A new civilisation rises

Half a century on from Kenneth Clark's landmark art history series Civilisation, the BBC has reimagined the concept for a modern global audience. We spoke to presenters Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga about the making of Civilisations...

The Sultanahmet district in Istanbul, Turkey, which is classified as World Heritage by UNESCO. (Photo by DOZIER Marc via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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David Olusoga is a historian, author and broadcaster whose TV credits include presenting the BBC series A House Through Time, Britain’s Forgotten Slave-Owners and The World’s War

Mary Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge as well as an acclaimed author and broadcaster. Mary has presented a number of series on ancient history for the BBC

Simon Schama is a historian, art historian, author and broadcaster who is based at Columbia University. Among his previous BBC series are A History of Britain

What does the word ‘civilisation’ mean to you?

Mary Beard: It means a big question mark – and that is why it is so interesting. The word and the idea are always ideological. It is always a term that acts to exclude as much as to include. ‘One person’s civilisation is another’s barbarity’ is not a bad motto. Don’t forget that the word ‘barbarian’ comes from the ethnocentric Greek idea that all foreigners are incomprehensible and speak just ‘ba ba ba…’ There is always a conflict over ‘civilisation’.

David Olusoga: It is a challenging and loaded term which, of course, is partly what makes it so interesting. Clark himself only went as far as to define what he believed civilisation isn’t. He also said that the state of civilisation is superior to its opposite – barbarism. But few people today are, perhaps, as confident as Clark was in drawing clear lines between the two conditions. A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of civilisation by people who regarded themselves as being perfectly civilised.

To many in the 19th and 20th centuries civilisation meant western civilisation, all other cultures were seen as being, to differing degrees, less civilised or even uncivilised. To me, and I think most people today, the word is more inclusive. Few people would now question that other societies, such as the empires of China or India or the kingdom of Benin, were civilisations.

Simon Schama: Just like Kenneth Clark I slightly dodge the question and I think the reason is that it comes loaded with superiority doesn’t it? There is a sense of entitlement in the assumption that civilisation is the legacy of classical antiquity, in particular the kind of marriage between philosophy and architectural design. So the premise of this series was that other ‘civilisation’, which has a kind of critical mass of thoughtfulness, creativity, non-contempt for beauty – things that actually come together in a different sort of way.

How far were you influenced by the original Kenneth Clark series and what did you want to do differently?

DO: Clark’s series was broadcast before I was born. I only got to know it when I was a student in the 1990s, so I came to it secondhand, as it were. There’s no question that it is an essential part of TV history and cultural history, in both Britain and America. If you are serious about documentary as an art form then you have to watch it. If you care about art and public access to art then you have to admire it. But the medium has changed so much since 1969 that there was never any real prospect that the series I have been honoured to be involved in would have much resemblance to Clark’s epic. We also have to remember that Clark famously subtitled his series A Personal View. So 50 years later, with three presenters with three different personal views, and a strong desire among us all to look more broadly at art and civilisation, this new series was always going to be very different.

SS: I rewatched a number of episodes and was blown away all over again. Partly that’s because the technique was so brave for its time. It was famously David Attenborough’s idea as a stupendous way to use colour television. That got the producer, Michael Gill, to think hard about what we now describe as ‘slow television’. There are amazing moments where nothing is happening but the camera is drinking in a fresco and beautiful music is playing. Plus, Clark’s script has all the cohesion of one person’s opinions and he was a great writer.

It is a glorious thing but we started completely afresh. The reason we did this series was to explore the rest of the world’s art and not treat it as ‘the rest of the world’, or the west versus the rest. So while Clark had 13 programmes to do the legacy of antiquity right up to the end of the 19th century, we had nine to do China, India and so on and the only way that project would survive was by each of us being very thematically driven. We had to take an argument, without it turning into some kind of daunting A-level seminar for viewers.

But certainly on many shoots we would ask ourselves: was that worthy of Clark? If we felt we had framed something clumsily, or not given a work of art enough time to breathe, we would do it over again because even though we weren’t seeking to imitate the original series’ style, we wanted it to have that quality of concentrated power.

MB: I watched the original series and in many ways it opened my eyes to a wider world of art and culture (I had been no further than to Belgium for a family holiday in 1969, and Clark took me to a different universe). That said, Clark almost never looked beyond Europe and never even went to Spain, and that looks very odd now. There were also rather few women in the Clark series (except a few society hostesses, Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer, and the Virgin Mary). I have tried to put them, and the wider world, back in.

How did you select the artworks and places that you wanted to feature when there were so many possibilities?

SS: When you have a huge amount of evidence and you’re wanting to make a particular argument or raise a particular set of questions, in some senses it self selects. All three of us have rich experience in television and understand that the art of script writing is a very finely articulated balance between what you see and what you hear. So that shapes the kind of locations and kind of works you’re going to include to take the journey forwards.

DO: As with all TV, it was a balancing act, and one that required a lot of discussion and compromise. The process of selection involved working with the producers, the brilliant consultants Jonathan Jones and Julian Bell and, in my case, talking lots to Simon Schama. There were works of art that to me felt essential and others that it would have been nice to include, but that didn’t help us build our stories, so had to be dropped. As I say, compromise.

Are there any common misconceptions about art history that you wanted to challenge in this series?

MB: I wanted to shift the focus a little from the creator to the consumer. Of course, those creative geniuses are important, but so are the people who looked at, argued about and tried to understand the works of art. And that goes right up to us; our own reactions to early works of art are also important. For me, a large part of the meaning of art lies in the perspective of those who look at it.

DO: I’m interested in art and history, but I am not an art historian. What I believe is that no historian can truly get to know a culture or a period of the past unless they look seriously at what artists, writers, poets, architects etc were creating. For example, it would be unthinkable for anyone to claim to have any real insight into the culture of Georgian Britain without knowing the work of William Hogarth. Art is not a marginal element of culture or civilisation – it is central and often definitive. It is therefore integral and essential to our understanding of the past.

Why do you think art has been important to so many cultures over history?

DO: It’s difficult to think of a bigger question than that! There is clearly something innate, within our make-up, that urges us towards artistic expression. The instinct to create art appears to be universal. The effort, expense and sometimes dangers that individuals and societies have gone to in order to create art reinforces the idea that the artistic impulse comes from somewhere deep within us. It is so integral to the human condition that it was perhaps inevitable that it would become central to each culture as it emerged.

MB: That is almost a tautology: cultures are about art (as well as about literature, music etc). It is in art that we represent ourselves to ourselves. It is a visual, and sometimes distorting, mirror. But also, art helps us to see how people in different worlds see – and saw – themselves. It is our lens on to the world.

What can art tell us about these cultures that other historical sources cannot?

MB: A myriad things! The main means of cultural communication for most of history has been images not words, and these paintings and sculptures press us to think hard about those images – and to think hard about the people who looked at them and made sense of them. Art opens us up to the world of the vast majority of people in the past, who could neither read nor write.

DO: I’m nervous about seeing art fundamentally as a historical source. It can perform that function, but it also gives us so much more. As a window on to the past, art can do that magical thing of bringing us face-to-face with human beings who were once just like us. It can allow us to see landscapes and cityscapes that no longer exist, buildings that toppled centuries ago, but it also takes us into the minds of the artists themselves, some of the most fascinating people to have lived.

Of all the art that you explore in your programmes, did you have any particular favourites and why?

SS: I love these extraordinary ancient masks from Sanxingdui, perhaps because they seem to land from the planet Zarg or somewhere! In 1985/86 this grave was found in Sichuan containing elephant tusks – it was quite clear the elephants had been sacrificed – as well as bronze sculptures, but mostly it’s full of these masks with hugely exaggerated ears and protruding eyeballs. They are astonishing things.

I also loved a sequence where we filmed the fresco ceiling in the Bishop’s Residence at Würzburg in south Germany. Clark had tried to film it but it’s clear they didn’t quite have the technology then to do what the Tiepolo father and son [who created it] had wanted, which was as you go up this enormous baroque staircase, the figures literally move in stop motion all around you.

It’s a double layered fresco with the rather boring baroque title Apollo and the Four Continents. Apollo is swimming around in the peachy sunglow up above but down below are the continents, which are full of real people trading in swag. It’s heaving with camels, elephants, dogs and musicians and is this extraordinary circus of all humanity. Because we had this whacking great German jib we could travel the camera smoothly up the staircase and then turn it upside down and move sideways. This was so thrilling. It was a case of technology making the presenter experience the art all over again and it’s something I lock in my heart.

DO: I loved seeing the Namban Screens that we filmed in Lisbon. These are Japanese painted screens from the late 16th and early 17th centuries that record the arrival of the Portuguese traders, the first Europeans to reach Japan. I find these screens exquisitely beautiful but what also excites me about them is that so few people are aware of the art form; they are such brilliantly rendered snapshots of a historical period that is often overlooked. You really feel the thrill of exoticism and encounter in those amazing paintings.

MB: There were all kinds of favourites, some old friends and some new ones. I absolutely loved going to the island of Naxos and discovering the unfinished Greek sculpture there in its ancient quarry. It has been lying there in the same place for two-and-a-half thousand years: sat on, admired, ignored, a landmark, a lovers’ meeting place, you name it. It felt like a link with the distant past, as well as with all the intervening years.

What do you think the importance of art is to us now in the 21st century?

SS: It’s incredibly important. The world is now run, as it were, by Photoshopping. Art can actually determine who is elected, who is not elected and where power lies. Very often with screeds of text about all these very important things, people simply tune out, it’s too much like homework. But it’s different with powerful, compelling images. It shouldn’t be the case that we determine our lives with YouTube or Instagram but a lot of the time it does happen like that.

MB: That is hard to sum up, especially as ‘Art’ often comes with a capital letter and with a tremendous sense of reverence. But what we see around us, and what we make, is part of how we make sense of ourselves. I don’t think art is just to be admired, it is to be thought about and argued about.

Civilisation remains a landmark of arts broadcasting. What do you hope the legacy of this series will be?

DO: When Civilisation was broadcast there were three channels in the UK. The majority of people watched on black and white TVs. We now have so much content and so many ways to watch it that the concept of the TV channel itself is being questioned. All this change means that it is arguably impossible for a series today to have the impact that Civilisation had half a century ago. Although emerging into a radically different landscape, I hope that this series will demonstrate, yet again, that British TV is still committed to art, culture, history and big ideas. But more personally, I also hope it achieves something of what Clark’s series excelled at, which was to introduce new sights and new stories to new audiences. It was watching art documentaries that first encouraged me to set off with a backpack to visit the great galleries of Europe.

MB: I don’t think that is for me to say. We will have to wait and see. But I hope that our series will remind those who watch, that art is always controversial, that you don’t need to be an old white man to appreciate it, and that arguments about art (as well as its creation) are a big part of civilisation.

SS: I don’t think thousands of people are going to queue round the block to see us [as happened with a screening of Civilisation], but what we do hope – without writing a kind of op-ed for a liberal newspaper – is that it highlights the connectedness of human creativity. It would be a wonderful thing if history and art history were taught by showing what many different cultures were producing at the same time. It would be wonderful because we are now living in a time of intensified paranoia and mutual suspicion, of walls and fences and rhetoric going up from the Channel to the US-Mexican border, which is a truly awful thing. I’m completely unrepentant about saying that.

Interviews by Rob Attar

The nine-part BBC Two series Civilisations is due to begin this month. Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation is available to purchase as a BBC DVD.

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To read more, see Civilisations: First Contact / The Cult of Progress by David Olusoga (Profile, April 2018) and Civilisations: How Do We Look / Eye of Faith by Mary Beard (Profile, March 2018).