The return of Kenneth Clark's trailblazing television series
Radiating out from the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1969, historian Kenneth Clark’s 13-part grand tour of European culture, Civilisation, was a watershed moment in British television history and in arts broadcasting. It might have faded a bit, but Clark’s erudite and awkward figure still echoes through arts television and catches the public imagination.
Testament to this persistent taste for educating and entertaining authority figures, when bbc Director-General Tony Hall recently announced plans for a Civilisation reboot, amid a number of other arts-related projects, it was Civilisation 2.0 that was picked up by news outlets, excitedly wondering who the new host might be. Frontrunners included the classicist Professor Mary Beard, British Museum director Neil MacGregor and journalist Andrew Marr, while other commentators claimed that it would be impossible to find anyone capable of filling Clark’s polymathic shoes: he was an art historian, Director of the National Gallery and Chairman of both the Arts Council and the Independent Television Authority. In a cultural world-alignment, an exhibition opened at London’s Tate Britain in May this year, ‘Kenneth Clark: Looking For Civilisation’, which examined his role as a private patron.
Despite Civilisation’s dated approach, a drama runs through the series that’s intriguing, even endearing, to a broad audience. Much of this is down to the figure of Clark — not Kenneth Clark the man (who died in 1983, aged 79), but a version of himself devised for television, albeit one with a particular dramatic sensibility. In one viewing of Civilisation, Clark is a tweed-wrapped fuddy-duddy touring Europe, self-consciously posing next to selected art works while delivering overwrought conjectures with aristocratic authority. Clark as King Midas inverted: the man with the wooden touch. From another viewpoint, Civilisation joins the ranks of artefacts that it once addressed. Clark’s awkward silences and postures combine with the programme’s slow pans, bumpy tracking shots and hammy montages to form something more telling of its present and ours than the drily detached lecture on the history of western ‘mahn’ that many suppose Civilisation was meant to be.
A segment of the first episode, ‘By the Skin of our Teeth’, shows Clark standing next to the Oseberg longship, sheltered in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum. Through a feat of television magic, Clark was transported there via Scotland, from outside Notre Dame de Paris, where he was imagining the mind-bending fear that old Parisians must have felt when they saw the figure-head of the ship on the waters of the Seine. Now, its dark wooden hull floats out of the museum’s shadows, looming above the small figure of Clark. An uncomfortably long sequence shot in close-up shows him stroking the engraved prow of the ship, his slender fingers lightly tracing the grooves as if the demobilized hulk were a reminder of those civilisation-wreckers whose violence is always on the horizon.
‘By the Skin of our Teeth’ is Clark’s manifesto for the series: civilisation has only ever just made it through history: ‘It can end, no matter how stable it seems or complex it feels,’ he declares. There are enemies of civilisation, Clark says: ‘Fear of war, invasion and plague; the fear that it is simply not worth constructing things, planting things […] Fear of the supernatural, you daren’t question anything or change anything.’ Also boredom: ‘The feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people with a high degree of prosperity.’ Teleporting through European history, Civilisation is fraught with anxieties about progress and destruction that are just as strong today. Clark offsets his neuroses and pessimism with art. Beauty — already a fusty notion at the time of the show’s broadcast — is a consolation for this horrible world.
Clark spends a lot of time fondling things, whether they’re the ones he is attracted to or the ones he fears. One Civilisation cameraman, in discussion with historian John Cronin, describes a segment in episode seven, ‘Grandeur and Obedience’, where Clark paws Giovanni Bernini’s marble Apollo and Daphne (1622–25) at length: ‘He just keeps stroking it […] it looks almost manic, sexual.’ Beyond the weaving of television magic there’s a hint of an occultic sensibility vibrating through Civilisation. ‘I can’t say what civilisation is … yet,’ he says, but Clark knows it when he sees it, feels it emanating from the objects he caresses.
One segment of episode 12, ‘Fallacies of Hope’, becomes hallucinatory. A clock counts the seconds in a grand drawing room; its tick-tocks and chimes become overbearing. Clark strolls through the space, hands in pockets: ‘A finite, reasonable world. Symmetrical, consistent, enclosed […] That’s the trouble. An enclosed world becomes a prison of the spirit. One longs to get out, one longs to move.’ In one of the only moments of dramatic music, an orchestral chord descends into the narrative. Clark perks up: ‘What is that I hear? That note of urgency, of indignation, of spiritual hunger?’ Looking up at the heavens through the ceiling he realizes: ‘Yes, it’s Beethoven! It’s the sound of European man once more reaching for something beyond his grasp. We must leave this trim, finite room and go to confront the infinite.’
Civilisation hallucinates civilisation. Clark’s grand tour is a trip and somewhere along the way he loses Spain and Portugal, and forgets pretty much all of womankind. But the show was never intended to be objective: it was ‘A Personal View’. Those commissioning it included David Attenborough and Stephen Hearst (who would also commission John Berger’s 1972 series Ways of Seeing, a Marxist-influenced response to Civilisation’s men-of-genius narrative). Attenborough — himself a great propagandist — must have known that Clark could only produce this figure of himself: patrician authority, class privilege and detachment, busy acting out what theorist Raymond Williams described as ‘a long last gathering up, by sad and polished minds, of an Edwardian world-view; an enacting of pieties learned very young and very hard, and now with all the emphasis of a public corporation’.
Forty-five years later, much of the globe actively produces its own dramatic audio-visual versions of the world. This flattening- out of experience and sound-tracking of emotional life is now deeply internalized and microscopically personalized, an effect of ascendant online communication and its unprecedented saturation of audiovisual content, as well as social media’s streamlining of private personalities into public identities. Entire historical eras can be viewed as databases of actors’ postures, sweeping scores, edits and cuts, understood and interpreted down to minute twitches and imperfections, and exactly reenacted. We’ve always needed to create a public face for ourselves so as to try and take part in the drama of the world. Now that process is rooted in the dramatics of video and sound-bites, polemics and confessions delivered through screens. A self as strangely constructed as Clark’s talking head.
Speaking with the Director of BBC Arts, Jonty Claypole, it becomes evident how many narrative strands and cultural fragments a broadcaster like the BBC must represent. Convincing, singular voices help cohere disparate constellations of ideas. For Claypole, Civilisation’s legacy is both ‘a blessing and a curse’. It reheats misleading notions about a ‘golden age’ of broadcasting, distracting from current productions, programmes for which Claypole is eager to give a robust defence. ‘We’ve never been so active!’ he says, as he whips out a tablet and reads off numerous productions. When asked how the BBC is thinking about updating Civilisation, Claypole replies that it won’t be telling one man’s story, but rather the story of how different people understand the idea of civilisation itself in different ways. It’s a clear indication of the changes that have taken place since 1969.
As the mainstream art world enters a new phase of popularity, mass media and television give hints about where this complex of organizations might go. Private patronage and collecting will remain one influence, but the leading beacon for communicating with a broad audience will reside in large institutions, like Tate or the Museum of Modern Art, ones with enough momentum and skilled staff to become broadcasting organizations in their own rights, with a revised understanding of what broadcasting means.
But who will the new figures and voices of knowledge be? What presentable body will our constellation of different practices and dynamics create? Just as the role of the artist has rightly undergone much criticism, how will we critique and understand a figure that constantly mutates and shifts its body and voice in the blink of an eye?
First published in Issue 3