The mighty Bruce Anderson examines the precepts of civilization and reveals its true character in history and potential role for humanity going forward.
Over a clubland drink, we all discovered that we had been reading the same book: James Stourton’s biography of Kenneth Clark, who will always been known as Lord Clark of Civilisation. Entitled Life, Art and Civilisation, it is an excellent book on an engrossing theme. But it led on to an obvious question, which was hard to answer. Does civilisation in the sense of great art have much to do with civilised behaviour?
In addressing this, I thought of Wuhan. A city on the Yangtse River, it has an important museum. Yet the contents take one beyond art and aesthetics. It is also a monument to the paradoxes of the human condition. The art comes from the grave goods in the tomb of the Marquess Yi. This resplendent nobleman died around 430 BC, when we Brits were still at the stage of woad, rude huts and uncured animal hides. The Marquess went on his final journey with bronzes, ivories and pottery – now the Museum’s contents – plus cloth and scrolls which have perished. All this is a testimony to an advanced state of civilisation.
But there was more. As a demonstration of his importance, and to arrive in style in the next world, the Grandee did not only want objects. He wanted followers. This took the form of twenty-four virgins, aged about fifteen. They were put into their coffins alive: several girls to each coffin. So we can imagine the scene. In one room, the Wuhan equivalent of a chi-chi interior decorator would be touching up the gilding on the bronzes’ high-relief work. Next door, some local hoods were bundling the girls into their coffins. To minimise any resistance, their arms and legs were broken. One wonders whether those entrusted with the gilding were able to shut their ears to the screams. Even across millennia in which so many human lives were a cry of pain, it is not pleasant to contemplate those girls’ final hours.
Wuhan is testimony to the advanced state of early Chinese civilisation. Like “culture,” civilisation can be used in an anthropological sense. Yet it would always be implicit that such a civilisation would have a high culture: the sort of culture that Matthew Arnold saw as a first line of defence against barbarism. China did have such a culture, but this does not support the Arnold position. On the contrary, it should disabuse us of the notion that civilisation is anything to do with humane behaviour. Throughout history, great civilisation and great cruelty have found it easy to co-exist. We feel that civilisation ought to ennoble mankind; that it ought to be impossible for anyone to spend their working hours administering a death camp, and their evenings listening to Bach or Beethoven. Some men did. This is enough to turn one into a Manichean. It certainly makes an almost conclusive case for the doctrine of original sin.
It also illustrates another facet of civilisation. It can be a form of escapism. The death-camp attendants may have used music to distance themselves from the horrors of their daily routine: as a way of persuading themselves that they had a private personality, untainted by evil. Just so, the Chinese mandarin class often used art as a means of insulating themselves from the pullulating chaos of Chinese life. Within their walls, everything could be regulated, even down to the way the trees were pruned: the way that their wives’ feet were allowed to grow. The husbands of the girls with bound feet were often connoisseurs who patronised artists and wrote verses. Equally, the art which they enjoyed, especially the scrolls and the pottery, often had a miniaturised quality, as if the master of the household had been trying to create an enclosed world in which he had total control. But he would always have known that if the wheel turned in the wrong direction and his enemies took power in Beijing, he would be flying for his life – if he got away in time. Art may have been a consolation. It was not a defence against original sin.
Nearly 2500 years after the Marquess YI, “original sin” leads us to the BBC, and to another paradox. Anyone who takes the Matthew Arnold view of high culture ought to regard television as an implacable foe, with its relentless dumbing down and its distaste for any hierarchy of value judgments. But in the mid-Sixties, BBC2 wanted an éclat to celebrate the advent of colour television. David Attenborough had an inspiration: a series on civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark. It was a brilliant idea, which became as successful as it deserved. Yet even in that era, when deference had not entirely vanished, it was a controversial choice. Already knighted, Clark was rich and patrician. As an art historian, a curator, an aesthete and a collector, he was immersed in old European high culture. Although he took some interest in Chinese and Japanese art, to him Western art was central. That reflected itself in the thirteen programmes. Sir Kenneth was his own curator.
He started at the end of the Dark Ages, when mankind had escaped cultural destruction by the skin of its teeth. He then delighted in the high points of the gradual recovery, when the classics and Christianity came together, to provide the inspiration and the techniques for new masterpieces. It made wonderful television. At a time when travel was harder, the camera took fresh audiences to fresh delights and broader horizons. Few television series have ever received so much praise. Even the Sun, admittedly less vulgar in those days, described Clark as “The Gibbon of the McLuhan age.” But throughout, there was an implicit assumption: the superiority of Western civilisation. Clark also believed in heroic individuals: the world-historical artists who conquered new frontiers and reinvigorated the Western tradition. In those days, everyone took it for granted that those individuals would be men. If Sir Kenneth had been accused of concentrating on dead white European males, he would have been bewildered – that anyone should have felt the need to make such a plonking statement of the obvious. Such dead males were the coral reef of great art.
As James Stourton makes clear in his book, Clark would not have believed that life was worth living without art and civilisation, which he would have regarded as symbiotic, if not indeed synonymous. Throughout his life, he assumed that there must be a connection between civilisation and social improvement. He also felt that it should be possible to prove that artistic greatness was based on objective criteria, not personal preference. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism and an irritating fellow, believed that it all depended on pleasure. The quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin was as good as poetry. Those who claimed that their pleasures were more refined because of their superior taste were combining snobbery with irrelevance. All that mattered was the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
This was not good enough for Clark. Marx described Bentham as “that facile, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence.” Clark would probably have regarded that as unfair to the bourgeoisie. Partly in order to refute Bentham and other Philistines, he was interested in the philosophy of art. Few men have ever responded to great art with his level of intensity. In humble worship, he wanted to justify the ways of art to man, just as a Christian would have wanted to exalt his creed. Then again, modern Christians have given up trying to prove the existence of God and are content to rest their belief on faith. That was not enough for Clark. He did not merely wish to assert that beauty is truth. He wanted to prove it. Yet he never wrote the book. This may have because he allowed himself to be distracted by public duties. In his day, he was just about the highest-ranking member of the Great and the Good. But there are those who think that he might have sought all those posts and committee memberships, because he subconsciously knew that the philosophical challenge was beyond him.
It may be beyond everyone. Perhaps there is only one solution: to place one’s faith in the canon. The collective judgments of learned aesthetes down the centuries have surely established a title to authority. Living and dead, they constitute an artistic academy. Back in the 1960s, that was good enough even for the BBC. The choice of Kenneth Clark as civilisation’s spokesman was a mighty tribute to the canon. It was almost certainly also a final one. The BBC is thinking of commissioning another series: Civilisation Mark 11, as it were. So imagine the disputes. There would have to be women. There would have to be racial and sexual minorities: the more clamorous the minority, the more it would force its way on to the screen. We would end up with the whole gamut of LGBH, or whatever. Nor could it be Euro-centric – and as for value judgments. Some tribe, a thousand miles up the Amazon, whom our recent forbears would have described as savages, but who have learned to sharpen pieces of bone to adorn their nostrils: how dare some public school and Oxbridge white male have the nerve to say that their pieces of bone do not belong in a programme about civilisation?
I suspect that the programmes will never be made. But if only cameras were admitted to the planning sessions, there could be the richest material for a comedy series. So no second Civilisation – any more than there will be an answer to the question which troubled Kenneth Clark, and has vexed many others. Those who take a reverent pleasure from art, and its combination of the spiritual and the sensual, often join him in wondering why personal uplift cannot be transmuted into social benefaction. Anyone tempted to an optimistic answer should remember that we could ask the same question in Wuhan, or in Nazi Germany. We may be forced to conclude that art is a palliative, not a cure.