NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he 13 one-hour TV films in which English art historian, arts administrator, and writer Kenneth Clark historically narrates a “personal view” of the history of Western civilization were first shown in Britain and the U.S. 50 years ago as the series Civilisation. Their amazing popularity began immediately and has continued unabated since 1969, with translation into several languages and publication of the text and many of its illustrations as a book that has never been out of print. The films continue to be bought and shown and looked at again and again all over the world. Guides to the series’ masterworks have been published. The nature and size of the success make the series a cultural phenomenon worth remembering and meditating on.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) brought vast and unprecedented resources to the making of the films, implicitly expressing a faith in Kenneth Clark (1903–1983) personally that was probably the fundamental factor in the creation of the series. The story and the facts are lucidly narrated in James Stourton’s recent, award-winning biography Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation. “The research, filming and editing took three years (1966–1969); the film crew of twelve travelled eighty thousand miles, visited eleven countries, used 117 locations and filmed objects in 118 museums and 18 libraries. Two hundred thousand feet of film were shot (the length of six feature-length movies) and £500,000 was spent.” Clark’s series led subsequently to numerous other “authored” series of TV documentaries, often originating in the U.K. but very much with the vast American audience in mind, as was the case with Civilisation itself.
The showing of the series coincided with a period of high passions and low morale in American, British, and European politics and culture — the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, student revolutions from Berkeley to Paris, the Nixon presidency, rock culture, drugs, and celebrant sexual promiscuity and exhibitionism. It was a time of receding faith in “Western civilization” and a conviction by many that it had been an ugly, unjust story rather than a progressive and edifying one.
In various forms, this counter-narrative has been with us ever since. Without ever mentioning Walt Whitman or John Dewey, Clark discusses and illustrates modern naturalism, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau forward, as ethically and epistemologically problematic:
I feel therefore I am. A curious discovery to have been made [by Rousseau] in the middle of the Age of Reason. . . . It was an intellectual time bomb, which after sizzling away for almost two hundred years has only just gone off [in the late 1960s], whether to the advantage of civilization seems rather doubtful.” ( No. 11, “The Worship of Nature”)
Yet despite his detailed explanation and illustration, his defense and even celebration, of “Western civilization” from the early Middle Ages to 1900, Clark’s narrative was not a confident, Whig-liberal story of progress, but something far deeper and more complex, with a tragic edge. It was not unlike the story told in the twelve-volume series A Study of History, by Arnold Toynbee, a contemporary of Clark’s. In this massive work (published 1934–1961 but now forgotten or disdained), Toynbee attempted to define the reasons and causes of the emergence, flourishing, and decline of civilizations across historical time.
Clark, coming from an agnostic, “idle rich” background, with philistine parents (they were even more idle than they were rich, he said), was an only child, educated at the most elite English institutions: Winchester College (for boarding school) and Trinity College, Oxford. Whether at Oxford or Cambridge, or at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, this background often produced — over many decades in both countries — wealthy wastrels, decadent aesthetes, and supercilious snobs. The riches of liberal education and culture provided at such institutions were often like pearls before swine or diamonds in dung heaps.
Clark was born in 1903 (like Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, and Malcolm Muggeridge), and his life coincided with the tragic world events that the philosopher Sidney Hook called “the Second Fall of Man,” commencing in earnest with World War I in 1914. What Clark called in Civilisation “heroic materialism” (the title of the final program in his series, No. 13) was not enough to sustain, much less to generate, what he called “civilisation,” and he was implicitly aware of C. S. Lewis’s critique, so much deeper and sounder than Marx’s, that civilization may simply mean “barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power” (compare the depictions by Lewis’s friend J.R.R. Tolkien). In that tragic year 1934, the American humanistic scholar Joseph Wood Krutch wrote a book mischievously but poignantly entitled “Was Europe a Success?” Spanish, French, and British imperialism and Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin might well lead us to think it was not.
Curiously enough, Clark’s reading of the history of civilization was not only or even mainly about art history. He was more of an inheritor of the English literary legacy of the Victorian “sages”: Thomas Carlyle (admiring J. A. Froude’s vast 1882 biography); John Henry Newman (The Idea of a University, 1852), an alumnus of his own Oxford college; Matthew Arnold (Culture and Anarchy, 1869); and especially John Ruskin (1819–1900), the art historian and culture critic from whose works Clark himself created an anthology that gave him particular pleasure, Ruskin Today (1964). With its attention to medieval craftsmanship, Clark said, Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic” (The Stones of Venice, 1853) was “one of the noblest things written in the 19th century.” But Clark also read widely in French, German, and Italian sources and was particularly influenced by the history-of-ideas (Geistesgeschichte) style of art-historical writing of Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897), the great Germanophone Swiss historian of the Renaissance. Clark’s love of reading and re-reading the Early Christian Church fathers is very revealing: He wrote to a friend in 1975 that he was re-reading St. Augustine’s “sublime” Confessions and the letters of St. Jerome.
What Clark had in common with Burckhardt, the Victorian “sages,” and the American Henry Adams (Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, 1904), as well as contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, and the historians Toynbee, Christopher Dawson, and Carlton J. H. Hayes, was a profound intuition that the dynamic worship of material power (scientific, economic, and social-political, as in “Social Darwinism,” or philosophical, as in Nietzsche) was a tragic heresy and departure from the central tradition of civilized belief and behavior in the West and in the world. As the youngest-ever director of Britain’s National Gallery of Art in London, during World War II, he presided over the saving and hiding of the gallery’s art treasures in a remote cave in Wales, and then he opened the deserted galleries to morale-building musical concerts for Londoners under German bombardment. He created a committee to employ artists on war-related work of documenting events and illustrating artworks, especially architecture that was in many cases being destroyed by nighttime Luftwaffe bombing attacks.
The covert demon of Promethean, 19th-century “heroic materialism” — “barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power” (C. S. Lewis) — was succeeded by the overt demon of military barbarism, impossible to avoid or evade in the years 1914–1969. This barbarism did not come from outside Europe, but from within it. Jacques Barzun deplored the cults of Darwin, Marx, and Wagner as early as 1941. In “Nietzsche and the Germans,” the English historian A. J. P. Taylor (1906–1990) noted that “Hitler kept a bust of [Nietzsche] on show and consoled Mussolini for the disasters of 1943 with a set of his complete works.” Taylor went on to add: “Nietzsche’s great phrases seemed made for Fascism; it was inconceivable without them. The Will to Power, the Master Race, the Superman — Fascism did not need to look farther for its philosophy.”
Clark knew and meditated on such tragic realities. Civilisation is by no means a smug, complacent, superficial, or celebratory story of progress and confidence. It is actually a new genre — a magnificently beautiful work of art illustration and appreciation that is also a work of literature. (The writer J. B. Priestley said the series was “itself a contribution to civilization.”) Clark’s masters are not ultimately those whom one would expect them to be, given his background, class, and patrician manner: clever, “enlightened” skeptics such as Voltaire and Gibbon and Mandarin aesthetes like Walter Pater, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, or other Bloomsbury contemporaries. Instead, his masters are earnest, intellectual public educators such as Arnold and Ruskin, exemplars of the American educator John Erskine’s conception of “the moral obligation to be intelligent.”
And if Clark is not an ideal, conventional, orthodox Christian intellectual, he was nonetheless a friend of the Christian religion — especially but not only of the Catholic Church, from St. Augustine and the early medieval monks of Iona and Skellig Michael, off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, through St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Giotto, and the Counter-Reformation saints, to heterodox Christians such as Rembrandt, Blake, Carlyle, Van Gogh, Ruskin, and Tolstoy.
The great Cambridge monk-historian Dom David Knowles was a lifelong friend from Oxford student days, and Clark secretly supported financially the Welsh World War I veteran and Catholic poet-artist David Jones for many years. One of the most moving passages in Stourton’s biographical discussion of the making of Civilisation is his account of Clark’s public attempt to discuss Luther. From his youth a partisan of the Christian-humanist Erasmus against the fideistic Luther (“the destroyer of Renaissance civilisation”), Clark was nevertheless deeply moved when trying to make the Luther episode: In front of the Wittenburg Church in Germany, he kept breaking into tears when he tried to pronounce Luther’s famous words “Here I stand.” Uniquely in the whole series, the scene had to be re-shot several times. The Germany he most lovingly depicted was the Germany of Bach and the Bavarian pilgrimage churches. Its contrast to the Germany of his own lifetime is one of the great, inescapable, tragic moral facts of 20th-century history — of human history.
From its first showing, Clark’s Civilisation and its great popular success had critics, writing from different angles: John Berger and Raymond Williams from the populist-Marxist left; fastidious aesthetes and envious, specialist, dry-as-dust scholars; nativist Americans who resented the apparently aristocratic assumptions and lofty, patrician tone (just as Walt Whitman had hated Matthew Arnold as an “apostle of culture”); “multiculturalists”; and “neophiliacs” obsessed by the brave new world of the future and angrily impatient of both the realities of history and the legacy and burden of what W. B. Yeats called “monuments of unageing intellect.”
Yet it is precisely in Clark’s tone (an effect of brilliantly astute and tactful oral statement in the films and of prose in the book version) that his most subtle and strategic achievement lies: the quality of his language, its judicious discriminations and evaluations, his combination of tentative confidence, polite urbanity, and mild self-depreciation.
Commenting on Clark’s Moments of Vision, one of his last books, the scholar Peter Conrad, writing in the London Observer in1981, tried to assimilate Clark to the mainline Walter Pater–Oscar Wilde–Bloomsbury tradition of “unabashed hedonism” and aestheticism. Clark had deeply imbibed these in the 1920s while living at the Villa I Tatti, a rural Florentine villa owned by the eminent American art historian and dealer Bernard Berenson, and from his lifelong association with Berenson and other aesthetes such as Harold Acton and Maurice Bowra.
But no reader or viewer of Civilisation can doubt that whatever “significant form” and “tactile values” may have meant to the authors of those art-appreciation phrases, they were inadequate for Clark — necessary, perhaps, but insufficient. Reviewing one of Clark’s books on Rembrandt, Raymond Mortimer wrote in 1978:
Perhaps through Quaker genes and a lonely childhood, Clark is imbued with a powerful moral sense, and also with an unobtrusive vein of religious faith. With such help his new book achieves superbly its aim — “to convey something of the immense seriousness with which Rembrandt contemplated the moral and spiritual condition” of the human person.
A similar symbolic-religious-ethical imagination imbues and pervades Clark’s treatments of St. Francis of Assisi, Giotto, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Ruskin, and Tolstoy. The question of verbal tone is unavoidable — a false note would crack the whole edifice of his synthetic but personal view of civilization. Like or dislike Clark, concur with or approve of, or not, his aesthetic evaluations; but fairness and accuracy require that one see and hear and read, and recognize, a moralist at work. The artwork Civilisation, films and book, is the master example of a new genre possible only in the era of high-technological audiovisual expertise. The work also offsets or mitigates the extreme and extravagant aesthetic tendencies of today, which are no longer hierarchical, backward-looking, or class-based but now vulgarly demotic, obscene, pornographic, or ironic: a very low culture for which ridiculously high claims are made, and whose noisy, nonstop regimen is constant and nearly inescapable.
One of Clark’s most able successors at the British National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, said on the BBC in 2009 that Clark was “the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century.” Like Arnold and Ruskin, and popular adult educators in the U.S. such as Andrew Carnegie, John Erskine, and Mortimer Adler, Clark wanted to extend high culture, especially “the best” that had been written, built, composed, sculpted, and painted, to everyone. Carnegie gave vast amounts of money for new public libraries all over the Anglophone world. At the end of, and just after, World War I, John Erskine ran a college for American servicemen in Beaune, Burgundy (see his 1947 memoir, The Memory of Certain Persons, Part IV), and he also promoted liberal and musical education. Adler published the series of “Great Books” for a wide citizenry and edited The Encyclopedia Britannica. In the same spirit, after World War II, the U.S. Government GI Bill provided funds for veterans to go to college or graduate school (my father was a beneficiary), and it still does so.
Despite the urbane tone of civilized equilibrium, there is a note of tragedy in Clark’s work, and the cause is at least twofold: Whatever life’s ultimate meaning or outcome, there is an element of tragedy in it generally (irreversible injustices, pointless suffering, the fact that those we love die). More specifically and topically, the actual events of modern history since 1914 (World Wars, the Holocaust, Gulag Archipelago, environmental and cultural degradation) have permanently destroyed (or at least rendered incredible) the progressive utopian dream that replaced Christian providentialism for many “civilized” people. How could a sensitive, reflective, ethical person born in 1903 and surviving for 80 years not see and feel this history as a tragedy? To “see it feelingly” is to mourn it.
Clark was an independently wealthy man who purchased art throughout his life, including contemporary art, much for institutions and some for himself. Among the bequests in his will, he left many of his precious personal books (from the Middle Ages onward) to the Morgan Library in New York. His reason for doing so is worth noting: In the 20th century, he wrote,
During the last 50 years the United States has been infinitely generous to Great Britain. . . . They have not only saved us from extinction in two wars, but they have saved buildings and books that mean much to us. As far as I know, the movement has been all one way. My offer to the Morgan Library is small — a very small — sign of recognition of what we owe to the United States.
A civilized gesture.
Something to Consider
If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?
If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.