Nothing can beat Kenneth Clark’s ‘partial and dogmatic’ original Civilisation

Kenneth Clark presents Civilisation in 1969

It is instructive to read some of the critical comments about the new BBC series, “Civilisations.” Presented by three pundits, two men and a woman, the series is deliberately designed to rival the ambitious series, entitled Civilisation, made by the BBC in 1969 and presented by the art historian, Kenneth Clark.

When Clark, with his erudition, his air of culture and class and his imperturbable self-confidence, strolled around the cathedrals of Europe and reflected on its artists and architects, he threw down an unstated challenge to future generations: Can you do better than I have done? This was the question left hovering in the air.

According to Tim Stanley and Allison Pearson in the Telegraph, as well as Will Gompertz, the BBC’s own arts editor, the short answer is no, you can’t. Stanley thought the current series was “intellectually incoherent”, “at pains not to be didactic” and that “If you adopt a relativist point of view, literally any society could thus be deemed to be “civilised” on its own terms, and we can all go weak at the knees at their lovely masks.” His conclusion: Civilisations – tellingly pluralised – was “made by committee, politically correct, lacking courage and obsessed with commercial value.”

Pearson, who wanted Simon Schama to present all the episodes, thought that “If you appoint three presenters to one arts series, don’t be surprised if you end up with a Doge’s dinner.” And Gompertz, although thinking Clark had been “partial, dogmatic, occasionally dismissive”, could see that his presentations “had a clarity, structure and coherent argument that made them fascinating to watch and easy to follow.” Did the BBC never consider Sir Neil MacGregor?

Always happy to avoid the deliberations of committees, I decided to watch the patrician Clark again rather than spend time with his seemingly pale imitators. So far I have only seen the first in the series, “The Skin of Our Teeth”, which focuses on the collapse of the Roman Empire, the barbarians who followed, and the Celtic monks on the Skelligs and Iona who kept learning and faith alive during the Dark Ages. For people with normal powers of concentration, it still enthrals.

Unlike the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, Clark, who became a convert before he died, was unprejudiced enough to recognise that the Church was a “humanising influence” which played a profound part in the civilisation of Europe. An elitist rather than a relativist, he writes in chapter 1 of his book that followed the series that the head of the Apollo of the Belvedere “embodies a higher state of civilisation” than an African face mask. Try floating that idea today.

Clark certainly did not “go weak at the knees” over the face mask, which he saw as representing an imaginative world “of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo.” In contrast, for the Hellenistic imagination the Apollo reflected a world “of light and confidence, in which the gods…descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony.”

I would rather the partiality and dogmatism of a learned and imaginative scholar, who was prepared to state confidently that St Francis of Assisi was “a religious genius – the greatest, I believe, that Europe has ever produced”, than the careful and correct opinions of the trio currently presenting Civilisations.