Kenneth Clark’s “Civilisation”: Priceless Lessons from “A Stick in the Mud”

Civilisation by Kenneth Clark (1969, John Murray)

I first heard of Kenneth Clark (1903-1983)—the British art historian best known for his 13-part BBC documentary series Civilisation (1969)—in 2011. I watched all the episodes some time in 2012 but only recently went through the companion volume Civilisation: A Personal View. Clark, who had served as the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the National Gallery in London, presents a sweeping and fascinating survey of Western Europe in this project—from the fall of the Roman Empire up till the post-Marxist situation. He makes sense of society through the lens of art (mostly visual and concrete) and offers a subjective assessment of the flow of ideas.

I am yet to come across another documentary on history and culture that matches the class and sophistication of this one. The title of the series was troubling for the art historian and broadcaster. While the word “civilisation” proved stimulating it also seemed enormous and ambiguous. Clark admits in the book that his coverage is concentrated, that he was unable to engage with classical antiquity and the East due to a combination of limited resources and limited knowledge.

Kenneth Clark, Wikipedia [Fair Use]
The series was very much inspired by a quote from John Ruskin: “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 three the only trustworthy one is the last.”

The 13 episodes/chapters of the series go as follows: (1) The Skin of Our Teeth, (2) The Great Thaw, (3) Romance and Reality, (4) Man: The Measure of All Things, (5) The Hero as Artist, (6) Protest and Communication, (7) Grandeur and Obedience, (8) The Light of Experience, (9) The Pursuit of Happiness, (10) The Smile of Reason, (11) The Worship of Nature, (12) The Fallacies of Hope and (13) Heroic Materialism. You can read the summaries on the outline provided on Wikipedia.

The cast of characters in the documentary is huge and I cannot mention and dwell upon them here. But I feel there are two portions from the book that must be shared –

From the opening chapter “The Skin of our Teeth” – What is civilisation for Clark? How does a civilisation fall? And what does it need to survive?:

Civilisation means something more than energy and will and creative power: something the early Norsemen hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. The wanderers and invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn’t feel the need to look beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn’t occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books…Civilised man, or so it seems to me, must feel that he belongs somewhere in space and time; that he consciously looks forward and looks back. And for this purpose it is a great convenience to be able to read and write.

“The wanderers and invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn’t feel the need to look beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn’t occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books…” [Painting: The Norsemen (1921) by Max Bohm]

[…]

 

Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little leisure. But far more, it requires confidence – confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers.

 

[…]

 

So if one asks why the civilisation of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.

“So if one asks why the civilisation of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.” (Photo: The Colosseum, Rome by User “Diliff”, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

From the closing chapter “Heroic Materialism” – Clark on the importance of institutions followed by his personal philosophy:

Naturally, these bright-minded young people [of 1960s England] think poorly of existing institutions and want to abolish them. Well, one doesn’t need to be young to dislike institutions. But the dreary fact remains that, even in the darkest ages, it was institutions that made society work, and if civilisation is to survive society must somehow be made to work.

“…the dreary fact remains that, even in the darkest ages, it was institutions that made society work…” (Photo: Ruins of an Irish abbey, Pixabay)

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud, I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

Here’s a clip from the episode of “Heroic Materialism”:

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Learn more about Kenneth Clark on the following links: “The Seductive Enthusiasm of Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation'” (The New Yorker) and “Modern critics could learn a lot from Kenneth Clark” (Guardian), “Why the BBC will Never Match Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation” (Spectator).

See also a panel that discusses the work of Clark at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London:

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Image Credit:

Featured: The School of Athens by Raphael (detail), Wikimedia Commons

 


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