Review: Civilisation, by Kenneth Clark
[originally posted 13 Sept 2009]
I'm going back in time. I started off by watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos", which was inspired partly by Bronowski's "Ascent of Man", which I then watched. In turn, Bronowski's series was made as a reaction and follow-up to Clark's "Civilisation".
Both Cosmos and Ascent of Man were enjoyable surveys of their subject, and while I have a few minor factual quibbles and found both presenters slightly irritating, they pale in comparison to Civilisation.
I've only watched the first episode of 13 so far, but it's just awful. Sure, Bronowski also had some rather quaint 1970s views, but Clark's aren't just quaint, they're also Dead Wrong. And not the kind of Wrong that comes from being from a less advanced time and where we now know better. To take one example, he presents Islam as being an utterly anti-artistic and anti-civilisation movement, ignoring what was well known at his time, that cities like Damascus and Baghdad were centres of art and learning, and even if we only look at Europe he's still ignoring the Alhambra.
He's also terribly inconsistent. One moment he's telling us that the Vikings were uncivilised because (amongst other things) they didn't have books, the next he's going on about how the Icelandic Sagas are some of the greatest works to ever be written. And after slagging off Islam for being anti-artistic, he then goes on to compare Celtic illuminated manuscripts to ... Islamic art. Wrongly. Apparently, Celtic art is better because the lines were closer together or something. It's odd that Bronowski's series was not about art, but did a better job of at least explaining the complexities, constraints, passion and feeling of Islamic art than this expert ever did. I wonder what other stupid errors and contradictions he's going to spout in his horribly annoying voice.
Clark was apparently "one of the best-known art historians of his generation". No wonder the arts are treated with such disdain by modernity if he's the best scholar and spokesman they can come up with.
Update: in episode 2 he calls science a religion. I shall now file him under "wilful idiots", along with creationists and Labour voters.
Update, episode 3: did you know that the Romans didn't know love? Clark thought so. Catullus would have disagreed, but what would he know, he was only a man from a fallen civilisation.
Update: in episode 6 when decrying Protestantism and the Reformation, he goes on at length about "the northern spirit" and compares Protestants to the nomadic barbarians he so incorrectly calumnied earlier. "One can't point to a single piece of specifically protestant architecture or sculpture, which shows just how much these expressions of civilisation depended on the catholic church". Just plain wrong. There's nothing inherently Catholic about, eg, Chartres cathedral, which he raves about so much, any more than there is anything inherently Protestant about the new Coventry cathedral. Likewise all Catholic sculpture (aside from perhaps some sculptures of popes) can be found a place in Protestant churches and societies. He also, in passing, says that Luther was the sort of leader figure that the Germans so love. What an appalling little man.
Update: Half way through watching episode 7 I had all kinds of rude things to write - about it being a paean to catholicism, that it sneered so at the arts and civilisation of the Reformation, and so on. But then Clark redeemed himself by also rubbishing catholic baroque, pointing out that it was mostly the product of personal greed and vanity, and that "no good ever came from thoughts in enormous rooms". He's still a bloody Philistine, of course, especially because of his ridiculous statements about film being an inferior medium, but even so - bravo!