Clark's 13-part series produced by British Broadcasting Corporation's
Channel 2 (BBC-2) in 1969 and released in the United States in 1970
on public television, remains a milestone in the history of arts
television, the Public Broadcasting System, and the explication
of high culture to interested laypeople. The series offers an extended
definition of the essential qualities of Western civilization through
an examination of its chief monuments and important locations. While
such a task may seem both arrogant and impossible, Clark's views
are always stimulating and frequently entertaining. Civilization,
he suggests, is energetic, confident, humane, and compassionate,
based on a belief in permanence and in the necessity of self-doubt.
Clark would readily acknowledge, civilization is not always all
of these things at once, which gives his chronological tour considerable
drama inasmuch as episodes speak to each other; Abbot Suger enters
into dialogue in the viewer's mind with Michelangelo, Beethoven,
and Einstein. A self-confessed hero worshiper, Clark arranged each
episode around one or more important figures, illustrating his Carlylean
view that civilization is the product of great men. Given his exploration
of the visual possibilities of television (not always acknowledged
in previous arts programming) and his particular intellectual biases,
the program draws its evidence primarily from art history, but takes
a wider view than that description might suggest. In his memoir
The Other Half he commented on the one hand that "I always
. . . based my arguments on things seen--towns, bridges, cloisters,
cathedrals, palaces," but added that he considered the visual a
"poin[t] of departure" rather than a final destination: "When I
set about the programmes I had in mind Wagner's ambition to make
opera into a gesamtkunstwerk--text, spectacle and sound all
qualifications for the series included his position as a leading
art historian and, beginning in 1937, his career as a pioneer of
British television arts programming. He had also served in the Ministry
of Information during World War II, an experience that seems to
have contributed to his philosophy of arts television: "The first
stage was to learn that every word must be scripted; the second
that what viewers want from a program on art is not ideas, but information;
and the third that things must be said clearly, energetically and
economically," he wrote. Thus his first successful television series,
Five Revolutionary Painters (which aired on ITA and which
he discusses briefly in The Other Half), both allowed him
to test his theory that the viewing public wanted to learn about
individual artists and served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the
more ambitious Civilisation. As Clark noted, "I might not
have been able to do the filmed sequences of Civilisation
with as much vivacity if I had not 'come up the hard way' of live
the social and political upheavals that marked 1968 in both Europe
and the United States, Civilisation teaches that hard times
do not inevitably crush the humane tradition so central to Clark's
view of Western civilization. Indeed, when David Attenborough suggested
the title for the series, Clark's typically self-deprecating response
was, "I had no clear idea what [civilization] meant, but I thought
it was preferable to barbarism, and fancied that this was the moment
to say so." That the program offers a personal (and in some ways
idiosyncratic) look at nine centuries of European intellectual life
is thus a crucial part of its appeal, inasmuch as it argues that
to follow cultural matters--and care about them--is within the reach
of television viewers.
appreciation that television remains a performer's medium even when
it deals with the abstract established the pattern for later pundit
programs such as Alistair Cooke's America and Jacob Bronowski's
The Ascent of Man, which were, like Civilisation, directed
by Michael Gill. In all three programs the cultural cicerone and
his locations are the stimulus for the presentation of ideas. "I
am convinced that a combination of words and music, colour and movement
can extend human experience in a way words alone cannot do," he
remarked in the foreword to the book version of Civilisation.
His series aired only two years after BBC-2 switched to full-color
broadcasting and was intended in part as a dramatic introduction
to the possibilities of the new technology.
Photo courtesy of BBC
came at an opportune time for American public television, appearing
in that venue after the BBC had tried in vain to place the series
with the commercial networks. The program was underwritten by Xerox,
which also provided $450,000 for an hour-long promotional programme
(again produced by the BBC) to drum up business for the multipart
broadcast. The nascent Public Broadcasting System received plaudits
for carrying the programme, and Clark undoubtedly found his largest
audience in the United States. The series's reach in America was
demonstrated by the popularity of the precedent-setting Harper and
Row tie-in book, which became a best seller despite its $15 price
tag. Thus in addition to promulgating its comforting message about
the survival capacities of a high culture besieged for a millennium
by the forces of darkness, Civilisation had in the United
States the serendipitous effect of demonstrating that high-culture
television could in fact draw significant numbers of viewers.
Michael Gill, Peter Montagnon
23 February-18 May, 1969
Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation: A Personal View. New York:
Harper & Row, 1969.
_______________. The Other Half: A Self-Portrait. London:
John Murray, 1977.
Guide to Civilisation: The Kenneth Clark Films on the Cultural Life
of Western Man. Introduction and notes by Richard McLanathan.
New York: Time-Life, 1970.
M. Kenneth Clark: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
Walker, John A. Arts TV: A History of Arts Television in Britain.
London: John Libbey & Company, 1993.
"Clark's Civilisation in Retrospect." Art Monthly
(London), December-January 1988-89.