Monday, July 28, 2014

CIVILISATION Remade: "Challenging questions about contemporary pieties"

Earlier this month, I posted about the Kenneth Clark exhibition at Tate Britain, and about the BBC's plans to "remake" the series. I noted the problems some people have with Clark's appearance and manner and said:

What Stourton describes as distractions now I find essential to the series. It was "A Personal View" so the person, Sir Kenneth Clark had to be himself--he did not have to look like a television personality; he had to have ideas and views to present. I like the static camera and the slow pans from Clark to the background and the great close ups of the artwork, so steady and patient--the camera is giving me a chance to see what Clark sees, to learn how to look at the art, see the beauty, and appreciate the civilization that created it.

The BBC is going to "remake" the series with another art critic who will have his or her own "Personal View"--I doubt the critic would dare have such a "conservative" view of civilization or even to concentrate on western civilization. It will have to be multi-cultural and the pace will have to be fast, with quick cuts and angles. The presenter will have to be photogenic with perfect teeth (Sir Kenneth's are horrible, one can tell). I can't imagine a remake of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation: A Personal View that could replace it in my library of books, DVDs, or memories. As Clark says at the end of the series, I may be hopeful about the new version, but not joyous.

Now, History Today comments on the BBC's plans and brings up the same issues:

How often has Lord Hall paused to regret announcing that the BBC intends to remake Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation? The notion becomes more fraught with difficulty at every turn. Set aside the question as to whether a modern Civilisation is a good idea and still Hall’s problems, or rather those of his commissioning editors, multiply.

First shown in 1969 in 12 episodes, Civilisation focused exclusively on western Europe. It is inconceivable that today’s BBC could make a series that excluded the cultures of the Far East, India, Africa and Central and South America. So is one that paid little attention to women. Or indeed one that started, as Clark’s did, with the disarming statement: ‘What is civilisation? I don’t know … but I think I can recognise it when I see it.’

Early attacks on Clark were instigated by his ideological opposite John Berger and they hit home. The way that Clark has been wilfully misinterpreted is, however, also a measure of changed times and contemporary pieties. His omission of other cultures was not because he thought them inferior but because, as he admitted, he didn’t know much about them. He did not ‘suppose that anyone could be so obtuse as to think I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the east’, but people did. It is worth noting that he hardly mentioned Spain – Velázquez, Goya et al – in the series because he thought the country’s contribution to culture too slight: ‘One asks what Spain has done to enlarge the human mind and pull mankind a few steps up the hill.’ It is also forgotten that the series had the all-important subtitle; ‘A personal view by Kenneth Clark’.

And then there's the issue of who will host the show:

Hall’s greatest problem though is who should play the Clark role. Immediately after the BBC announcement, the retiring novelist Kathy Lette unhelpfully whipped up a petition signed by the likes of Helena Kennedy, Shami Chakrabarti, Tracy Chevalier and Sandi Toksvig instructing Hall not to plump for a man. Mary Beard is their poster girl, though what attributes she would bring to a discussion of 19th-century Paris or pre-Columbian Peru was not made clear. Among other widely tipped names Neil MacGregor and Simon Schama stand out. Pick a woman and Hall will be accused of pandering to feminists, pick MacGregor and he will be demonstrating patrician tendencies; pick Schama and it will show a lack of imagination. And why no black or Indian presenter?

Could the presenter at least wear tweed in a few of the episodes?

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