Kenan Malik in the Guardian:
Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” So says Giovanni in John Berger’s 1972 Booker prize-winning novel G. The line became an epigram to both Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It could also be an epigram to the new BBC series Civilisations, which began last week.
Presented jointly by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, it has been heralded as the remaking for a new era of Civilisation, Kenneth Clark’s landmark 1969 series. The ghost that hovers over Civilisations is not, however, that of Clark, but that of Berger. Three years after Civilisation came Berger’s series Ways of Seeing. “The relation between what we see and what we know,” he tells us in the opening scene, “is never settled.” It was a direct riposte to Clark.
For Clark, every artwork embodies unique qualities and an inherent meaning that has to be drawn out and explained. For Berger, the meaning and worth of art rests not just in the frame or the marble but also in the relationship between the viewer and the object. Meaning is not intrinsic but emerges only in the viewing. At different points in space and time, and from different vantage points in any society, Berger insists, the meaning of the same work of art will necessarily be different.