Shiny Shelf

This is Civilisation

By Mags L Halliday on 26 November 2007

It’s hard to avoid Kenneth Clark’s 1969 landmark ‘Civilisation’ documentary series if you are doing a series on the history of civilisation, even though most modern viewers would find Clarks’s progress through the eras slow compared to modern documentary styles. We recently watched a Magnus Magnusson doc on Tutankhamun from 1972 and it felt staggeringly glacial.

‘This is Civilisation’ is an unusually intelligent and deliberate updating. Matthew Collings sets out to detail what makes us civilised, how our culture is a reflection and depiction of our struggle to be more than animals. It talks cheerfully and casually about philosophy, history, art and the ways in which we respond to these things. In the first episode, on religion, it is remarkably relaxed about introducing questions about the notion of the soul.

Most wonderfully of all, it does not assume the audience has attention deficit disorder: although it tells us what we’ll be looking at after the break, it doesn’t do it breathlessly for ninety seconds and then reiterate it in full after the ads. The narration regards the breaks as shallow annoying interruptions. There are no re-constructions. Not one. All we see is a clearly well-informed presenter walking around works of art, cities and places of worship, explaining how those came to be and what they represent in terms of the progression of philosophical thought.

In terms of how the art and ideas are presented, this is an unusually smart and intelligent series that should be praised. I would recommend people watch it for a firm grounding in a history of art and culture. Subsequent episodes will go on to the secular appropriation, the impact of the industrial revolution and the current state of Western art. It’s pretty much a primer on art history.

However, as with ‘Civilisation’, ‘This is Civilisation’ is, based on the evidence of the first episode, exclusively about the traditional European perception of a progressive history of ideas and philosophy rising in the Mediterranean and leading to our current culture. So the first episode, about the place of religion in society and its impact on our representations of the divine, starts with the Greeks, then the Romans, the Christians and Islam. There is no mention of the myriad gods of the Indian sub-continent, China or Japan, nor of the influence of Buddhism or Christianity on their subsequent iconography.

This is, I feel, the primary flaw: in seeking to create a narrative, a continuous thread of influence and impact, anything not directly related to that story is excluded. The inference, when a series positions itself as ‘This is Civilisation’ rather than ‘This is our Civilisation’, is that other cultures lack the necessary philosophical progression required in order to be considered civilised. This Euro-centric theory of art history was dated and often questioned when I first stumbled into art school in the 1980s, so it is somewhat surprising to see it still being reiterated in multicultural twenty-first century Britain. Both Clark and Collings emphasise that these are their personal views of culture (the full title of Clark’s series was ‘Civilisation: A Personal View’) and it is perhaps unsurprising that the 1969 series should see civilisation as being essentially European. But by following the traditional art history route map, ‘This is Civilisation’ misses the possibility of being a true updating of the original paternalistic series.

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