Friday, April 8, 2011

Kenneth Clark, CIVILISATION and Civilization

Henrik Bering reviews In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea by John Armstrong for the WSJ and includes this strange anecdote about Lord Kenneth Clark and his BBC series, Civilisation:

"Among academics, the word "civilization" has long had a sinister ring to it, carrying associations of elitism and luxury. Worse, it is linked to imperialism, having provided Europeans with the justification for their far-flung conquests in centuries past—and, these days, for endless self-flagellation.

"With "In Search of Civilization," John Armstrong, the resident philosopher at the Melbourne Business School in Australia, sets out to restore the reputation of a word that, to him, represents something infinitely precious and life-sustaining, a source of strength and inspiration. The great civilizations, he says, provide "a community of maturity in which across the ages individuals try to help each other cope with the demands of mortality."

"As he makes clear, his purpose is not to provide a history of various civilizations or to update Samuel Huntington's seminal 1996 book on the post-Cold War world, "The Clash of Civilizations," though he cites Huntington's conclusion that today's real conflict is between civilization and barbarism. Mr. Armstrong wishes to convey what the idea means to him personally.

"He identifies two basic attitudes toward civilization. One is that of the pessimist, exemplified here by the medieval abbot Bernard of Clairvaux. To Bernard, civilization was a rare and delicate plant, one that could survive only when sheltered behind the thick walls of a monastery. Outside were brutal barons, vulgar merchants and hoggish peasants. Such benighted folk he considered beyond reach.

"Mr. Armstrong notes that even though British art historian Kenneth Clark crafted the 1969 television documentary series "Civilisation"—a survey of Europe's greatest artistic achievements and a cultural event in its own right—deep down he shared Bernard's pessimism. Clark once delivered a speech in Washington to rapturous applause, we're told, and then fled to the men's room, where he "sobbed and howled for a quarter of an hour." The historian felt like a fraud for having betrayed great artworks by peddling his thoughts about them to people who lacked the insight to truly appreciate them. . . ."

Then he goes on to identify the more positive view, using the Abbot Suger as an example. The story of Clark sobbing in the men's room that he had just wasted his time and betrayed great art just doesn't fit with my view of his purpose in that series, gained from watching the series and reading the book so many times. The booklet with the DVD set does include the note that he wanted to do an episode on the Germans, especially Goethe, and he felt badly that he was so limited by the number of episodes--had to stop with the odd number. What I've read about his view of the series was that it was as much entertainment as it was education. Here is an analysis of the series that includes that point.

I enjoyed Civilisation when I watched it years ago and I learned a lot from it, too. I thought Lord Clark wise to declare his commentary "A Personal View".


  1. I will always be grateful to it for opening my eyes to so many things, I was only 9 or 10 but i lovd it, and am really enjoying the repeats!

  2. Don't forget that Kenneth Clark converted to Catholicism in the final years of his life!

  3. I really recommend the political diaries by his son, Alan Clark - vol 1 opens with an account of Lord Clark's death:

    Clark jnr wrote some fine histories - Lions Led By Donkeys (WWI), Barbarossa (WWII), and a history of the British conservative party. The diary also has an appreciation of a recital of the love letters of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

    He fancied Margaret Thatcher, who appointed him to her cabinet. And he enjoyed alot of immodest sex, which he came to regret. Sort of.

  4. According to David Attenborough, Clark wept in the men's room because of the unexpected response. Up to that point, he was only accustomed to the muted plaudits of the academic community and never imagined that there would be such a positive response by so many. They were tears of joy. I also suspect that they were tears of relief and validation for a life's work.

    Also, he converted to Catholicism during the last DAYS of his life.