‘Kenneth Clark’ by James Stourton

Civilisation-kenneth-clar-014Mary Beard at The Guardian:

In February 1969, I watched the first episode of Kenneth Clark’s famous TV series, Civilisation. I can still picture him, standing on barbaric northern headlands, explaining that “our” civilisation had barely survived the collapse of the Roman empire. We had come through only “by the skin of our teeth”. It was an incongruous scene: Clark – Winchester and Oxford educated, connoisseur and collector, former director of the National Gallery – looked every inch the toff as he walked in his brogues and Burberry over the battered countryside, where wellington boots and a woolly would have been more appropriate. But I tingled slightly as he repeated that phrase, “by the skin of our teeth”. I was just 14, and it had never struck me that “civilisation” might be such a fragile thing, still less that it might be possible to trace a history of European culture, as Clark was to do, in 13 parts, from the early middle ages to the 20th century.

A few years later, now more a devotee of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (a TV series and book devised in hostile reaction to Civilisation), I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable with Clark’s patrician self-confidence and the “great man” approach to art history – one damn genius after the next – that ran through the series. I was very doubtful, too, about the image of wild barbarians at the gates that Clark conjured up in that first episode: it was as crude an oversimplification of barbarism as his dreamy notion of ideal perfection was an oversimplification of classicism. Nonetheless,Civilisation had opened my eyes, and those of many others; not only visually stunning, it had shown us that there was something in art and architecture that was worth talking, and arguing, about.

more here.