BBC Civilisation vs BBC Civilisations

This is the first of my musings articles. These are for things that aren’t quite right for the main podcast, or technical issues, or the occasional deep dive into a topic that I touched on in the show, or sometimes just random things that have interested me.

Today’s is a real musing though. I’ve just started watching two TV programs. I don’t watch a huge amount of TV, but I really wanted to dive into these at the same time.

The programs are the exceptional BBC documentary series Civilisation (1967) and Civilisations (2018).

Now they have an interest to me from the angle of how the Victorians saw art and progress, which I think is probably somewhat in line with the original Civilisation (1967) but I’ve not studied enough to be sure. 1967 is a long time after the Victorian era so we do need to be careful not to confuse the views of Kenneth Clerk with being Victorian. Certainly Clerk studied under Roger Fry who was a product of the Victorian era. He was absolutely a fan of the Victorian art critic and writer John Ruskin. So it is perhaps best to see the original series as having an echo of the Victorian about them, but no more.

It’s interesting how much the seeming self confidence of the British seems to have changed between the original series and the modern. The original was unashamedly Patrician and unashamedly “the golden thread of Western civilisation” This was not because Clark didn’t know about modern art or non-Western art. He most certainly knew an immense amount, and genuinely fretted that the title was too broad for the narrow subject he was planning to talk about; he commented

“I didn’t suppose that anyone would be so obtuse as to think that I had forgotten about the great civilisations of the pre-Christian era and the East. However, I confess the title has worried me. It would have been easy in the eighteenth century: Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to Present Day. Unfortunately, this is no longer practicable.”

Whilst the world view of the series was narrow, it was a sharp reminder that there is a huge amount of unappreciated social/artistic development in Western Europe that is simply not covered any more outside the obvious superstars, and what is covered tends to be somewhat derogatory. This is deeply depressing, as a lot of European art was work of the highest merit. It ranges from Dark Age manuscripts to ornate Church carving through to exquisite friezes and jewellery to the magnificence of the great canvas’s. Victorian art work is especially sneered at, which is unfortunate as it contains work of the highest merit and which can convey genuine emotional depth (for instance Thomas Cole, Ford Maddox Brown, Turner and many others). This might be because the focus on both realism and nature are not fashionable compared to modern relativism.

Civilisations (2018) is more of a round the world tour and gives more attention to other civilisations that have produced great art. Above all though, I was struck by how amazing the images and colour and fast paced style of the new series is. Wonderful to watch on a good home cinema system. Very entertaining and informative. The universality of art across civilisations is entertainingly brought home.

The original series was just a man in a tweed suit. Often just standing in shot. Images of the art close up, but not drama. It should sound boring, or look dated, but the actual series is spell binding. No need to wave arms about, or be dramatic. Clark had the wonderful skill of simply delivering clearly and letting the subject speak for itself. The sheer eloquence and vocal mastery was brilliant. It could almost have been a podcast.

Of course there have been grumblings. Some viewers have complained that the presenters of both the original and the new series block the view of the objects sometimes, or that both focus far too much on art when actually civilisation is so much more than its art. This misses the point. Both series aim to present civilisation(s) through art not to say that the art itself wholly defines society. Although that’s an interesting thought. We are in so many ways defined by the architecture and art of the world around us, and how it presents reality to us that perhaps civilisation itself is only definable through the art & design rather than by the technologies. Of course you can make the argument that technologies are deployed differently by different cultures so technology can be a definer of civilisation, but that approach is a boot straps argument since the different uses of the same technology are then being defined by the culture they sit in.

I’ve become more and more interested in art as I’ve got older. Strangely the more art I see, the less I like modern art. My taste seems to get increasingly classical. Anyway, I don’t have the answers here, I’m just musing on various thoughts. That’s what musings are for….exploring idea’s and possibilities. Some right, some wrong, some just clouds of inspiration drifting

So my conclusion is that I enjoy both series and watching them side by side is fantastic. Both approaches are unique and highly informative. Set aside any pre-conceived notions of what is art, or civilisation and just enjoy two different ways of seeing some amazing art.

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1 comment on “BBC Civilisation vs BBC Civilisations

  1. Michele says:

    That is one hell of a ‘musing’

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