Saturday, 26 December 2009

Civilisation 1: The Skin of Our Teeth: 1

“ 'Civilisation’…. an ambiguous term, denoting on the one hand enlightened and progressive development and on the other hand an achieved and threatened state, becoming increasingly retrospective and often in practice identified with the received glories of the past (Williams, R., 1977 p.15).

I received the box set of Civilisation for Christmas from my girlfriend. It is a fantastic present and I have already got through the first disc. It is a shame that I did not get it earlier, because some of the series deals with things relevant to the Media Technologies and Public Spheres unit. 

I cannot help recall the first time I saw it on television, which must have been when I was about ten years old and staying at my grandmother’s house (a repeat of series no doubt after the death of Kenneth Clark). I watched it with a mix of boredom and a sort of negative feeling, not because I disliked history or art, but because I was suspicious of elites and uncomfortable about the grandeur of the state (something that I would feel when viewing the Great Court of Blenheim Palace on a school trip. The West and East Facade’s are far warmer and inviting). There also was something frivolous about it (I do not fully believe this now)…. and who was this posh bloke telling me what civilisation was?

Civilisation- or more accurately titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark is a thirteen part series originally shown on BBC 2. The scope of this series is incredible. It deals with architecture, art music, philosophy, poetry, religious thinking, engineering and science. The first episode introduces the series and explains that it deals with the achievements of Western Man. So, according to this series, women “made almost no contribution to European culture or thought” (Walker, J., 1993, p. 80). I love the series for its visual content and its breadth and care for history and art, but ideologically it is at times quite loathsome and far from being disinterested.

This first episode is called “The Skin of our Teeth” and deals with the period around the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and discusses the waves of barbarians that entered Western Europe following the Empires stagnation and decline.  The title refers to Clark’s belief that Western European civilization was lucky to survive the collapse of Rome. The above clip deals with Rome and Greek culture as “An Expression of an Ideal” (Hearn, M., 2005p.20). This ideal becomes stagnant. Its failures do not stop Clark from comparing African art unfavourably to Greek and Roman antiquity. Unlike Roman and Greek statues African masks “could not be regarded as manifestations of civilisation” (Clark, K., 1969 and Walker, J., 1993, p. 80). This was, according to Clark “because they signified darkness and superstition rather than rationality” (Clark, K., 1969 and Walker, J., 1993, p. 80). Yet no evidence was provided to support this contentious judgement.

Clark, K (1969) Civilisation: A personal view. London: BBC/J. Murray
Hearn, M., (2005) Civilisation: A personal view, Viewing Notes, London: BBC DVD
Walker, J., (1993) Arts TV, London: John Libbey
Williams, R., Marxism and Literature, Oxford, OUP, 1977.

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