Tag Archives: art

The wise words of Sir Kenneth Clark

24 Feb

If you don’t have 11-odd hours to spare, I have posted up the best clips of Civilisation.

1.) At this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud.

The finale to the series. Sir Kenneth Clark sums up his views on humanity and where our civilisation is heading after the intellectual collapse of Marxism.  Watch and admire.

2.) Grandeur and Obedience.

Watch from 5:25. This episode on Baroque-era Italy is worth watching in full, particularly if you are paying a visit to Rome.  You can watch it in full here.  I happen to know this is Stephen Fry’s favourite scene.

Or you could watch the whole thing.

It strikes me that ours is the first age where works of art, poetry, symphonies and our greatest sitcoms can be viewed or heard at the touch of a button.  This is an academic utopia.  For all modern civilisation’s flaws and pessimism, it is not too radical to say that ours is the most intelligent age.  Most of our youngsters pursue higher education; never before has high-brow culture been so popular; fact-checking and intellectual curiosity have been made ridiculously easy.  Before Wikipedia, YouTube, free newspapers and iPhones, are we to believe blokes at the pub resolved light-hearted disputes by saying, “Here mate. You wait an hour; I’ll just nip to the library to prove you wrong.”  No.

I know our economic crisis has depressed much of the commentariat.  But Western Civilisation has not been lost; in fact, it is more healthy and dynamic than ever.  These are Sir Kenneth’s words in 1969:

These inheritors of all our catastrophes look cheerful enough, and not at all like the melancholy late Romans or the pathetic Gauls…  In fact I should doubt if so many young people have ever been as well-fed, as well-read, as bright-minded, as curious and as critical as the young are today.

The series can be watched in full here.


Civilisation, the Sistine Chapel of BBC documentaries

23 Feb

1969 was the year British media changed forever. It was the year Rupert Murdoch bought The News of the World. More than any other press baron, he is responsible for the culture that still pervades the newspaper industry to this day. But 1969 should be remembered for a more important reason. It was the year Sir Kenneth Clark produced Civilisation, the greatest documentary ever aired. It was as if high culture had let out its final gasp, and what a heavenly gasp it was.

David Attenborough, controller of BBC Two at the time, commissioned the series. It was to be an overwhelming 13 episodes long, 50 minutes each. It set the blueprint for future programmes such as Alistair Cooke’s America (1972), Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (1973) and Sir David’s own Life on Earth (1979). It was David Attenborough’s bold move and the series’s subsequent popularity that made these three stirring oeuvres possible. If there has to be a hero of anti-elitism, it should not be Rupert Murdoch for his tawdry rags that insult the intelligence of the great British public; it should be Sir David Attenborough, the man who believed high culture should be made accessible to everyone, not just toffs.

What makes it so enjoyable to watch is the thought that it couldn’t be made today. If you pitched the idea of a series on the history of Western civilisation that was in toto nearly half a day in length, the BBC commissioner would sling you out before you could say Lorenzo de’ Medici.

And the style is completely different. Watch a clip: the camera stays focused without cutting away for far longer than any TV clip today. Television today – be it Come Dancing, reality TV, documentaries, dramas – is cut to such an extent it’s like watching a 24-hour Adam Curtis doc. The camera cannot stay still. Anyone would think humans had the attention span of an adolescent carp.

That’s what I love about it: it’s slow. I reckon half the film consists of Sir Kenneth Clark pausing, strolling, then pausing; the other half consists of the camera panning along some work of wonder as trumpets parp or choirs wail.

Sir Kenneth makes the film. Just so you know, Sir Kenneth is not the Tory rotundity in government today; he is the art historian and father of dirty diarist Alan Clark MP. He has plummy vowels, wears tweed in every clime and is unsure about next to everything. He starts most sentences with “I suppose”. He pronounces iron as “ahr-rn”. He is the private school tutor of every chap’s dreams.

He has quirks of genius. Which other BBC presenter would say, “Please allow me two minutes’ digression on the subject of tulips”? Who else could say with such de-haut-en-bas conviction, “Opera… is one of the oddest inventions of Western man”? He adds, “Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word?” He calls the upper classes of previous generations “ignorant as swans”. How many times have I wanted to say in a debate, “At this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud.”

Wisdom seeps from his skin. I shall post up my favourite clips tomorrow. But for now, these words should be quoted to every economist, historian, commentator and ideologist. Perhaps they could be in the foreword to Mr Ferguson’s similarly-titled book:

We have no idea where we are going and sweeping, confident articles on the future seem to me the most disreputable form of public utterance.  Scientists who are really qualified to speak keep their mouths shut.

His thoughts on economics are most intriguing. He says, “I don’t say much about economics in this programme, chiefly because I don’t understand them.” But he does have an opinion. He pronounces capitalism as one might pronounce capitulation. And that is broadly his view.

He visits the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the edifice now overshadowed by Canary Wharf. “Every civilisation has its nemesis,” he says, looking over the empty space where the cathedrals of capitalism now lie. By chance Sir Christopher Wren founded the white wonders of Greenwich the same year the Bank of England was established.

And the light of experience narrowed its beam so that the grand design of Greenwich became simply a waste of money.

We come to a final question, one which niggles even the oldest of viewers: can we, in the 21st century, properly speak of “civilisation”? It seems to be one of those out-of-date words used primarily by British colonists to justify the expansion of Anglo-Saxon power. It marks the boundary between those the elite considered barbarous (Indians, Africans, Aborigines) and those considered civilised (mostly white, mostly educated, mostly tea-drinking sorts). Lefties would say the boundary between civilisation and barbarity, order and chaos, good and evil, lies not between nations but in our own hearts.

I have a great deal of sympathy with this position. But are we really to conclude from this, like Mrs T in her oft-quoted line, there is no such thing as civilisation? Surely not. I can think of many real and imagined bodies of men which are barbarous: a society which represses all forms of intellectual and personal freedom – that is barbarism; a nation which whips itself into bloodthirsty frenzies for war and conquest – that is barbarism; a people whose only goals in life are short-term gratification – that is barbarism. And if barbarity exists, so must its opposite: civilisation.

Let us not forget what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Gandhi is not denying civilisation exists. His point is that it does exist: and the West isn’t one of them. How then do we define it? Sir Kenneth Clark defines civilisation in terms of “creative power” and “enlargement of human faculties”. That sounds like a good definition to me.

The unfinished scribbles of Robert “wannabe Whistler” Goff

9 Feb

Ruskin once said Whistler was a coxcomb who asked two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.  One could say something similar about etcher Robert Goff – who, as Brighton Museum so incessantly avows, is a poor man’s James Whistler.

Robert Goff, 1837-1922, is a Hove resident and monochromatic doodler, who has yet to appear in The Grove Dictionary of Art.  He went to the most majestic beauties of the imperial world and produced nothing but glum squiggles.  Egypt, Japan, Florence and Venice are depicted in the same humdrum manner as a field in Shoreham.  The Gothic spires of Westminster hold as much dull appeal as the boat next to it.  These transitory daubs must have meant something to someone some time but have no resonance, emotional or otherwise, now.

The curator’s side-comments don’t help.  They tell you: “The stark and imposing beauty of the pyramids is balanced by the sparse rendering of the sky.”  Above is a sketch of two large black triangles and underlying scratches.  Another caption praises Goff for adding “depth by placing small figures in the foreground”.  How do we know he didn’t just draw what he saw?  Another insists Goff “strategically places a sailing boat to create a focal point”.  What if the boat was just, y’know, there?

The whole exhibit is distinctly underwhelming.  Leave the museum and see the wanton beauty of Nash’s Royal Pavilion: compare this Regency-era creation of decadence with Goff’s dreary doodles, and you’ll see what I mean.   It is not the subject matter.  Sussex gales and English waters have inspired both the intensity of Turner and the wistfulness of Constable.  It is the artist.  Robert Goff, while technically skilful, stirs the soul very little.  If you are an artist, this matters.

Philosophers of art have written interminable theses on the definition of good art.  Very broadly, it is this: art is something that makes you go wow.  This doesn’t.  Don’t go.

Robert Goff: An Etcher in the Wake of Whistler, Brighton Museum, until 29 April.

The decline of Italian civilisation

10 Nov

I have just been reading a book by Robert Hughes on the history of Rome – well, it beats Flog It – and it reads like the decline and fall of a once great civilisation from antiquity to satellite TV.  Hughes believes Italy has declined for two reasons: first, Italian modern art is shit, sometimes literally; second, perhaps more importantly, Italy no longer cares about art.

Modern art has always had a bad reputation.  That mad dog Khrushchev once denounced his own country’s modern art exhibition as “worse than a donkey could smear with his tail”.  Hughes is slightly more scathing – we see this in his commentary on futurism.  While Baroque sculptors pontificate and enlighten, Italian futurists “prate” and “bloviate”, and when they do, he mocks them for it.  Having quoted a long passage from futurist writer Marinetti, Hughes comments, “There is more, much more, in this vein.  No-one could accuse Marinetti of terseness.”

Hughes likens futurists, with their obsession with cars and all things speed, to ranting Mr Toads.  “Off they go,” he says, “Vroom vroom, in a sort of mechano-sexual delirium.”  He could hardly get more sardonic.  Hughes concludes:

One can have a certain sympathy with the annoyed Italian writer who, when asked if he didn’t agree that Marinetti was a genius, retorted, ‘No. He’s a phosphorescent cretin’, but in fact he was less than the first but a good deal more than the second.

One is more tempted to agree with Hughes when he describes the art of Piero Manzoni, a more modern artist.  Manzoni crafted an exquisite exhibit called Merda d’Artista: the artist’s shit (no kidding, you can hear Hughes say).  This objet d’art consists of Manzoni’s freshly-produced excrement, sealed lovingly in a tin can.  One wonders which – the shit or the tin – took more artistic merit to produce.  No matter: the final can sold for $80,000.

This must be the finest embodiment of a decline of a civilisation.  Having read Hughes’ rising odes to Bernini and Caravaggio, Michelangelo and Raphael, this is the perfect finale, proof that art is not relative, evidence of Rome’s fall from grace.  Once-democratic Rome, ruled by the people, is now a coprocracy: ruled by shit.  Hughes’ message is familiar: like all books that chart the decline of a civilisation, the point is that civilisations wither from the inside, not from without.  It was not the Goths that destroyed Rome, but the destructive forces of vapidity and inertia.

This explanation carries some weight.  Where Hughes goes wrong is in saying Italians no longer care.  The epilogue to the book is over-brimming with rage towards Italian modern culture.  Here is an extract which decries the constant chattering and inane photo-taking in galleries.  Art, he says, is

not meant to be a social experience.  Shut up and use your eyes.  Groups with guides etc., admitted Wednesdays only, 11a.m.- 4p.m.  Otherwise, just shut the fuck up, please pretty please, if you can, if you don’t mind, if you won’t burst.  We have come a long way to look at these objects too.  We have not done so to listen to your golden words.  Capisce?

He then proceeds to moan about how crowded with tourists the streets of Rome now are.  I must admit that when I last went to Rome, my feelings were with him.  Those Roman roads acted like canals of Chinese and English skins, crowds rushed along by brollies, more brollies than Britain, orange, yellow, pink, bobbing like buoys in the waves.  Around every corner, a merchant would sell you some tacky memento, a plastic Colosseum, a mini Michelangelo’s David – €2,00 only! – priceless really – valueless too.

Yet one sees an irony in his argument; if Italians don’t care of art, why are there more than ever before in the streets?  One can’t at one breath complain of a lack of interest, then in the next grumble that the museums are fuller than ever.  The truth is that what has changed since the 18th century, when the rich would pile into Rome to see works of ancient wonder, is that travel is no longer an elitist venture.  Now the poor can come too.

That is surely a good thing.  Perhaps Hughes is right that art has declined since the Renaissance; perhaps he is right that Berlusconi, with his jiggling blondes on his trashy game shows, has destroyed Italian cultural life.  It may be true that Italians may love their soccer and celebrities, just as we do, just as the Romans loved their gladiators and chariot races, just as Caravaggio enjoyed his drink, sword fights and gambling.  But the interest in art – past rather than present – hasn’t changed.