mine, and gives what I've heard described as a fairly traditional view of Western art history - a traditionalism that is both derided by Marxist radicals like John Berger, and praised by political conservatives such as myself. Kenneth Clark was a political conservative, who referred once in the series to "the moral and intellectual failure of Marxism." This influenced both his love for Western culture, and his decision to focus the series on Western art - rather than on the art of other cultures, like India, China, or Japan. Many of Clark's most vocal critics are liberals who favor political correctness, who find ethnocentrism in his exclusive focus on the West, in a documentary entitled "Civilisation." Liberals find ethnocentrism in virtually everything about the West - so often, in fact, as to destroy all credibility whatsoever in their ability to diagnose it. Thus, their opinions are (as usual) uninformed, and need not be taken seriously by anyone.

The documentary starts at the fall of the Roman Empire, and spans to the "present time" - which, at the time this was made, was 1969. As is often the case with epic histories, the modern stuff is somewhat weaker, as its focus on "the present" sometimes becomes rather dated. Even beyond the obvious difference in hairstyles one sees in the contemporary footage, there is espousal of the then-popular view that machines were getting out of control, and would soon run men's lives. This idea has now fallen into disrepute; but in fairness to Kenneth Clark, he was not the only one to hold such views, as they were also popular among the many liberals of that time, whose moral and political ignorance has been passed on to their descendants today. But this is probably the most obvious example of the now-dated aspects of their dealing with "the present," and the documentary thus shares the common flaw in epic histories - namely, weakness in dealing with contemporary issues.

Kenneth Clark

Yet even the modern episode has some interesting things to say, and his understanding of his own time is not entirely uninformed - he does, after all, get "the moral and intellectual failure of Marxism" right; and he doesn't see the contemporary crises of the Cold War as being necessarily any worse than the crises of the past. Like any thinking person, he was concerned about the prospect of nuclear war; although he doesn't fall into the popular trap of exaggerating it, as was popular with the liberal "Chicken Littles" of that time. The older episodes are even more interesting, with discussions of the art of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment (among others). Whether talking about famous architecture like the Sistine Chapel, famous sculpture like Michelangelo's "David," or famous paintings like the portraits of Rembrandt; one learns a lot about the cultural heritage of Western Europe, and the many ideas reflected in its art.

Interior of Sistine Chapel

Rembrandt self-portrait

Though the series focuses mainly on the visual arts, there is also some discussion of the other art forms of those times, such as classical music, literature, and poetry - not to mention philosophy and religion. Kenneth Clark's intellectual focus was art history, but he also knew a fair amount about these other artistic mediums, and he was generally a very intellectual person with a high degree of knowledge. When he mentions related issues like natural science and economics, he is quick to say that he doesn't know much about these things; which is actually itself a great indicator of his knowledge - he is educated enough to realize the extent of his own ignorance. I don't know much about art history, and I would be worse than merely uninformed if I claimed to be knowledgeable about it - I would actually be misinformed, falsely believing that I had knowledge which I did not. "He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors," in the words of Thomas Jefferson; and in the words of Thomas Sowell, "It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance."

Jefferson's home at Monticello (shown in documentary)

One of the other things that helps Mr. Clark's credibility is that he emphasized the subjective nature of his series. The full title of the documentary is "Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark." All art is, by its very nature, a subjective phenomenon; and the only objective things about it are things like how many inches the painting measures, the latitude and longitude coordinates of its location, or the dates in which it was painted. Unless you confine your series to such virtually irrelevant data as these, the series is bound to be subjective. It actually takes a fair amount of maturity to admit this - how many art critics see it as "objectively true" that a particular work of art is a fantastic one, or that another work of art is a flop - as though the particular merits of anything could be proved the way gravity can be proved? If you can think of a disturbing number of such people - and there are a fair number in the art world - you can see why it is a sign of great maturity to emphasize in the title that this is a "personal view" and nothing more. All art and all art criticism is subjective - the best critics just admit it.

So all in all, a great series, which helps you to gain a better understanding of both art and general Western history. The documentary style is somewhat dated now, but that is part of its charm - this is a great series for learning a lot about the history of the West, and this is highly recommended to both art aficionados and history buffs.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (PBS)

Ken Burns' "Jazz" (PBS series)

Alistair Cooke's "America" (BBC series)

Available on YouTube
(see first episode below)

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