Tag Archives: Civilisation

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 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.

Memo to Yanks: China could make you the #6 top nation. Here are 4 good reasons to celebrate!

1 Nov

This is supposed to be the Asian century. Just as the 20th century saw the rise of American power, just as the 19th century saw the British Empire paint the world red, so this century will see Asian countries grow in global stature. As the wealth of the East rises, so will its might – in international, military, perhaps even cultural terms. Just as the British taught the world footie, rugger and cricket, Dickens, Wilde and Shakespeare, just as the USA spread its love of fast food, films and blue jeans, so may we soon feel the influence of Oriental culture.

Niall Ferguson is the most prominent figure to proclaim the Decline of the West. It is a sinking feeling which has gripped much of the commentariat. When I recently discussed the matter with a friend, I found – to my amazement – that she was thinking of moving to China. She had visited on a cultural exchange, and she loved the bright lights, the language, the mise-en-scène. After further questioning, she said that the West was going down the swanee anyway: the EU and US are doomed to either financial collapse or inevitable decline; British prospects aren’t too sunny either. China, she thought, was the future.

Not so very long ago, young people across the globe would dream of starting a new life in America. It is damning that some are starting to think the other way.

I could say that the Chinese future is far from certain: that there is an instability which lies in the union of despotic state and bulky populace; once growth dips, living standards drop or recession bites, there will be a large unhappy population, minds a-buzz with the thoughts of that Arab Spring. I will not go down that route. I write this post not to do down Eastern prospects, but to raise Western spirits. It’s not all that bleak. As they say in Latin, Niall Desperandum! Niall should not despair!

This is a memo to America. We Brits have been number one before, so trust us: being number six isn’t that bad. Here are four good reasons why Americans shouldn’t worry:

1.) Relative GDP isn’t everything.  China may be getting richer relative to the US, but this doesn’t mean that the USA won’t get any richer. The British experience is a good example. Our GDP rankings may have fallen in the past century, but the average Brit is substantially wealthier. Many of us possess our own homes, cars, TVs; we go on more holidays, live longer and aren’t consigned to the same degree of poverty. American dominance has made us no worse off. In fact, due to the brilliance of American innovation, it has probably made us better off.

2.) Your politicians might actually fix stuff at home.  The British Empire acted as a silken red blindfold. Victorian politicians talked grandly of how they could civilise every corner of the globe. What they failed to see was the barbarity at home. As that great Liberal Winston Churchill put it, “For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.” After the Second World War, the war that crippled Britannia financially, politicians cast India aside and made a concerted effort to better a Brit’s lot. A fight against ignorance, destitution, idleness, squalor and sickness began. The fight hasn’t stopped since. Perhaps when America is forced to turn inwards, similar miracles will happen.

3.) You get a better sense of humour.  At the height of the British Empire, George Orwell said, “Every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” At the dawn of modern Britain, every man’s life became one long struggle not to laugh. Humour boomed, with the rise of satire, sketch shows and sitcoms. Comedy has never been so ubiquitous. This may be down to the new technologies of radio, TV and YouTube. But humour has also taken a different tone: sardonic, dark, self-deprecating. Every sitcom hero – from Hancock to Blackadder, from Rigsby to Partridge, from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew – is a half-despairing man who is in some way fundamentally trapped. They still follow this pattern: think of the heroes of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, The Thick of It, The Office. Sod the chirpy tits off Friends and beckon in the far richer comedy of human misery! Perhaps America is already there. Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Daily Show could be the first tottering steps into a world of post-imperial gloom…

4.) Everyone will no longer hate you.  This is phrased unfairly, but the sentiment is true. The world hates a bully who wages ceaseless war to prove its might. The hubris of Britannia caused a lot of resentment (and still does, as recent wars show). When one’s national stereotype changes to bumbling twit, one becomes a lot harder to hate.

In all, we have less power and more glory. Modern Britain is a sort of King Lear. We have been cast off our throne, forced to wander in the bleak wilderness of impotence, with no-one to accompany us but a Fool. We have lost everything, but at least we can laugh about it.