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Reviewed by:
  • Civilisation
  • Kevin M. Flanagan
Jonathan Conlin Civilisation BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; 154 pages; $19.95

Jonathan Conlin’s short book on Kenneth Clark’s milestone Civilisation (1969, primarily directed by Michael Gill) is not quite a revisionist history of the production and reception of the documentary series, but does go a long way toward recuperating its reputation. Though wildly popular in America since its standing-room only showings at the National Gallery of Art in 1970 and its flagship broadcast on PBS, the series was initially dismissed by prominent British critics (including Raymond Williams) and garnered lukewarm ratings upon initial transmission (79–80; 104–107).

Though its reputation in the United Kingdom improved as it was rebroadcast, it continued to be regarded with suspicion by academic art historians. Civilisation is now perhaps most regularly encountered as the catalyst for John Berger’s highly politicized series, Ways of Seeing (1972), whose presentational terms could not have been more different from Clark’s. Whereas Civilisation begins with Clark’s musings as he stands on the banks of the Seine by Notre Dame Cathedral, Ways of Seeing opens with Berger taking a knife to a what appears to be a Botticelli painting in what appears to be a gallery. In fact, Berger’s highly self-reflexive stance is evident from the first, as the painting is a reproduction, and the location used for most of the four episodes of his series is a minimally decorated television studio.

While Ways of Seeing continues to be a part of university syllabi, Civilisation does not. This apparent disappearance is deceptive, however, because Conlin perceptively notes that the series was broadcast in the 1990s on The Learning Channel, and was given a fitting afterlife on DVD in 2004 (119). Although no longer the household name it was forty years ago, Civilisation lives on. Its format—hosting personality, foregrounding of personal interpretation, limited run series with a recognizable set of arguments, and a penchant for narrative—touched nearly every arts documentary strand to come after. [End Page 19]

The hybrid approach settled upon by Clark and Gill hinged on Clark’s amicable expertise (his writings on art and architecture stretched back to a key work, The Gothic Revival, published when he was just 25, in 1928), combined with his extensive career in arts broadcasting, which included a series of highly regarded documentary-lectures for the relatively new commercial channel ITV throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. The two put these assets in service of a location-based travelogue format that brought Clark out of the studio, to key spots throughout Europe. Though Civilisation is synonymous with Clark, Conlin highlights the contributions of lighting cameraman Adolf Englander and director Michael Gill, the behind-the-scenes talents behind the lavish splendor (39–42). The interiors of many of the under-lit cathedrals and palaces prompted a reliance on a technically advanced method of under-cranking 35mm film stock to achieve opulent visuals.

The result is a “personal view” (the words that follow the title Civilisation) of the arts and (high) culture of the European tradition. This history of Western achievement is filtered through Clark’s tastes and favorite locations, but likewise reveal his nagging doubts about the efficacy of such a broad, wide-ranging set of claims about cultural and social change. One of Conlin’s great observations is that despite its reputation as an affirmative, triumphalist set of programs, Civilisation was borne of Clark’s pessimism (56). The format, albeit with different personalities, made possible such projects as Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New (1980), the popular Sister Wendy series, and Matthew Collings’s millennial This is Civilisation (2007) (133–139).

Conlin is generally sympathetic to Clark’s choices, though he criticizes Clark’s acquiescence to the demand that the series end on a summarizing thought, such that “his credo set up a false dichotomy between a monolithic ‘sympathetic civilisation’ and ‘intellectual barbarism’” (77). Civilisation is at its best, according to Conlin, when it is the most tentative in its claims, the most ambiguous, and the least patronizing. This nuanced reading of the series goes a long way toward properly historicizing its importance for...


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