Civilisations is right-on and rather underwhelming

Ed West reviews the BBC’s much-hyped sequel to Kenneth Clark’s seminal documentary series

‘It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.’ So spoke the late Kenneth Clark in the final episode of his great television series, Civilisation: A Personal View, which ends in the Paris of the late 1960s, a very different city to today and a very different world. I’ve said before that I’d like someone to do a follow-up series called Decadence or Decline, but instead the Beeb has given us a sort of remake, Civilisations, presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It’s tiresome being a culture war bore, especially a losing one – I’m even more tedious in real life – but in a very solipsistic way the BBC’s remake almost seemed design to personally troll me, if such a persecution complex exists in psychology.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has already said the ‘usual suspects’ are attacking the show (which she describes as ‘wonderfully multicultural’) – but then it was obviously created to elicit this kind of negative reaction from some viewers, taking the most beloved, reactionary documentary series about European civilisation and remaking it with two high-profile, right-on historians and a third who specialises in race and slavery, as well as – apparently – someone rapping in a later episode about colonialism.

I refuse to believe that winding up a segment of the population was not partly a motivation for making this series. Schama and Beard are fine historians – I hugely enjoyed reading the latter’s SPQR last summer and they are engaging presenters – but both are well-known for their progressive views. US-based Schama has recently got a bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome (a similar condition to ‘Grayling syndrome’ found among many of the British commentariat); while Beard has similar politics although recently suffered at the hands of some demented imbeciles on Twitter who purposefully took offence to a defensible point she made.

Civilisation was among the series commissioned by David Attenborough in the early days of BBC Two, along with Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and the later Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New. I only first watched it in my 30s – I don’t ever remember it being repeated before that – but no documentary series in history can match it in my view. There is something about Clark’s instructive style that is so appealing – he’s not ‘going on a journey to find out’ something, he simply talks you through European culture as he walks the sunny sites of Cluny, Florence, Sienna and Pisa, town and village life going on in the background.

Everything in it is beautiful, every piece of art and architecture captured by the camera is aimed at raising us, and when the art is worth lingering, the camera obliges. Clark’s series came at the end of a particular cultural period and could never be made now, being almost exclusively European, white and male (although certainly not straight). It’s so European, in fact, you can almost smell the wine and the Catholicism – because without either of these two things there is no European civilisation, as Clark knew. And yet it was all done with so much charm, and when it came to a point of historical contention he simply shrugged and smiled in that effortless aristocratic manner of his, always donnish but never lecturing.

It made such great television because the story of western civilisation from the time of Charlemagne to the world wars is a self-contained narrative that makes sense as a 13-part series, but he also has the confidence to tell you ‘this is beautiful’ and ‘this is art’ (and so the subtitle, ‘A Personal View’).

Such cultural confidence has faded in the past half-century, hand in hand with the religion that made the civilisation, and what was lionised then is almost by definition reproached today. So in regards to Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great art historian who did much to popularise Hellenic sculpture as head of the Vatican museum, Beard says, in the second episode, that ‘Winkelmann’s views seduced even our own esteemed art historians’, quoting Clark’s statement that Greek sculpture ‘embodies a higher state of civilisation’.

Kenneth Clark, pictured in 1953 (Getty)

For 200 years, she says, such Greek imagery was regarded ‘as a beacon of superior western civilisation’ and ‘a distorting, divisive lens on the way people in the west have encountered and judged the art of other civilisations’ and it has ‘caught us in a narrow way of seeing’. As an example we’re presented with Olmec culture in what is now Mexico, and a statuette called The Wrestler, which is judged as superior to other Olmec art, despite debates around its authenticity, because it more closely resembles the western norm.

And yet I just don’t believe the Olmec Wrestler is on a par with its Greek counterparts, and I don’t believe people more intelligent and educated than me believe it either, as much as one might appreciate a Mesoamerican piece of art. Rather the idea that cultures are somehow equal is ironically a western conceit, a form of universalism that stems in particular from St Paul’s Christianity and which rejects any form of cultural parochialism; exaggerating the importance and contribution of non-western cultures can also act as a signifier denoting high status, both morally and culturally.

But then, like Lord Clark, I’m a self-professed ‘stick-in-the-mud’ and I accept I’m wildly out-of-touch – so maybe everyone except me and Jacob Rees-Mogg will like Civilisations. Certainly most people will agree it suffers from a narrative problem, trying to cover too much in too little time, and leaping about from Egypt to China to Greece, Mexico, and Africa, without giving us pause to learn why it all came to be. It would have made more sense to make a number of different series on Islamic, Chinese and Near Eastern civilisations – I would love a series on ancient Iraq, but then that wouldn’t have wound me up so much, which is, of course, the prime purpose of the BBC.

Civilisations is on BBC Two on Thursday nights at 9pm


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