The glories of Greece depended on slave labour

And the world we live in?

Mike Belbin reviews: Civilisations Thursdays, 9pm, BBC2 - all episodes available on the BBC iPlayer

In 1969 a former director of the National Gallery and recent life peer, Kenneth Clark, began a TV series called Civilisation. The BBC had commissioned it because it wanted a series of programmes about art to go with the recent introduction of broadcasting in colour. The acclaimed series led to other colour TV landmarks, such as The ascent of man and America by Alistair Cooke - films where the photography often seemed more important than the thesis.

As Clark confessed in his book to accompany the 13-part series, what he wanted to do was sketch the development of one form of civilisation - the western kind, from the Roman empire to the University of East Anglia - and defend it against “barbarism”. A state he left vague, but which perhaps amounted to something like 1960s indifference towards ‘works of genius’, by the ‘telly-glued masses’ and moderns like Andy Warhol, as well criticism of the culture by rebellious students of the time.

Now we have the follow-up of Civilisation - this time in the plural and with not one historian, but three (and only nine episodes). Why now? It is not as if we are bereft of arts documentaries, especially on BBC 4 - many of them giving us insight into arts in society, artists in their context and the treatment of subject matter through the ages: for example, Bettany Hughes’s recent film on Venus or Andrew Graham-Dixon on the mixed culture of Muslim Spain.

Is the new one supposed to be a big statement to rival or surpass Clark’s view 49 years ago?

These programmes are in fact not so much a narrative as a series of essays by the three presenters - chronological, but structured through themes or subjects: Mary Beard on the body, Simon Schama on colours, David Olusoga on colonial encounters. Some of the ideas in the commentary will be all too familiar. Did you know that those ancient Greek statues, whitewashed by 18th century Europeans, have given us a problem in the west with ‘body image’? Or that the Catholic church spent a lot of the faithful’s cash on imposing art and architecture? There has been the odd mention of these topics over the years.

No programme or presenter is confined to one culture or society (Christian art is a culture, Japan is a society), which makes for some telling characterisations, especially David Olusoga on European artists borrowing from motifs of non-European art.

One of the running themes is cultural exchange - how art and artists ‘borrow’ from one another across nations and cultures: for example, from Mughal India by the Raj. The implication at times is that great art unites people, as they learn from others: all very diverse and harmonious, like a current international art fair at Venice or Berlin. But in the wars of religion - reformation/counterreformation - or colonial occupation, with its ‘civilising mission’ as a screen for exploitation, art was a site of conflict, of satire as well as appropriation. And it was not just one way. I am reminded of the Artist and empire exhibition at Tate Britain (2015-16), where dark wooden statuettes, by a Yoruba artist in 1911, portray an elongated figure in military uniform playing an accordion and another in a pith helmet. These adaptations of Nigerian ‘god’ figures come over as sardonic caricatures of colonial officials.

In the end, the heroes of the series are the artists. This is not so different from Clark. Actually, I myself have previously favoured a definition of the human animal as differing from other beings by their creative power, with their learning abilities and lasting products: the homo fabricator. But in this series, while acknowledging creative humanity, there is little time to reflect on the just as important conditions of art making. For how, at any one time, were the artists selected, how were they trained, how did they make a living - from patrons, from specific institutions like religious orders, from aiming at a market? Different places, different civilisations, will give different answers to these same questions - alongside others, of course, as to who was doing the rest of the work that was sustaining it all.

We do indeed get a glimpse of various societies (Mexico, Japan, Italy), but we are still getting one story - the story of the art ‘impulse’ - a common human ability to create imagery, which is shown to striking effect in different places. As Schama puts it, quoting Picasso, “the hand of the artist never really changes”.

Clark was sure that the best art is evidence of the best civilised society, though he did not fail to mention slavery and industrial poverty. Nor do the trio miss out, for example, on ‘the horrors of the 20th century’. Yet promotion for the series has mentioned its prime intention to get viewers into galleries and museums and have a look at the objects. Is this a major need currently, now that the various Tates are crammed with visitors, while attending museums and galleries is the major reason given for coming to the UK?

As for barbarism, it is not something that belongs outside civilisation or solely within one culture. To begin the series, Simon Schama gives as an example of the barbaric the destruction by Islamic State of sacred sculpture. Well, that also occurred under Thomas Cromwell in reformation England and by all air forces during wartime. The series has its challenging moments - suspicion of idolatry, other people’s art as museum loot, personal moments of resistance and awareness (Vermeer with his wall maps of the Dutch empire) - but as an argument we need more than a salute to the greatest of great art. The Nazis were both book burners and second to none in their deference to great art of the past - the Greek and Roman or Medieval Gothic.

But look at what they did with their classicism. Culture is what you make and remake, not something you just receive with awe.

Schama concludes with a trust in contemplation by a spectator: “Great art collapses the time and space between us and the original moment of creation.” But a TV series on civilisations might ask more about the world. We have reached a time where few people are complacent, and many are challenging the minority who run the world - which means that they are not content with a global network of societies in their different cosmic beliefs, with their distinctive menus, but increasingly similar economic divisions. While we may enjoy travelling around one another’s differences (and learning about their histories), we may yearn to ask whether we have yet reached the essence of humanity.

Rex Dunn in this very paper recently discussed what the essence of being human was.1 He was drawing on Aristotle’s Metaphysics in book Z of that work, where statues are used as a metaphor. He defines essence as less like something you possess at first, but more like a possibility: something you can achieve, like a piece of bronze able to become the form of a hard-wearing statue. We know a human being can be a symbol-using animal, an intelligent and constructive animal, but no new-born baby is any of these things. An infant’s essence, its form as a full human, is still to be achieved. With our current challenges about equality, our debates about history and, yes, our own contemporary art in all media, we may yet be struggling our way towards the next (global) civilisation.


1. ‘Marx’s concept of the human’ Weekly Worker January 26 2017.