Digital Civilisation?

Two summer exhibitions present differing visions of civilisation

Derwent May

Two remarkable exhibitions in London this summer provided deeply contrasting experiences. One was Looking For Civilisation, at Tate Britain, commemorating the life and work of Sir Kenneth — later Lord — Clark, which coincided with the BBC’s announcement that it was going to “remake” Clark’s 1969 TV documentary series, Civilisation. The other was Digital Revolution, at the Barbican (until September 14), about the varied art produced so far by digital technology.

The Clark exhibition was a revelation, packed with pictures and sculptures that Clark had owned himself, bought for the National Gallery when he was director, commissioned from living artists for other places and people, or that had been created under his patronage.

It was an enchanting and absorbing collection: a drawing by Bellini of the Virgin’s hands, a painting by a follower of Fra Lippo Lippi of a bearded Moses striking water from the rock, a drawing by Cezanne of his baby son Paul, a portrait of W.H. Auden’s impressive, strong-featured mother by William Coldstream. 

At the Barbican show you were instantly immersed in the throbbing sounds and sights of a wild carnival. Hundreds of screens poured down images: the wizened, digitally-created face of Gollum, the skies full of the chaotic debris left by an exploded Russian satellite, created digitally for the space thriller Gravity. Many of the installations were “interactive”: you could wave your arms and make light patterns in the air, or watch smoke come out of your eyes in your reflection on a screen until it slowly engulfed you. 

This is nevertheless a well-informed and well-curated show that provides a clear account of the exploitation of digital technology so far. Civilisation is the business of living well together, and advanced civilisations have thrived through inventions such as this. Civilisation is not just art. In that respect, the title of Clark’s documentary was misleading. However, art has reflected the nature of civilised societies, and supported them, in a unique, wonderful and precious way, as the Clark show so vividly illustrated. At the Barbican, there was no art remotely comparable. Everything with any pretensions to that claim was thin and shallow, however spectacular it may have been.

The Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, has not yet chosen the presenter and director of the new Civilisation series. I beg him to remember the vision of civilisation that Clark gave us. There are things to dispute in it, things to add to it. But let the DG not be tempted by the Barbican to think that digital technology, as yet, has any significant part in civilisation. 

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