Fifty Years of Civilisation

31 December 2019


Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Fifty years ago, in 1969, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View was first broadcast on television, and the book based on the series was published in the same year. In my Centauri Dreams post of last Friday, Bound In Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift, I pointed out that the same year in which Clark’s documentary first aired, the Space Race reached its culmination in the Apollo moon landing: “In his Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clarke noted that, ‘Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than about fifteen years.’ In so saying, he might well have been speaking of the Founding Era of space exploration, a revolution through which he had just lived as he spoke these lines.”

Clark’s Civilisation was never intended to be a scholarly study or to break new ground, theoretically speaking. In the first few minutes of the first episode Clark says he doesn’t know what civilization is or how to define it — but he does apparently know it when it sees it, and Exhibit A is Notre Dame de Paris. And Clark’s background as an art historian meant that his focus was on the masterpieces of the art of western civilization, which is a more narrow focus than civilization itself. Nevertheless, as readers of my blog are likely to know, Clark’s television series and book have had an outsized influence on my thought concerning civilization, and I find myself returning time and again to Clark’s deceptively simple formulations, which conceal a great deal of wisdom often lacking in more academic treatments.

Clark’s art historical conception of western civilization unsurprisingly entailed his dismissing scientific historiography with a wave of the hand (so to speak), but I can’t fault him for this. It’s not my approach, but Clark’s perspective is still worth listening to despite this. Sometimes a narrowly focused perspective reveals to us aspects of a phenomenon that we would not have noticed otherwise. So it is with Clark and civilization: the focus on art as the manifestation of civilization makes us aware of historical processes we might otherwise have neglected or even rejected.

My own thought over the past year in particular has re-focused my interest on art, as I have come to see aesthetics as playing a central role in western civilization. I made this argument in Science and the Hero’s Journey, in which I wrote:

“The philosophical presuppositions about beauty have given art a distinctive role in western civilization. Art is about appearances, which made art profoundly problematic for Plato (and others), but western civilization converged upon a compromise solution such that the beautiful is a revelation of the truth by way of appearance. It is not the case that any appearance whatsoever is revelatory of the truth, but specifically it is the beautiful that is the revelation of a deeper truth. If we make the effort to transcend appearances and to gaze on reality in itself — to look upon beauty bare, as Edna St. Vincent Millay said of Euclid — this is the highest form of beauty. This is also the beauty that Plato ascribed to seeing the Forms in and of themselves, not through an imitation of an imitation.”

I have planned to expand upon this at some point in an exposition of the central project of western civilization — the kind of inquiry that Clark made possible for me. I suspect that Clark will remain important to me, however far afield I take the ideas that began to develop in me as a consequence of Clark’s work. Not everyone today shares my view of Clark’s Civilisation.

If you simply do a search on “Kenneth Clark Civilisation” you will find online any number of opinions about Clark’s series and book — some of them in praise of, some of them critical, some of them downright petty, little more than individuals who want to demonstrate their confidence in their own cleverness by irony, sarcasm, and iconoclasm — from all the major newspapers and magazines of our time. None these can match Clark’s own self-criticisms in the Forward to the book. After acknowledging the many limitations of his presentation, he asked himself if he should have dropped “Civilisation” as the title, given that his was no comprehensive survey of civilization:

“Should I then have dropped the title Civilisation? I didn’t want to, because the word had triggered me off, and remained a kind of stimulus; and I didn’t suppose that anyone would be so obtuse as to think that I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the East. However, I confess that the title has worried me. It would have been easy in the eighteenth century: Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. Unfortunately, this is no longer practicable.”

Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, Forward

Clark’s Enlightenment era title — Speculations on the Nature of Civilization as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day — would have been the perfect title for the unwritten seminal work on a science of civilization that I suggested as a thought experiment in Thought Experiment on a Science of Civilization.

Given the tenor of contemporary opinion on Clark’s Civilisation, this is a series that could not and would not be made today. Similarly, intimations of a spacefaring future implicit in the Apollo program as it landed human beings on the moon in 1969 could not and would not be realized today. But at this moment in time fifty years ago, we could look back in gratitude and look forward in hope and anticipation. As we all know, 1969 was also a turbulent time politically and militarily. No doubt fifty years ago it felt like the world was in chaos, that modern times had little in the way of gratitude or hope, and that the lucky ones were those safely in the past when the certainties of life went unchallenged. It can only be seen as I have portrayed it in hindsight.

There is a sense in which 1969 is a pivot point of recent history. Clark was able to look behind us at where western civilization has been, and the Apollo moon landings seemed to look ahead toward the direction that western civilization seemed to be taking. During what I have called the Founding Era of space exploration — Sputnik to Apollo — the future seemed as open to us as history opens the past to us. Space exploration gave us a clear direction and populated a future history for humanity in a way that was eminently comprehensible despite its utter novelty in comparison to all that we have known on Earth. Poised at that crucial year, the whole of history opened up all around, as past and future were simultaneously manifested themselves to us.

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