Kenneth Clark and Jonathan Meades
5 July 2009
It is always interesting to discover a “new” personality. Last Thursday, three days ago, I first learned about Jonathan Meades. Before that, I had never heard the name. I have been mentioning Kenneth Clark’s BBC series Civilisation from 1969 in this forum, and it was in searching for materials on Clark that I ran across an article in the New Statesman, High art lite, written by Jonathan Meades, which was ostensibly a review of a book by Jonathan Conlin published to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Clark’s Civilisation.
While, as I said, ostensibly a review, the New Statesman article by Jonathan Meades was an attack — not thinly veiled, but a frontal assault — on Clark’s Civilisation: its cinematography, its opinions, its reception, its influence, and so forth. I might have dismissed this out of hand, but one of the comments on the article, left by an earlier reader, read thus: “If he weren’t a trenchant atheist, I’d say Jonathan Meades was pretty well God…” Well, apparently, some people take Jonathan Meades pretty seriously. I decided to look into it.
As it turns out, Jonathan Meades has written and appeared in an impressive number of television documentaries than had been broadcast on the BBC. I do not think that Mr. Meades is well-known in the US, but honestly I cannot say this for sure, as I really don’t know what exactly people in the US watch on TV. But I have some evidence that this is the case. I checked the main US Amazon.com website, and there was not a single thing to be found on DVD by Mr. Meades. Next I checked the UK Amazon site, and there one could purchase a DVD collection of some of Meades’ documentaries, though not necessarily the ones that I had since learned about and wanted to see.
Then I remembered that we live in an age of instant gratification, so I went to YouTube, and there found for free what could not be had for money in the US: a generous selection of Meades’ documentaries. So I spent some time — more time than I had planned to spend — watching Meades. Mr. Meades is obviously a talented raconteur and an outspoken aesthetic curmudgeon who takes a certain pleasure in contrarianism. So far, so good. I watched both of the episodes of “Magnetic North” about his appreciation of northern Europe (each episode was made available in six ten-minute segments) and his documentary on Nazi architecture. I noticed that, while more the six thousand people looked at the first segment of “Magnetic North”, subsequent segments were watched about two thousand times, and the last couple segments were watched fewer than two thousand times. I, of course, watched them all, and watched them twice, but that’s the kind of person I am: a delver.
I watched Meades’ documentary twice, and then thrice, for the same reason that I have repeatedly watched, and continue to watch, Clark’s Civilisation: both have something interesting to say, and both are very comfortable being themselves. Meades, in his New Statesman review, quoted Cyril Connolly on Kenneth Clark, whom Connolly had called, “a polished hawk-god in obsidian” in comment on Clark’s good looks. Meades went on to add, “…that statuesque demeanour remained with him into late middle age. Clark delivered opinions as if they were irrefutable truths.”
I can still remember the first time I opened up a copy of Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave, written under the Pseudonym “Palinurus”, and thrilled to the first sentence in which he claims that nothing matters but writing a masterpiece. So when Connolly says something, I pay attention. But the focus on Clark’s one-time good looks, as though intended to indirectly call into question the intellectual merits of his presentation, aren’t quite true from an American perspective. Sure, Clark is passably good looking for an English gentleman, but he definitely isn’t what Americans expect from television talking heads. For one thing, his teeth are crooked. In American television culture, that would spell the end of the career right there.
Not surprisingly, Meades is exactly the same way as he described Clark: Meades delivers his opinions as if they were irrefutable truths, but, as befits the present time, he does so with self-deprecating humor. But both share the perfectly deadpan English delivery. Meades demonstrates his seriousness about his subject matter by wearing a suit, but shows that he is hip and very much a man of his time (our time) by wearing sunglasses in almost every scene.
It was instructive to go back and read Meades’ review after seeing his documentary presence, since I then had Meades’ voice in my head, and as I read I could hear his dry deadpan delivery, and it made much more sense with that in mind. Knowing Meades’ delivery, when I read his words I could hear the ironic, Lettermanesque tongue-in-cheek humor in the background, knowing that he is having a great deal of fun with what he is doing, but is way too cool to let on or to laugh out loud. But, while I sympathize, I’m not quite so refined in my cool, and I’m still sufficiently vulgar to laugh out loud. In fact, I laughed as I watched Meades’ documentaries and enjoyed them immensely.
I enjoyed Meades almost as much as Clark, and for similar reasons, as noted above. Meades’ criticism of Clark must be taken in this context. Meades is supplanting Clark’s role, and he is as much a man of his time as Clark was a man of his time. In both, one can recognize the age in the man and the man in the age. This is a virtue, so far as I am concerned. In Literary Serendipity I wrote about Gibbon being as much a testament to the Enlightenment as to the history of the Roman Empire, and quoted Alfred North Whitehead to this effect. There I detailed some of the virtues of those who bring the spirit of their age into their intellectual activity.
Thus when Meades writes, “To a certain cast of plodding mind, art remains a necessarily important thing, something intrinsically good, improving. And it is even better when rendered popularly ‘accessible’ with stirring music, doting cinematography and big ideas that are easy to follow.” We see that part of this is his contemporary skepticism and cynicism, but if this hip, cool veneer is stripped away, he is doing exactly the same thing. And he does it well. Clark keeps my interest because he deals with ideas as though they matter. And they do. Meades may use of different soundtrack, an ironic and contemporary soundtrack, but he too engages with ideas, and does so in an intriguingly personal way, as did Clark. One difference, however, that is probably a difference between Clark’s time and Meades’ time is that Clark can explicitly mention philosophers and their ideas with a straight face, while Meades doesn’t even attempt this. Meades liberally exposes us to the kind of contemporary art that is revered in some quarters even as it is reviled in other quarters, but this intellectual edginess does not extend into the pure realm of ideas. That, apparently, would be beyond the pale.
So my second reading of Meades on Conlin on Clark was different that the first. I understood with the second reading that Meades is speaking at least in part for effect. He has to say outrageous things, because in order to be heard above the media cacophony of today, one must be what is called a “bomb-thrower.” One says outrageous things in order to get noticed, and then once you get people’s attention you can talk to them on a little more sane and intelligent level. By no means is Meades the worst offender on this account; on the contrary, he is a civilized and intelligent alternative to the vulgar American approach to making a living from the mass media. So while I think that Meades is wrong about Clark, and that in fact Meades is the Clark of today, I am more sympathetic to his approach now than when I first stumbled across his review last Thursday.
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