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Monday, October 28, 2013

“Civilization: A Personal View”, by Kenneth Clark


359 pages, Harper & Row, ISBN-13: 978-1299625471

Lord Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), English art historian and past director of the British National Gallery in London (1934-1945) reacted to the ominous signs of world cultural and political revolution which characterized the 1960’s by writing the scripts and hosting a 13 hour BBC documentary series titled simply Civilization (1969). The television documentary series he created was actually intended to discourage revolutionary thought and activity (Clark’s final pontifical message delivered at the very end of the final episode of the series), and thus could be regarded as a personal declaration delivered by one of the high priests of the British Establishment. What Clark created accomplished was in producing one of the very best and most digestible tours of the great works of European art and architecture ever produced before or since. Regardless of one’s opinion of his political and social motives, his magnum opus opposing the 60’s revolution constitutes a masterful and compelling summary of truly great art and architecture. Any person who desires the best possible education regarding the subject of art and culture in Europe at its best during the past 1000+ years owes it to him or herself to see the entire 13 hour video series and to obtain and reread often the print version of that work.

The book, then, is really the transcript of the series of the same title, giving it a conversational style that is both readable and interesting and which pulls the book along quite nicely. It’s accompanied by almost 300 illustrations (in my edition), many in color. It’s a beautiful book, but rather limited by the subject and the medium of the printed word adapted from TV. These have rather peculiar limitations, because they tend to be very personal, from the point of view of the narrator (as the title stipulates), so beware of many opinions masquerading as facts. Further, it has nothing to do with art outside Western Europe: Poland, the Balkans, Scandinavia, and Russia are all ignored, to say nothing of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, or Latin America. The author excuses it by saying that while he admires art from there, he knows little about it, and this book is about what he knows: art, primarily painting, from ancient Greece and Rome, Italy, France, and Britain, with a bit from the U.S.A. and Spain, up to the mid-18th Century.

Since Kenneth Clark produced Civilization, the cultural world has changed considerably for the worse. Educational institutions and media neither aspire to nor are successful at creating cultured people; cultured conversation or familiarity seems to exist almost nowhere; classic culture is no longer the result of higher education, nor, it seems safe though sad to say, of any education presently available at all, anywhere; the world, culturally, has returned to the Dark Ages, as it does from time to time. Kenneth Clark's work is a gleaming precious gem amidst the present darkness. It’s out of print and hard to find, but it's not gone completely. Those who know of its existence, and who know where valuable cultural works like Civilization can still be gotten, needn't be gloomy, nor need they worry about the present dark times.

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