Civil­i­sa­tion 2.0

Beard and Schama re­visit clas­sic se­ries

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Matthew.reisz@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

On 23 Fe­bru­ary 1969, Ken­neth Clark opened his land­mark BBC se­ries Civil­i­sa­tion by ad­mit­ting that he couldn’t “de­fine [civil­i­sa­tion] in ab­stract terms – yet. But I think I can recog­nise it when I see it.”

Al­though Lord Clark was of­ten mocked for such pa­tri­cian self­as­sur­ance, the art his­to­rian’s 13 pro­grammes proved a reve­la­tion. Among those who re­mem­ber them well is Mary Beard, now pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, who at the time had only been abroad once, on a fam­ily hol­i­day to Bel­gium. She re­called be­ing thrilled to dis­cover all the fa­mous cul­tural sites that Lord Clark vis­ited, as well as his broader “ar­gu­ments about art and cul­ture”.

Si­mon Schama, univer­sity pro­fes­sor of his­tory and art his­tory at Columbia Univer­sity, re­mem­bered Civil­i­sa­tion as “the most spec­tac­u­lar colour tele­vi­sion... up to that point colour seemed to have been about out­side broad­casts fea­tur­ing the Queen and the oc­ca­sional foot­ball match”, he said. “It was a rav­ish­ing break­through.” Even more rad­i­cal, and still rad­i­cal to­day, was the way that the di­rec­tors were “happy to let the cam­era just drink in art with­out any­thing else go­ing on apart from the mu­sic”.

In terms of its im­pact, Pro­fes­sor Schama be­lieved that Civil­i­sa­tion made a deep im­pact on pub­lic un­der­stand­ing be­cause it “brought home to an in­cred­i­ble num­ber of peo­ple… a heroic nar­ra­tive of the clas­si­cal her­itage and Western cul­ture lead­ing to the En­light­en­ment and then go­ing slightly down­hill from the time of Mozart”.

Such a Euro­cen­tric “heroic nar­ra­tive” feels far less com­fort­able to­day. Even at the time, Lord Clark was widely crit­i­cised for his as­sump­tions that “civil­i­sa­tion” was in essence Euro­pean and in­cluded pre­cious few women. (Pro­fes­sor Beard “counted the num­ber of ac­tive women in the se­ries – and you don’t get many af­ter the Vir­gin Mary”.)

As the 50th an­niver­sary of the broad­cast ap­proaches, there­fore, the BBC will mark the oc­ca­sion with a new nine-part se­ries ti­tled Civil­i­sa­tions. Pre­sented by Pro­fes­sor Schama, Pro­fes­sor Beard and David Olu­soga, a broad­caster and his­to­rian of em­pire (all three pic­tured be­low), it will screen from 1 March.

Re­vis­it­ing the ear­lier pro­grammes now, Pro­fes­sor Beard said that she felt “an ad­mix­ture of to­tal ad­mi­ra­tion for them and a feel­ing my blood might boil at any mo­ment”. Al­though the new se­ries “ob­vi­ously has Clark in mind, it’s not a re­make of Clark but a dia­logue with Clark, a con­ver­sa­tion with the ear­lier se­ries”.

In her own two pro­grammes – on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the body and re­li­gion and art – Pro­fes­sor Beard was “not des­per­ately scram­bling to find some fe­male artists, but con­stantly gen­der-aware”.

“Of­ten you can’t find any fe­male artists, though there is a myth say­ing the first por­trait artist was fe­male. You can put women in the pic­ture by find­ing fe­male ob­servers and fe­male com­men­ta­tors,” she said.

At one point, Pro­fes­sor Beard shows view­ers a cel­e­brated an­cient sculp­ture of Venus and notes how it al­ready em­bod­ies “the link be­tween a statue of a woman and an as­sumed male viewer, which has never gone away”. She also points to the way that the long-stand­ing as­sump­tion that Greek sculp­ture rep­re­sents “a bea­con of su­pe­rior Western civil­i­sa­tion” has acted as “a dis­tort­ing and some­times di­vi­sive lens” through which Euro­peans have viewed the rest of the world.

Sim­i­larly, Pro­fes­sor Schama’s pro­gramme about the Re­nais­sance chal­lenges the cen­tral­ity of Italy, show­ing how Rome and Is­tan­bul were com­pet­ing with each other in the 1550s to build the world’s most im­pres­sive dome, and also ex­plores con­nec­tions and ri­val­ries with Mughal In­dia. To­day, he ex­plained, we are “prob­a­bly more aware of the con­stant cross-fer­til­i­sa­tion and ri­valry” be­tween cul­tures than would ever have oc­curred to Lord Clark.

So Civil­i­sa­tions can cer­tainly claim to be more di­verse in its cov­er­age than Civil­i­sa­tion. But that raises two ob­vi­ous ques­tions. Given the chal­lenges of com­press­ing the whole of hu­man cul­ture into nine hours, what about the things that the new pro­grammes have had to omit (and which may form the fo­cus of another re­vi­sion­ist se­ries in another 50 years’ time)? And weren’t there dan­gers for aca­demics in stray­ing well be­yond their ar­eas of core ex­per­tise?

“An aw­ful lot is go­ing to get left out,” ad­mit­ted Pro­fes­sor Beard, “but you have to find a way not to be full of guilt and dread about what you haven’t in­cluded. The way we worked it out is that [my two pro­grammes] have an ar­gu­ment, what drives them is their ar­gu­ment… you think about what you want to say about the prob­lems of rep­re­sent­ing God and then choose themes, ex­am­ples, texts and im­ages, and you choose very good ex­am­ples to make your point and within that you have a rea­son­able va­ri­ety.”

Given the del­uge of sex­ist abuse she has had to put up with, Pro­fes­sor Beard felt that she could “han­dle” a few raised eyebrows about not be­ing a spe­cial­ist in Egyp­tian or pre-columbian art. But she also be­lieved in the value of “start­ing from a par­tic­u­lar re­search base in clas­si­cal art and re­li­gion which be­comes new when you ex­pand out­wards. I had some eye­open­ing mo­ments, but it starts from some rock-solid clas­si­cal ex­per­tise… the way we’ve put things to­gether makes a big­ger story than lin­ing up a row of ex­perts on their own lit­tle fields”.

Al­though “very happy to be cor­rected if I’ve made a blun­der – and it’s in­con­ceiv­able that I haven’t”, Pro­fes­sor Schama was un­con­cerned about spe­cial­ists crit­i­cis­ing him for spread­ing him­self too thin: “I’m 73 years old and one of the priv­i­leges of mov­ing into what Gore Vi­dal called ‘the spring­time of se­nil­ity’ is that that kind of thing re­ally doesn’t mat­ter.”

Like Lord Clark, Pro­fes­sor Schama was “not at all shy about the ir­re­duc­ible magic of great art” and is happy to ap­pear ex­cited and moved by the works he de­scribes. In this, he ac­knowl­edged, he was at odds with much “over con­tex­tu­alised” aca­demic writ­ing about the arts: “There’s been an over­cor­rec­tion – the death of the au­thor, the death of orig­i­nal­ity, [the no­tion that] ge­nius is a Ro­man­tic in­ven­tion. Of course it’s not! All you have to do is read [what Gior­gio Vasari wrote about Michelangelo]. It is ab­so­lutely not a late 18th-cen­tury in­ven­tion.”

While he was doubt­ful whether Civil­i­sa­tions “will move into the cul­tural blood­stream, par­tic­u­larly in the US, in the way Clark did”, Pro­fes­sor Schama hoped that it could “have a qui­eter long-term im­pact. I’ll be very happy if this sense of con­nect­ed­ness, the wiring be­tween cul­tures, is seen to un­fold, and isn’t just used as the ba­sis for some op-ed piece about the joys of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.”

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