Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation at 50

A masterpiece in its time, Kenneth Clark’s acclaimed television series about the rise of Western Civilization remains as powerful as ever today.

Historian Kenneth Clark in front of Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, in a scene from his 1969 BBC series "Civilisation". (YouTube)

“What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms—yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.”

These were among the most memorable sentences spoken by the art historian Kenneth Clark in his much-celebrated thirteen-part BBC series Civilisation. What viewers saw over Clark’s shoulder as he uttered these words was Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral.

When Civilisation was first screened fifty years ago between February and May 1969, it was an instant success. The series attracted unprecedented viewer-numbers for a high-arts program. Rebroadcast numerous times, millions have subsequently watched Clark lead them through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic era, all the way up to the late-1960s.

With each passing episode, it becomes clear that Clark does have some definite ideas about what constituted civilization—specifically, Western civilization. Rather, however, than stating his thesis at the beginning, he gradually allows it to acquire form and substance.

That there is such a thing as civilization implies that mediocrity and even barbarism are possibilities. Throughout the series, Clark didn’t hesitate to state when he thought un-civilization had reared its head in the West. At various points, he gave more than a hint that much twentieth century art represented a lapse into baseness.

A Personal View

A more mundane reason for Civilisation’s success was the fact that it coincided with BBC2’s introduction of high-quality color television to its audiences. This allowed viewers to see images far more real than the low-quality pictures that had been the norm. Suddenly people saw the Sistine Chapel as it really is.

Beautiful images, however, are never enough. Art requires and provokes explanation. In that regard, Civilisation’s popularity owed much to the presenter. While his commentary looked effortless, we now know that Clark endlessly rewrote the scripts before delivering them in comforting and authoritative terms. He did so without the benefit of tele-prompters and associated paraphernalia which make many contemporary intellectuals and politicians seem more articulate and erudite than they actually are.

While Clark’s narrative drew upon his deep understanding of Western art, he possessed that rare gift of making such knowledge comprehensible to non-experts. Indeed his whole career was marked by efforts to bring art to broader audiences.

Despite his upper-class ways, Clark had a strong democratic streak. This made him somewhat of a rebel among artists, critics, and art-aficionados. For Clark, the advent of television wasn’t a threat to quality analysis: it was an opportunity to widen the discussion beyond these circles. Certainly, the medium meant that Clark made what he retrospectively termed “risky” generalizations. This was a price that he considered worth paying if it allowed more people to learn about the civilization to which they belonged.

Clark’s rebellious tendencies also emerged in off-hand remarks for which he would be pilloried today by politically-correct types. In Episode 10, for instance, Clark describes the artist and social critic William Hogarth as someone whose portrayal of eighteenth-century Britain’s less-pleasant features, like the rampant alcoholism captured in his 1751 prints Beer Street and Gin Lane, amounted to “moralizing journalism.”

Nor did Clark spare the feelings of nineteenth and twentieth century ideologues. He singled out Marxism as a “moral and intellectual failure.” Such comments could not have been more upsetting to the numerous artists and art-critics then enthusiastically embracing Marxist analyses of every form of artistic expression. Civilisation appeared, after all, in the immediate wake of 1968, much of which was inspired by those who today would be called “cultural Marxists.” While filming in Paris, Clark had witnessed some of the worst violence associated with 1968. The raw nihilism and chaos undoubtedly made an impression on him.

None of this, however, deterred Clark from making Civilisation what its subtitle proclaimed it to be: A Personal View. This is one of the primary reasons for the series’ enduring popularity. It articulates no party-line. Instead Clark does that rarest of things: he tells us what he really thinks.

Paradox upon Paradox

One way that Clark thought about the West was through paradoxes. This may owe something to his own contradictions. Clark sounded and looked like a stereotypical Tory. He came from an impeccably establishment background. Yet his politics were firmly on the center-left.

Clark had imbibed much of the hostility towards nineteenth-century capitalism of one of his heroes, the Victorian artist John Ruskin. This surfaces in the episodes in which Clark discusses the Industrial Revolution’s darker side. Nonetheless Clark also waxes at length about the tremendous technological and scientific changes unleashed at the very same time. The feats of British and American engineering are presented as artistic creations in their own right.

Another paradox explored by Clark concerns the forces released by the Reformation. On one level, Clark doesn’t hide his distaste for the subsequent iconoclasm. The crudely defaced statues of the Virgin Mary and Saints in German churches over which the camera silently trails underscore the point.

Next to this, however, Clark saw something fresh and dynamic in the men of the North. Luther was, he comments, an “extremely impressive” figure whom Clark seems to prefer to Erasmus. The latter is depicted by Clark as clever but somewhat of a precious ditherer.

And notwithstanding the wildness of the Germans captured in Albrecht Dürer’s artistic works, they come off quite favorably when Clark compares them to portraits of elegantly-dressed, oh-so-smooth Roman cardinals whose expressionless eyes mirror the soullessness of their inner corruption. Clark doesn’t disguise his fascination by Baroque Rome. Yet in a casual aside, he describes much of the art produced in Rome during these decades as “feeble, mannered, self-conscious, [and] repetitive.”

Looking north again, Clark praises the impressive commercial progress pioneered by seventeenth-century Dutch merchants. But he dismisses much of the Dutch art produced during this period of economic expansion as embodying “a defensive smugness and sentimentality.” Nor could Clark stop himself from explaining how an obsession with tulips had facilitated one of the West’s deepest financial crises, thereby reducing the fortunes of many presumably smug Dutchmen to dust. Holland was never really the same afterwards.

What, then, is Civilization?

This brings us to a characteristic which Clark believed helped explain Western civilization’s longevity: its ability to renew itself after periods of torpor and decay. Crucial to this regenerative capacity was something that Clark regarded as essential for the West’s survival as a civilization—“confidence.”

In the first episode, Clark emphasizes that Imperial Rome’s power came from many sources, but ultimately it was underpinned by confidence. We see that self-belief, he argues, in the Empire’s abundant architectural achievements.

More than just technical skill, Clark maintains that these edifices embodied “confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in its own mental powers.” This is what gave “vigor, energy, [and] vitality” to Rome, and put that “weight of energy” behind it which all “civilizing epochs” require. Without this confidence, we may be able to live, Clark said, among “the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what make a civilization.” A society can be materially prosperous and technologically advanced “and yet still be dead and rigid.”

That, however, raises the question. In what does the West need to have confidence if it is remain a civilization?

Clark reveals his hand at different points but never more powerfully than in Civilisation’s last episode. Usually seen as a salvo against the “chaotic” and “hideous” modernism that he saw creeping its way into Western art, Clark declared:

I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta [and] knowledge to ignorance. . . . human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. . . . Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

Order, creation, knowledge, gentleness, forgiveness, and sympathy: when we consider their opposites, it’s hard to deny that Clark was onto something here. He grasped that civilization is less about political or economic successes, as important as they are. It really concerns the right beliefs and attitudes.

The unavoidable subject

And thus we arrive at the topic which hovers everywhere in Civilisation—religion. And by “religion,” Clark has in mind Christianity.

Neither the Church nor Western churchmen, whether Catholic or Protestant, escape Clark’s barbs. Many clerics, he says, lived “narrow and monotonous lives.” They were often guilty of “revolting” behavior and sometimes hopelessly compromised by excessive involvement in politics.

Still, for all these problems, Clark saw Christianity’s vision of man and God as part-and-parcel of the Western civilizational package. “Heroic Materialism,” as he entitled the final episode, had produced marvelous technical accomplishments. Even so, Clark bluntly informed viewers, neither philosophical nor practical materialism could sustain any civilizational enterprise. They failed to inspire sufficient “confidence” because they couldn’t provide convincing accounts of why people would bother to build order out of chaos. Nor could materialism explain why we see brilliance in Michelangelo’s sculptures or Mozart’s music.

There is only one alternative to the desolate consolations and bleak prospects offered by materialism: belief in God. And Clark did not have in mind just any god. Though he held eclectic religious views, Clark was a believer and regarded God as the source of those things which he identified as central to the West: creativity, order, knowledge, sympathy, forgiveness, etc.

Clark’s empathy for Catholicism is manifest throughout the series. “It could be argued,” he says in Episode 2, “that western civilization was basically the creation of the Church.” Clark immediately cautioned that he wasn’t thinking of the Church’s truth-claims. He had in mind the Church’s sheer centrality to Western life.

The medieval Church was the institution, Clark stated, which attracted the most intelligent minds into its ranks. This not only made the Church the most important force in Western law and politics; it also meant that churchmen were at the heart of crucial breakthroughs achieved in the natural sciences.

The theme of paradox also looms here insofar as Clark presents the Church as the locus of apparent contradictions. Its faith in Christ attracted figures like Francis of Assisi, described by Clark as a “religious genius,” who combined radical austerity with fierce orthodoxy. Yet the same Church, Clark points out, simultaneously had a decisive role, by design and accident, in capitalism’s emergence in the thirteenth century—a world in which banking, commerce, industry, and trade took on forms “surprisingly similar,” Clark notes, to those of today.

In the end, however, it may have been Clark’s concern for ordinary men and women that drew him to Catholicism. In Episode 7, “Grandeur and Obedience”, Clark discourses at length about Renaissance and Baroque Rome’s artistic splendors. At one point, however, the visual shifts away from these works to the interior of a contemporary Italian church. Here we see people of all ages and backgrounds praying, crossing themselves, and kneeling in supplication.

As the camera lingers on their faces, Clark observes that the Church “gave ordinary people a means of satisfying, through ritual, images, and symbols, their deepest impulses, so that their minds were at peace.” Plainly, for all his erudition and his belief that it was great individuals who drove civilizational advances, Clark saw something in the Church which gave regular people confidence in themselves and their culture.

People embrace religious faith for different reasons. But perhaps it was Clark’s insight into what Catholicism imparted to those who might never darken the doors of a museum, which prompted Clark to receive Extreme Unction from a Catholic priest just before he died in 1983. We will never know what went through Clark’s mind at that time. But if his Civilisation is anything to go by, Kenneth Clark’s choice for God surely reflected a very personal view.


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About Dr. Samuel Gregg 34 Articles
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He is the author of 15 books, including Becoming Europe (2013) and Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (2019).

6 Comments

  1. Gregg writes that Clark would be “pilloried” today for some of his off-hand and politically incorrect remarks as when he described Marxism as “a moral and intellectual failure.”

    But another reason would be his liking for John Ruskin who, in one of his most celebrated writings, unmasks today’s Fake News as the “provident lie of the politician” and as “the zealous lie of the partisan” (but also at other levels):

    “It is not calumny nor treachery that does the largest sum of mischief in the world; they are continually crushed, and are felt only in being conquered. But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fallacy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician, the zealous lie of the partisan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity. . . .” (Ruskin, “The Lamp of Truth,” in The Seven Lamps of Architecture).

    And then, of course, there’s the awkwardness of Clark’s intolerable conversion to Christianity and Catholicism.

    • I agree, Ruskin would probably balk at the “defensive smugness” of today’s money-men, politicians, and the media who serve them (which is all of the media, right and left) who sell us the ‘merciful lie’ of making the country great again. In such a morass of mediocrity and self-serving impulses, there is little hope for art, let alone spirituality.

  2. What is characteristic of civilization “longevity: its ability to renew itself after periods of torpor and decay”. Somewhat of an oxymoron. “Confidence” in its structure. “Order, creation, knowledge, gentleness, forgiveness, and sympathy” comes closer to home. To be civil requires social cohesion. Rome imposed that on the world with the short sword and instituted Order, which Bernard Lonergan SJ correctly defines as “The actual good identical with actual intelligibilities and so includes but may extend beyond human values” (Lonergan in Insight). The latter is what Roman Order lacked. Therein lies the root of civilization indicated by Clark’s pose before Notre Dame. Dr Gregg sums it up nicely with the Catholicism embraced by Clark on his deathbed, faith in Christ the very soul of vital civilization.

  3. I’ve been waiting for our library to get the DVD set of this series. Meanwhile, I found a couple used copies of the book at a sale & shared them with my children. The “Civilization” book is wonderful too.
    Watching clips from the series takes you back to a time when funky British teeth weren’t considered a hindrance in TV appearances.
    🙂

  4. It says volumes about the decline of Western Civilisation’s own robust self-belief in recent decades that a new series aired recently (featuring Simon Schama – who has declined into caricature of the Leftist twitter-scold – among others) entitled “Civilisations” (note the plural) which was seen as a sort of 50th anniversary riposte to Clarke’s original (which is now deemed, of course, too Eurocentric, too Christian etc.).

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