Sunday, November 15, 2009

The End Beginning Of "Civilisation"?

Kenneth M. Clark, Baron Clark of Saltwood hosted a 13-part television series, "Civilisation," on both the BBC and PBS that gave rise to Alistair Cooke's 13-part "America: A Personal History of the United States" on both the BBC and PBS. All of this rumination on culture and history inspired another PBS-fixture, Ken Burns. Unlike the first two stars of PBS, Burns does not appear on camera in his multi-part examinations of "Brooklyn Bridge" (1981), "The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God" (1984), "The Statue of Liberty" (1985), "Huey Long" (1985), "The Congress" (1988), "Thomas Hart Benton" (1988), "The Civil War" (1990), "Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio" (1991). "Baseball" (1994), "Thomas Jefferson" (1997), Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997) Frank Lloyd Wright (1998), "Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony" (1999), "Jazz" (2001), "Mark Twain" (2001), "Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip" (2003), "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" (2005), "The War" (2007), and "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (2009). In all of these productions, off-camera narrators read from contemporary written materials against the visual content. "Civilisation," still available on DVD, just turned 40. If this is the (fair & balanced) passage of time (and taste), so be it.

[x Wall Steet Fishwrap]
Forty Years Of "Civilisation"
By Terry Teachout

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Television can make you famous, but it can't keep you famous. It's a bit like heroin: No sooner do you stop taking your daily fix than you get all pale and clammy, after which you vanish in a puff of smoke. So far as I know, there's never been a TV star who lingered in the public eye for very long after departing from the airwaves—least of all Kenneth Clark.

Even among his fellow art historians, Clark is only modestly well remembered. Most of his books are now out of print, and you're not likely to know his name if you're much under the age of 50. But Clark became a full-fledged celebrity in his late 60s when, in 1970, the newly hatched Public Broadcasting Service aired a 13-part TV series called "Civilisation: A Personal View" in which he escorted his viewers through a thousand years of cultural history. The program had been a huge success when broadcast by the BBC the preceding year, and it made a similar splash in America: In addition to launching PBS with a bang, "Civilisation" spawned an eponymous coffee-table book that cracked the best-seller list. It was the first time that PBS aired the kind of show that has since been dubbed "appointment TV." Everybody felt they had to see it—and talk about it.

Now people are talking about "Civilisation" again, albeit on a more modest scale. Washington's National Gallery of Art recently presented a panel discussion led by Jonathan Conlin, a British historian whose latest book, a volume in the British Film Institute's TV Classics series, is a study of the history and reception of "Civilisation," which he praises for its "scale, confidence and ambition." PBS, alas, shows no signs of taking note of the 40th anniversary of "Civilisation," least of all by airing it again, but the whole series is available on DVD, and you can also view chunks of it on YouTube—an experience that I commend to anyone who wonders what became of the good old days of public TV.

"The very simple thought I started from," said David Attenborough, the BBC executive who dreamed up "Civilisation," "was to get on the screen the loveliest things created by European man in the past thousand years." When Clark was invited to serve as its host and writer, he added an urgent imperative of his own: "It's worth trying... to make people realize how fragile civilisation is and how easily it might slip from our grasp."

By "civilisation" Clark meant Western civilization, and the first episode, "The Skin of Our Teeth," made it clear that he was no less firm a believer in the primacy of high culture and the genius of great men. In the opening sequence, an unseen organist thunders out a toccata as the camera pans across the face of Michelangelo's David, the fa├žade of Chartres Cathedral and other icons of Western art. Then Clark reads the stately words of John Ruskin: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." From there he embarks on a discursive tour d'horizon devoted solely to the doings of dead white giants: Charlemagne, Raphael, Bach, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Byron, Rodin. If you think Michael Jackson was a musical master, you've come to the wrong shop.

Much of the effect of "Civilisation" arose from the witty flair with which Clark conducted this highbrow travelogue. "Lives devoted to Beauty seldom end well," he proclaimed in one episode. In another he described opera as "one of the strangest inventions of Western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process." But for all his charm, you were never in a moment's doubt of his passionate belief in the power and significance of Western culture.

Four decades ago, Time magazine declared "Civilisation" to be TV's "most distinguished (not to mention only new) cultural series" of the year. Those words have a hollow ring today. For years PBS has been trimming back its high-culture programming, partly because it doesn't do well in the ratings and partly, I suspect, because such lofty fare has lost favor with the intellectual elite. The notion of devoting a 13-hour TV series to the glories of Western art would now be thought comical—or contemptible—by those well-placed eggheads who regard the West as the source of all evil in the postmodern world. Among such enlightened folk, "Civilisation" is regarded as an embarrassing relic, painfully slow-moving and politically retrogressive.

I doubt that Clark, who died in 1983, would have been surprised to hear that. In "Civilisation" he warned that Western culture rested on a thin crust of ice: "Advanced thinkers, who even in Roman times thought it fine to gang up with the barbarians, have begun to question whether civilization is indeed worth preserving.... It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs." The day that PBS replays "Civilisation" in prime time is the day I'll breathe a little easier about the prospects for the preservation of the art that Kenneth Clark championed so eloquently—and unapologetically. Ω

[Terry Teachout is a critic, biographer and blogger. He is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the music critic of Commentary, and the author of "Sightings," a column about the arts in America that appears biweekly in the Saturday Wall Street Journal. He blogs at About Last Night along with Chicago-based critic Laura Demanski (who writes under the name "Our Girl in Chicago"). Teachout attended St. John's College in Annapolis, MD; William Jewell College in Liberty, MO, where he received his B.S. in music journalism; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.]

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