Monument to a moment

Why is the BBC's Civilisations such a mess?

David Herman

Inside the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy  (c. 526-547 AD). All images ©BBC/NUTOPIA

There is much to enjoy and admire in BBC2’s series, Civilisations. It looks beautiful, from Simon Percy’s opening titles to the directing and photography. The programmes capture the gorgeous colours of art, from Titian and El Greco to 19th-century Japanese woodcuts, from Islamic art to Matisse. Some of these sequences are breathtaking, bringing the great art, sculpture and architecture of different civilisations to life.

There is also the geographic and historical range, from ancient cave paintings, 40,000 years old, to 21st-century artists. At their best, these programmes show us how civilisations have connected and influenced each other: the influence of 19th-century Japanese art on the Impressionists, of Islamic art on Matisse during his time in Tangier, of African art on Picasso. Perhaps best of all is the enthusiasm of the three presenters and the quality of some of the individual readings. For almost three minutes Simon Schama speaks with terrific passion about Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône, looking at land, water and sky “all melting and dissolving together”. David Olusoga shows how a seemingly interior, domestic space in a painting by Vermeer is full of objects from all over the world.

Finally, there is the politics and history. Olusoga describes the catastrophic encounters between Western conquerors and natives from the Americas to Tahiti. One of the highlights of the series comes when Mary Beard describes how “a distorting and sometimes divisive lens” has deeply affected “the way people in the West have encountered and judged the art of very different civilisations.”

If all this is so good, then why is Civilisations such a mess? Why has it received so much critical flak?

There are always two questions which dominate every major TV historical series. First, where to start? Second, how to slice the cake? When Kenneth Clark set out to present Civilisation, he wrote down 15 subjects (later reduced to 13) on one page of a red notebook. This became the outline of the series. When Jeremy Isaacs produced The World at War, a television history of the Second World War, in 26 episodes, he met the Director of the Imperial War Museum, Noble Frankland, and asked him to write down 14 military topics that any series on the war could not ignore. Isaacs later claimed that this was written down “on the back of an envelope”.

In both cases, Clark and Isaacs knew where they wanted to start and the story they wanted to tell. Crucially, they both wanted to tell a chronological story, moving forward through time. Jacob Bronowski and his producers did the same with The Ascent of Man, telling the story from the evolution of man from apes to modern physics and genetics in 13 one-hour episodes.

San rock paintings (6000 BCE-1900 BC), South Africa (©BBC/NUTOPIA)

What is striking about these series, broadcast in the 1970s, is their confidence and ambition — big historical stories told in multi-part series, either 13 or 26 episodes, unfolding in chronological order. This was not unique to television. Think of major 20th-century books on the history of culture: Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, Auerbach’s Mimesis, Gombrich’s The Story of Art and his Little History of the World. They all start in the distant past and move forwards to the present.

There was an obvious problem with these books and TV series. They were all written or presented by white European men and they largely told a Eurocentric story. They were too white, too male and too Eurocentric. They didn’t have much time for other cultures or for women (though The World at War obviously gave due prominence to the campaigns in North Africa and the Pacific). Civilisation, in particular, has come in for growing criticism for these omissions since it was first shown.

When the BBC came to produce a new version of Civilisation the first decision was to change the title, emphasise diversity and  choose three presenters, one white man, one black man, and one woman. Civilisations would be as much about Islamic, Indian and Chinese art as it would be about European art. So far, so good.

But how to slice the cake? They obviously couldn’t produce one episode on Islamic art, one on Indian art, and so on. And what about chronology? How could they connect developments happening in different places at the same time?

Civilisations tried to solve these problems with a set of different essays which more or less move forward through time. The problem, though, is the lack of a clear narrative. In episode 2 Mary Beard looks at the human figure from Olmec statues, 3,000 years ago, to Egyptian figures in the Nile Valley, to Greece, Roman Egypt and the Chinese terracotta army, before returning via Greek sculpture to the Olmec statues. What do these have in common apart from the fact that they are all ancient civilisations, albeit thousands of miles and thousands of years apart? What do the Chinese terracotta soldiers have in common with the great Egyptian statues of the Nile Valley? What is interesting about the differences between them? Beautifully filmed, the programme just feels like one thing after another, a sort of crazy Swan Hellenic Cruise, five civilisations in 60 minutes.

It doesn’t help that the analysis is curiously old-fashioned. There is a dig at the pernicious legacy of Winckelmann’s idealisation of Greek civilisation, “a narrow way of seeing” (see this issue’s Underrated on Winckelmann) but otherwise much of this could have come from Clark’s series almost 50 years ago. Beard is a feminist, but perhaps the most powerful sequences in the programme are about male figures: Rameses II, a brutalised and scarred Greek boxer from 300 BC, and The Dying Gaul. The critique of Winckelmann, with two very short clips of Clark on the Apollo Belvedere, is over in a few moments. It raises an important question but it doesn’t make for a sustained critical engagement and is the only time Civilisations explicitly refers to Clark’s series.

“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.

“Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings” (c. 1615-1618), by Bichitr: Connections between Mughal and Western art are not made clear (© BBC/Nutopia)

He didn’t focus on these in Civilisation not because he didn’t care about other cultures, but because his expertise lay in European art. Civilisations gets particularly wobbly when its presenters move out of their comfort zone. Mary Beard is a leading classicist but her views of Chinese terracotta sculptures or Olmec sculptures are not illuminating. Simon Schama has written superb books on 17th-century Dutch culture but how much does he really know about early Chinese landscape painting? Perhaps Clark had a point.

Critics have also attacked Clark for his confident Eurocentrism. But what is striking about the first and last episodes of Civilisation is their moving emphasis on the fragility of European civilisation. He was not some strident cheerleader for the West. Clark knew how close European civilisation came to catastrophe after the fall of Rome. He says of Rome, “That world must have seemed indestructible. However complex and solid it seems [my emphasis], it is actually quite fragile.” Is he talking about Rome or about the Edwardian world of his childhood, about the Thirties or the late Sixties? In his own lifetime, the West had almost collapsed. His own art collection included superb paintings of bombed British cities. The final sequence of Civilisation shows Clark closing his copy of W.B. Yeats, walking into his library at Saltwood Castle, replacing the book on one of several towering bookcases and walking towards the camera, pausing only to lovingly caress a sculpture by Henry Moore. Moore but also Yeats. The greatness of modern art but also “the best lack all conviction”. We should not mistake erudition for boastful confidence.

Watching Civilisations, one might ask whether we have lost confidence in a unifying story about human civilisation and, in particular, in the enormous historical and artistic contributions of the West. Neither Clark nor Bronowski, men who lived through the Second World War, ignored the stories of Western science and     ideas of liberty. For them these advances were central to the story of Western civilisation. But they never thought that was the whole story. Perhaps the most unforgettable scene in The Ascent of Man shows Bronowski, a Polish Jew, at Auschwitz, speaking of how “science stands on the edge of error” and of the dangers of dogma.

Olmec jade figurines (c. 600-200 BC) from Mexico (©BBC/NUTOPIA)

Civilisations, by contrast, has a far narrower sense of civilisation than Clark or Bronowski. There is little about science and technology, nothing about ideas of liberty and tolerance. Too often Civilisations is about the costs of Western progress, not about its achievements. 19th-century urbanisation, David Olusoga tells us, was “a social disaster”. The parks, libraries and galleries of 19th-century Europe count for nothing. Later he has a dig about “the supposed triumph of European rationalism” and “the stifling conventions of bourgeois society”. The only time the word “bourgeois” is used is in a sneer.

Clark hardly needed to be lectured about the problems of Western civilisation. His series was about the tension between fragility and achievement. But at least he thought he had a story to tell. So did Bronowski. Civilisations has none of this confidence. It has lost faith in the old story and doesn’t have anything to replace it with. Recycled versions of John Berger and Edward Said are not the same thing. Too often, what we get are the fashionable pieties of our time. It is, ultimately, a monument to what may prove a brief moment in Anglo-American political correctness.

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