Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Civilisation My Arse, Sir Kenneth!

Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983, the art critic and historian, OM, CH, KCB, FBA -- in other words: about as upper-crusty British as one could be without actually belonging to the royal family -- probably best known, like Carl Sagan and J Bronowski, for a public-television series, in Clark's case entitled "Civilisation," and the book associated with the series, Ah say Ah say Kenneth Clark seems to have been a very nice, very charming man. I probably would've liked him if I'd ever known him, it seems that most people did. But then, would a common "unwashed" American "ethnic" person such as myself ever actually have met Clark? He may have had staff members charged primarily with the duty to see to it that such meetings never took place. He may well have spent most of his time in the company of royals, and very little time with anyone who was not titled.

Such insulation would help to explain the nature of his work. I do not like Clark's work. I do not like it in a tree, I do not like it with a bee, I do not like it with a crutch, I do not like it very much, I do not like it here or there, I do not like it anywhere, I do not like it with grape jam, I do not like it, Sam I Am! Bertrand Russell boldly asserts that the ancient Greeks invented philosophy. Whatever the Egyptians and Chinese and Indians and other were doing before Thales & Co,. it wasn't philosophy, according to Russell. I think Russell is wrong about that. Way wrong. Well, Clark goes Russell one better and asserts that the ancient Greeks invented civilisation. What is often referred to as Western civilisation is the only truly civilized state of things, according to Clark. Clark also repeats the traditional Western mistake of missing how tenuous is the connection between ancient Greek and the modern West, and not only tenuous, but very much dependent upon the links of Moslem and Byzantine culture, which kept the legacy of Greek philosophy and science and literature and art alive while the West sank into very deep and dark barbarism indeed. Islam is cited only 3 times in the index of Civilisation, China and Japan not at all, Africa only that one time at the beginning, where Clark politely puts down the civilisation represented by that African mask about which he apparently knows nothing, about which he clearly wishes to know nothing.

At this point people may want to defend Clark by saying that "Civilisation"/Civilisation is only about Western civilisation. Yes, clearly it is. But Clark could've called it Western Civilisation. He didn't. He also doesn't mention all the long list of things that the West has taken from other cultures and then claimed as its own. No, he's one of the ones ignorantly claiming them.

At the beginning of Civilization, the book and television series, Clark is in Paris, the center of his idea of civilization. He talks about how in the 9th century, Vikings -- not civilized, according to Clark -- almost captured Paris, and oh what a calamity that would've been! Then he shows a picture of an ancient Greek sculpture of Apollo, and asserts that it represents a much higher state of civilisation than an African mask. (If Clark had any idea what part of Africa the mask came from, or what it represented, or anything else about it, he kept all that info to himself.) (That is my sarcastic way of pointing out that Clark was pretty ignorant of the African culture he was disparaging in his pleasant and polite way.)

Clark asserts that civilsation is something you can feel. In, I think, a very similar way, Oswald Spengler asserts in the Untergang des Abendlandes that race is something you can feel. I don't feel what Clark or Spengler is feeling, but in both cases I feel the presence of bigotry.

Let's get back to Paris and the Vikings -- would it have been such a calamity if the Vikings had taken Paris? Would that act have threatened to extinguish civilisation, as Clark implies?

What the fuck was so civilised about Paris in the ninth century? The Carolingians were busily waging war against each other and destroying the Empire Charlemagne had established. The kings and nobles were not caring well for their peasants. The economy was still mostly barter. A lot of people starved to death. Civilisation my ass. Having the Vikings take over could've actually improved things in lots of ways. They didn't want to plunder and destroy like the Huns or the Conquistadors -- or like the Carolingians were still for the most part attempting to do, except that Charlemagne's descendants weren't nearly as good at waging war as he was, and were primarily waging futile war against each other, whereas Charlemagne at least had pacified the very large area under his control -- the Vikings wanted to rule, and they ruled pretty well, from England to Russia and lots of places in between.

In the ninth century the Vikings were still un-Christian and illiterate. I don't think the non-Christianity was a bad thing. I would agree with Clark that literacy is a good thing. However, I think it was a bad thing that the Christian Church had such a thorough monopoly on literacy in Western Europe at the time. For one thing, the contemporary accounts of encounters between Christians, such as those in and around Paris in the ninth century, and illiterate non-Christians such as the invading Vikings, were all written by Christians. Lately it has occurred to historians how one-sided such depictions were, how distorted at the expense of the non-Christians. Clark was not part of the re-assessment and correction of the traditional Western view of the world. He was a staunch traditionalist. Where the West encountered literate peoples, whether Byzantine or Arab or Copt or Syriac or Chinese or Mayan or what have you, Clark does not avail himself of the non-Western records -- well, it's very hard for anyone to avail themselves of the Mayan records, since the Conquistadors burnt almost all the Mayan books and killed all the Mayans who could read them. Oops! -- and does not seem to be the slightest bit interested in the possibility that his traditional, pro-Western view of the world could be wrong.

It is wrong. Way, way wrong. It wouldn't have been cutting-edge in the 18th century, let alone the 20th.

1 comment:

  1. Before there was a book or TV show, Civilisation was a film series (identical to the series later broadcast on TV). IIRC it was first shown in only a couple museums -- which in North America included the National Gallery of Art in D.C. I was in grad school in D.C. at the time (1970-71) and attended the showing of every episode/chapter. Because it had lots of advance billing and got rave reviews in the local papers, absolute mobs flocked to see it. (IIRC the demand was so great that the film series was the first time the Natl. Gallery had to organize ticketing for a sponsored event or exhibit -- a good dry run for the monster Tutankhamun exhibit there a few years later.)

    Your critique of the work is spot on, and Clark's blinders and assumptions grow clearer to me with every viewing/reading I've done of it over the years. (Clark's other big achievement, his book The Nude, may have similar defects but they're not quite as evident, since his topic is a bit less broad. I'll have to reread it again soon to be sure, though!)

    Nevertheless, despite these flaws, Civilisation remains IMO an impressive bit of "cultcha-cinema" and enjoyable (and at times insightful) writing on art and history.