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Art Wars

Cormac Shine

Civilisations: How Do We Look; The Eye of Faith, by Mary Beard, Profile Books, 240 pp, £15, ISBN: 978-1781259993

Civilisation: A Personal View, by Kenneth Clark, John Murray, 320 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0719568442

The influence of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 television series Civilisation on popular conceptions of Western art history, not to mention on museum coffers, over the last fifty years is undeniable. The landmark BBC series’ impact on the public imagination at large has perhaps only been equalled by Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and David Attenborough’s multiple Life series (Attenborough commissioned Civilisation as controller of BBC Two).

Although less well-known than these other efforts today, Clark’s series is the original of the species – proving to those that followed that cerebral, long-form documentaries could achieve mass popularity, aided by the new possibilities offered by colour television. The fact that the introduction to the 2018 reissue of Clark’s companion book was written by Alastair Sooke, a broadcaster and art critic born twelve years after the series first aired, is testament to this influence.

Despite this enduring influence, Civilisation has been the subject of strong criticism almost since its release. The controversy lies in Clark’s skewed definition of the term itself. In his review of the book upon its original release, Irish Times literary editor Terence de Vere White bluntly summed up the apparent crux of Clark’s perspective: “The jungle tribes of Africa have produced arresting art ... But the statuary of the Hellenic period embodies a higher state of civilisation than African carvings.”

Clark was self-consciously vague as to what comprised this “higher state of civilisation”, instead intermittently relying on inchoate terms like permanence, order, genius, and forgiveness. This vagueness gave him the freedom to explore vast terrain, as was his stated intention, but his critics correctly point to the fact that, whatever his definition, it appeared to have little to no room for anything outside of the Western European tradition. Clark’s was the most classical, the most traditional view of the classical tradition. Barbarian hordes were invoked throughout the early stages of the series, while Viking culture was briefly illustrated and summarily dismissed early on for its lack of permanence. Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were scarcely mentioned at all (not to mention Spain, whose history Clark could not reconcile with his views on European civilisation, despite its own considerable cultural heritage).

It is within this context, at turns revered and reviled, that, almost fifty years later, historians Mary Beard, David Olusoga, and Simon Schama have produced a follow-up series, the pointedly pluralised Civilisations, which hopes to capture the public’s imagination in much the same way while incorporating a broader sweep of humanity. Like Clark before her, Beard has produced a companion book to the two episodes of the new series helmed by her.

Reviewing these works together gives us the opportunity to address Clark and Beard’s positions within their respective intellectual traditions. Both are august public intellectuals, for whom unlikely but widespread fame has come relatively late in life, after decades of serious scholarly endeavour. And both are armed with a true talent for public communication across a variety of mediums. 

Yet, these similarities aside, Beard and Clark are strikingly different in their views and approaches – in ways that unexpectedly capture the intellectual tenor and conflict of their times. Clark, the pseudo-Edwardian antiquarian clad in tweeds, looked just as out of place on TV screens in 1969 as he would today – an almost impossibly quaint concoction to most viewers’ eyes, however authentic and sincere his patrician bearing.

Born to a wealthy Scottish merchant family, Clark took his undergraduate degree in history at Trinity College, Oxford. After a stint as assistant to the Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson, he became director of the National Gallery at thirty, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures shortly afterwards, and was knighted at thirty-five.

By 1969, then in his late sixties, Clark was an experienced art historian, curator, and broadcaster, certain of his views on culture and eager to impart them. Throughout his work, in Sooke’s words, “Clark is unconsciously promoting values that, today, we associate with the tub-thumping mythology of the British Empire.” But this connoisseurial, self-proclaimed “stick-in-the-mud” saw his ode to orderliness debut in the tumult of the late 1960s – the world of chaotic student protests, race riots, the Vietnam War, and Woodstock. It is no leap of faith to say that his opinions were already somewhat out of step with the ascendant intellectual order by the time they first aired.

The informal and eminently approachable Beard, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern public intellectual. Already a long-time classics don, in 2004 she became professor of classics at Cambridge University, where she has spent almost her entire career since coming to Newnham College as an undergraduate. The following year, she began writing a regular blog, “A Don’s Life”, for the Times Literary Supplement, granting her a platform from which she could effortlessly explore a wide range of topics beyond the immediate purview of her day job.

Her relatively early adoption of digital communication gave her the opportunity to adapt to the interactive nature of the medium, a skill that has transferred to her embrace of Twitter and other new methods of public education. As a result, over the ensuing decade, she has become something of a feminist and academic icon for our own information-overloaded, social media-addled time, gamely trying both to educate the public about the past and to raise the level of online discourse in the present – sometimes getting it wrong and, unfortunately, often facing a daily stream of abuse for her efforts.

This commitment to a two-way dialogue between teacher and student leaks directly into Beard’s thesis in Civilisations. For her, art is very much a conversation between object and spectator, whereas Clark often relies upon monologue when describing the one-sided artistic genius of a succession of Great Men down through the ages. In broad strokes, this is the key difference between the two authors – the latter focuses on a more or less linear narrative of great European artists and their place within the Western canon, while the former places an explicit focus on the viewer’s experience of any piece of art within its original context – at once turning on its head the Civilisation narrative in favour of a more expansive and episodic take on the nebulous idea of civilisation.

Perhaps to underline this difference, and to escape his long shadow as swiftly as possible, Beard explicitly rebukes Clark’s view of civilisation in her very first paragraph, at a stroke highlighting the effect five decades of social, political, intellectual, and critical upheaval have had on our perception of art and many things besides.

Such a contrast between two academics separated by fifty years in any field would be unsurprising. Yet, while these works are often contradictory in their arguments, they can and should be read somewhat complementarily, as both contain valuable insights. Clark’s Civilisation, despite the misleadingly universal ambitions of its grandiose title, is more a potted history of European high art over the last 1,500 years or so – something he is at pains to admit himself in the foreword, so chastened was he even by the initial reaction to his mislabelling of the endeavour. Beard’s book is far more wide-ranging in its intentions, mining material far deeper in terms of both time and space, and necessarily taking a more thematic approach as a result.

Thus, a typical chapter of Clark’s – say, “The Hero as Artist” – paints a vivid picture of High Renaissance Rome, and the genius of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonard da Vinci. This builds on the previous chapter’s consideration of the roots of the Renaissance in Florence and the works of Van Eyck, Botticelli, and others; and tees up the next chapter, which explores the effect of the Reformation on the arts this time mostly in northern Europe and England. Clark’s thesis, his belief “in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and ... a society that makes their existence possible”, sanctifies the great artist and places him (for it is always a him) in a pantheon of successive masters to be revered through the ages.

By contrast, Beard’s “How Do We Look?” jumps from prehistoric sculpture in Mexico to the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt in the fourteenth century BC; later to the evolution of Greek sculpture into the classical mode; onwards to the terracotta warriors of Qin China; and so on. The concept that ties these geographically and temporally disparate threads together is Beard’s focus on the intended audience’s experience of each given artwork – whether that audience is subject or ruler. While Clark’s thesis allows for a tightly cohesive narrative, Beard is naturally happy to trade this in for a more scattered account in support of her own, very different argument – which follows an established tradition of its own.

That first question posed by Beard, “How Do We Look?”, recalls John Berger’s 1972 series and book Ways of Seeing, itself conceived as an explicit rejoinder to the conservative, Clarkean conception of civilised art. Such is the pervasiveness of Civilisation. Indeed, Clark’s indirect influence looms large elsewhere in the current TV series – the final, Simon Schama-helmed episode is entitled “The Vital Spark”, which in exploring “the fate of art in the machine- and profit-driven world” necessarily treads much the same ground as Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New, which gave modern art the Civilisation treatment to equally captivating effect.

Yet Beard refuses to simply be defined by opposition to Clark, as is evident in her consideration of “The Eye of Faith”, which addresses the complex intersection between faith and art in the second half of her book. This section takes a much broader tack than Clark does on the same topic, taking in a host of world religions and thus covering more terrain than Civilisation’s focus on Christianity within the European context.

But here, at points, Beard’s ambitious argument stretches a little too thin. In concluding her chapter on the cultural destruction and religious upheaval that followed the Reformation in England, for example, she writes of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel, defaced by sixteenth-century iconoclasts:

Liberated, you might almost say, from the figures of saints, kings and prophets that once crowded its walls, and with its clear stainless windows, the Lady Chapel has been transformed into another version of beauty. In its current state it is a tremendously aesthetically pleasing space: not only light and airy, but a marvellous mixture of austerity and decoration, a fine balance between destruction and creation. We owe that to the iconoclasts.

Poetic indeed, but Beard’s throwaway defence of iconoclasm, although perhaps intended simply to make us question our implicit assumptions, is jarring nonetheless. Clark, for whom “creation [is] better than destruction”, was unsurprisingly less accommodating of iconoclasm, during the Reformation or any other period. In his words, the Reformation, “from the point of view of those who love what they see, was an unmitigated disaster”.

One might at first simply attribute this characterisation to Clark’s own faith, since he harboured a lifelong personal and professional fascination with the church, and converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Yet Clark’s analysis was not blinkered by his own beliefs, and he often differentiated between the church’s celestial claims and its coercive, earthly power. For example, when he argued that “western civilisation was basically the creation of the Church”, he was careful to note that he meant this in the sense of the church as a temporal, almost imperial power, and not as “the repository of Christian truth and spiritual experience”.

Yet one needn’t be as devout as Clark to be shocked by acts of iconoclasm – even if he did conclude that the vandalism of Ely “had to happen” to avoid petrification, in service of his own civilisational argument. If Beard’s intention is to provoke, it simply underlines the revulsion we associate with cultural destruction, whether that be in early modern England or present-day Syria. It follows, from both works, that art truly matters, and artworks can retain a visceral, tangible presence for centuries, even when their original context is obscured, rejected, or forgotten.

Overall, neither work provides a simple answer to the question “What is civilisation?” – nor is that the point. Both of them do, however, educate and provoke more questions in the reader’s mind than easy answers, in markedly divergent styles. Nevertheless, despite their substantive differences, both authors have produced highly readable companion books to their respective series, which are markedly improved by considering them as a somewhat uneasy pairing. To be sure, the inherent limitations of approaching vast topics within the space of two or three hundred pages are clear at points in both works.

By Clark’s own admission, his text paled in comparison to the vivid Technicolor beauty of his TV series, as he was hard pressed to condense and repackage thirteen hours of highly visual television into three hundred pages. As a result, it feels more like a whistle-stop tour at times, and is very much the junior partner to his beautifully shot series, whose exceptional production values still hold up. Yet, despite its well-documented interpretive flaws, his work is still of value half a century on. Here we have more than a millennium of European high art distilled into easily digestible form – an impressive achievement in and of itself. Clark’s mistake was to imply that this achievement encompassed something akin to civilisation in its entirety.

Beard’s book, working off only two hours of television, achieves the opposite effect – helping us expand upon and better understand the strident theses she put forward in her episodes of the current series, even if not all of them hit the mark. Nevertheless, both authors manage an easy prose, which belies the ambitious scope of their works, and conveys their common skill as mass communicators of often complex ideas. Both books are well worth a read – and all the better if read together.

1/6/2018

Cormac Shine is a former writer and historian based in Ireland. Educated in Dublin and Geneva, his academic research most recently appeared in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

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