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December 1, 2007 2:00 am
When people talk about television dumbing down, Lord (Kenneth) Clark usually comes up. Rightly, because his 13-part series, Civilisation , made 40 years ago, was the first great documentary project television attempted, and paved the way for Jeremy Isaacs's 1973 World at War , Jacob Bronowski's 1973 Ascent of Man and John Kenneth Galbraith's 1977 Age of Uncertainty . Civilisation was easily parody-able: determinedly didactic, Clark, with his rich toff's voice, check suits and suede shoes, stood in front of various masterpieces and lectured - urbanely, wittily, polymathically. Private Eye called him "Lord Clark of Civilisation": some 2.5m viewers watched it.
I watched all its nearly 12 hours this week, so that I could compare it with Matthew Collings's This is Civilisation (Channel 4 Saturdays). Clark's Civilisation is magnificent - its visual values enhanced by exceptional use of cinema-quality 35mm film. Both the commentary and the visuals require close attention: the commentary, because the urbanity disguises a packed delivery of times, places, people and judgments; the visuals, because the camera lingers on, or pans across, statuary, carvings, frescoes, paintings and buildings in a way that forces the eye - informed by the narration - to see in an alerted way, to comprehend and internalise what the dutiful cultural tourist is tempted to tick off as "done". It is about civilisation in a way that is itself civilised: designed to slow down the attention of those who, "distracted by distraction from distractions", have not or have not given themselves the leisure to comprehend the beauty and the significance of the monuments.
No question of the difference four decades has made. Where Civilisation begins with Michelangelo's "David" in all its haughty grandeur in Florence's Accademia, This is Civilisation begins with multiple views of Marc Quinn's limbless statue of a pregnant Alison Lapper, just replaced earlier this month, after an 18-month sojourn, on the previously empty fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square. Where "David" was an affirmation of Greco-Roman male beauty, "Alison Lapper Pregnant" derives from a wholly different affirmation - the generous contemporary impulse to include the marginalised, to hurl back at a static view of beauty the accusation that it prejudices the eye against that which does not conform to its magnificence: colour, age, limblessness.
Collings' producers also put him constantly in shot, his bulky frame
in suit-with-no-tie now as conventional as Clark's gentleman-in-mufti get-up. He strides about, his posh-estuary accent giving rapid-fire judgments on what he passes - noting, for example, that Greek life-like art "suddenly, is there . . . at some profound level, it is YOU". There is much to admire in both the narration and the shots - but a four-part series is going to be comparatively rushed.
More than that, it is doubtful. The commentary begins with a question - "is this [Alison Lapper] a bit of civilisation?" - and continues with cynical asides: Christianity, which for Clark was the blessed preserver of art through dark times, is for Collings "pure power", successful because "the right people picked it up". Yet Collings recognises and portrays civilisations other than Christian European - such as the Muslim. For Clark, these are voices far off, ranked with the ravenous barbarians.
In a 2002 interview, Collings said "there's nothing in society any more that asks for art to exist, except the market or the celebrity game". In this, he comes closest to Clark, whose programmes have an undertone of a threnody for a lost time - in one aside, Clark says that "courtesy had a surprisingly long run . . . all gone now". But Collings's dismissal of the trendy Britart - which his first programme ironically counterpointed to the classics - is one pole of opinion in an endless clash.
Clark sees civilisation as a lived tradition, not a view. For him, a man who lived through a war nearly lost to barbarism, civilisation is inherently fragile: his last programme features New York as built "to the glory of Mammon", where the cathedrals of earlier programmes were erected to the glory of God. "Capitalism," Clark says in his fourth programme, "has grown to . . . monstrous heights", and he fears its un-creative destruction. Collings lives among these heights, and their lows. For Clark, civilisation may be going. For Collings, it is gone. This is not altogether dumbing down: but it is a loss of faith, of every kind.
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