Kenneth Clark: Would civilisation endure? (credit: BBC)
Thirty years after his death in 1983, Kenneth Clark is back in the news. Tate Britain is hosting a major exhibition, Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation (until August 10). And Tony Hall, the BBC's new director-general, has spoken of reinventing Civilisation for the digital age. He means two things: first, a landmark series which will show that the BBC is open for business again as a cultural force; but also a series which will be more "relevant" to multicultural, 21st-century Britain, less elitist, less, well, posh and patrician.
These two aspects of Civilisation were debated when it was first shown in 1969. It was a huge success for the BBC, not necessarily in terms of ratings, but of impact and prestige. It was the first lengthy documentary series in colour for the new BBC2, which had only started in 1964. This was how it was always conceived by David Attenborough, then controller of BBC2, who commissioned the series. "Colour had a bad name among those who had never seen our programmes," wrote Attenborough in his memoir, Life on Air. "In part this was due to the staggeringly garish quality of the first colour programmes shown in the United States . . . something was needed to show off its quality and demonstrate to its sceptics."
Civilisation was intended not just to show that BBC2 would be a cultural channel of the highest quality, but to sell colour television in Britain and, as important, new colour sets and the more expensive colour TV licences which helped fund the expansion of the BBC in the following years. Civilisation, triumphantly, did both. It was the first of a number of presenter-led documentary series which redefined the BBC as a public service broadcaster in the Seventies, thoughtful and serious but also hugely popular and accessible: Alistair Cooke's America (1972), Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973), J.K. Galbraith's The Age of Uncertainty (1977) and Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New (1980). Beautifully filmed on 35mm film, Civilisation sold colour television. Those astonishing images of Michelangelo and Raphael, lovingly created by the directors Michael Gill, Peter Montagnon and Ann Turner, and by their lighting cameraman A. Arthur Englander, showed what colour television could do. "At times," wrote the Guardian's art critic, Jonathan Jones, in 2007, "it rises to a cinematic brilliance rarely rivalled since: a scene in which Clark is seen walking away down a grandiose corridor in the Vatican while the camera pans backwards away from him — an effect designed to emphasise the chill of authority and power in the Baroque age — is worthy of Rossellini or Visconti."
From the start, however, Civilisation had its critics. Ways of Seeing (1972), written by John Berger and directed by Mike Dibb, was conceived as a response to Clark's "great men" art history. Irreverent, polemical, with its Marxist politics largely influenced by Walter Benjamin, its emphasis on the nude and the representation of women and the relation between high art and popular culture, especially new mass media, Ways of Seeing influenced how a new generation saw art and its history. To this generation of feminist and left-wing art historians, Civilisation seemed the enemy. Take Clark's opening quotation from his beloved Ruskin, "Looking at those great works of Western man". Western? Where were other, non-Western civilisations? India, China, Central and South America, Africa? There are a few passing references, but they remained on the margins. And what of Jewish and Islamic art? Again, a few passing references. Clark's references to Jews were often, troublingly, in the context of trading centres like Renaissance Florence and 17th-century Amsterdam — very different to Simon Schama's loving account of the visual beauty of early modern European synagogues in The Story of the Jews. Islam is referred to as "a new agent of destruction" in episode one on the Dark Ages, reappears briefly in the Crusades and rarely later.