The end of “Civilisation”?

I might say that I continue to “work through” Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series about the history of Western art, Civilisation — I’ve pointed to Clark here and there in the recent past — but “work” is the wrong word. The series is more an extended pleasure, and alas I have just a few more episodes to go. Fortunately, the version available on Britbox has restored the original 35mm film, so the pleasure is unencumbered by faded color or annoying scratches.

Civilisation maintains its fan base — I’ve heard from someone who expresses similar enthusiasm for it, which I must admit cheered me up quite a bit — but to some the presentation is dated. I have to disagree; maybe the best thing about the program is that, to my mind, it hasn’t dated at all. Apparently the BBC came to the conclusion that it was time for an update, and in 2018 released Civilisations (note the plural), a nine-episode do-over hosted not by a single person (therefore the subtitle to the Clark series, “A Personal View”), but by three — Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga — and when it was released in the United States by PBS, narration by Liev Schreiber was added as well. Although I haven’t seen the 2018 series yet, I fear that it may be even more dated than Clark’s, driven as it were by a need to dismiss Clark’s emphasis on the “great man” and “genius” approach to art and a similar need to dress up the history of art in classist social criticism. At the time, Andrew Ferguson contributed a wry comparison of the two series for The Weekly Standard; you can find it here, and it makes interesting reading. (It may take a while to load;  you’ve been warned.)

What can’t be said

The Wiener Staatsoper, from the stage.

I have been slightly revising some earlier posts about opera, and in the process came across the below observation from Kenneth Clark. (My own opera posts can be found here — feel free to scroll down that page to skip this one.)

What on earth has given opera its prestige in western civilisation — a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. “What is too silly to be said may be sung” — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these things can also be sung and can only be sung.

— Kenneth Clark
Civilisation (1969)

Credo: Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark.

Over the past six weeks or so, I’ve been reflecting on my recent visit to Vienna. As I’ve been doing so, I’ve also been enjoying music from the region, in a variety of ways: my wife performed the rather sublime piano music of Arnold Schönberg (not to mention the equally sublime The Book of the Hanging Gardens, which she performed with Deborah Norin-Kuehn) here in New York recently, and a bit further off radio klassik Stephansdom has been providing me with other musical entertainment. I especially enjoy their Nacht program, which runs from midnight to 5:00 am there but from 6:00 through 11:00 pm here. Programming during those hours tends to run more to the quiet side of things, which is just fine by me. (I should add that I’ve been doing my bit to keep radio klassik Stephansdom on the air — you can do so yourself here. Spenden Sie jetzt!)

This music has led me to certain considerations that echo somewhat the words of Kenneth Clark, whose Civilisation program on the BBC in 1969 covered the history of art in the west. (The series is still available via the Britbox channel on Amazon Prime.) At the end of the series he offered a kind of brief credo with which I feel particular affinity, and this I share here for those who might feel a similar affinity. I will begin to share more here too, but this will get us started. I confess that the optimism that Clark mentions at the end has been harder and harder to keep a hold of, at least for me:

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible. …

I said at the beginning that 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. Fifty years ago W. B. Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous prophetic poem:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Well, that was certainly true between the wars, and it damn nearly destroyed us. Is it true today? Not quite, because good people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no centre. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.