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“Boxer at Rest” (c. 323-31 BC), Hellenistic artist unknown: Much of “Civilisations” could have come from Kenneth Clark’s original series (© BBC/Nutopia)

Again and again, individual programmes hop from one sequence to another without rhyme or reason. The BBC’s own Arts Editor, Will Gompertz was damning, saying it was “more confused than a drunk driver negotiating Spaghetti Junction at rush hour”. In Schama’s programme about landscape he is at his eloquent best on Dürer, Brueghel and 17th-century Dutch art. Then, inexplicably, the programme moves to the 19th- and 20th-century American West. Why? Presumably to please PBS, the BBC’s American co-producers. In his next programme (episode 5), Schama starts with two extraordinary religious buildings in Constantinople and Rome, but never produces a sustained exploration of the connections and differences between West and East in the 16th century. Then we’re off again, from Cellini’s Perseus to Caravaggio, Velazquez, Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Indian Mughal art. It is not at all clear what the connections are, if any, between these great Western works and Islamic architecture or Mughal art. The giveaway line is when Schama comes to the Taj Mahal, and says in a rather resigned way, “another extraordinary dome”. Indeed. Most of the individual readings are bravura performances, Schama at his best. But you could edit out everything about Islam and India and you would have a perfectly conventional programme about Renaissance and early modern Western European art.

There is another problem. Of course, all these civilisations have great works of art, and most have works depicting faith, landscapes and the human figure. The question is, what’s new here? Mary Beard talking about “bling” or Schama saying about a Minoan object, “It’s 3D folks! It’s coming at you!” doesn’t alter the fact that there’s very little that’s original as history or art history. At times it’s terribly predictable. No sooner has David Olusoga mentioned the Industrial Revolution than up pops Joseph Wright of Derby’s Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. When he’s talking about the impact of African art on 20th-century Modernism, we cut to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon.

It’s not new as television either. Here is our old friend the single presenter, turning up in exotic locations all over the world, with a lush soundtrack, beautifully filmed paintings and objects and the occasional piece of archive film. It is as if John Berger and Mike Dibb’s Ways of Seeing had never happened. Ratings have plummeted. Episode 1 was only seen by 1.9 million. By Episode 3 it was less than half, under a million.    

Civilisations is an implicit criticism of Kenneth Clark’s famous series. Where his series was Eurocentric, this would cast its net wider. Where he was too male-centric, this would have a woman presenter and include more women (though not that many). However, this criticism of Clark misses the point in several crucial respects. Civilisation may have been Eurocentric but Clark wasn’t. He travelled widely and in his autobiography makes clear that he greatly admired other civilisations, especially India and Japan. He describes his first encounter with Japanese art: “I was not only struck dumb with delight, I felt that I had entered a new world.” His enjoyment of art, he wrote, “covers a very wide field — Egyptian, Byzantine, Indian, Chinese, Japanese”. He later presented a three-part TV series on Japanese art and his last TV programme was on early Egypt.
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