The problem of 19th Century “Civilisation”

In the common era year 1969, a British art historian by the name of Kenneth Clark produced a documentary television series on the history of Art in the West as an essay on the nature of civilization – or, in British spelling, “Civilisation,” which was the title of his program. Later, his script was published as an illustrated book, which I read over and over for many years, so impressed was I with the many deep thoughts that Clark had only been able to hint at in the course of his text due to the limitations of the original medium of presentation.

I was fourteen when the series was first broadcast; I watched it faithfully, for thirteen weeks, filled with wonder. Visually, it depicted worlds I had not realized existed. The episode including a visit to the cathedral at Chartes especially fascinated me; I lived in a world where everything was the product of automation; here was a great building that had been built by hand using stone, and it had withstood fire and war, for centuries.

But what really held my interest in the program was Clark’s warmly conversational style. Although clearly something of a snob, Clark did not talk down to his audience, even though he appeared to be well aware that he was addressing a general audience, including many people who would be hearing of the history of Western art for the very first time, and who would thus fail to recognize many of his allusions which had been developed in conversations with people of a similar background and education. No, but he spoke of his audience as if they well understood his general discussion, or, if not, they certainly had the capacity for understanding it. There weren’t many snobs in the 20th century as open-minded.
As a critic, Clark had gained some notoriety during the 1920’s by championing the work of the Italian futurists at the time when many of them were committing themselves to support for Benito Mussolini. But he saved face by writing what was, for a time, a definitive study on Leonardo da Vinci, since this included some ideas that had been bounced around by Freud [in his own somewhat disreputable psychoanalysis of da Vinci’s paintings as a manifestation of repressed sexuality], without itself becoming a text in psychoanalysis.

In reading Clark’s Civilisation again recently I was surprised to discover how much of it concerns the 19th century; more than a quarter of the text. And doing so, Clark identifies three 19th centuries, which seem almost to have nothing to do with one another, although this is really not the case, nor does Clark really maintain that this is the case; instead what we find Clark doing is attempting to unravel cultural threads of the 19th century in order to tie them back together in the 20th century; but of course he really cannot do this, since the unraveling of these threads historically, prior to any interpretation, is precisely what generated the confusions of the 20th century. At any rate the 19th centuries that Clark addresses are primarily the political century, the economic (or rather industrial) century, and the century of a generation falling in love with nature. Each of the centuries produces its own art; which, remember, is Clark’s primary concern. Except of course, this should not be the case. If the European nations were somehow bound together within the context of a developing civilization, their arts should have addressed similar concerns from different perspectives. This is not the case. For the Romantic British poet, nature is the undiscovered country all waiting to be explored. To the American industrialist, it is a dumb thing always in subjugation. To the European politicians of the 19th century ” nature ” was merely the source for a biological justification for domination of one person or class by another. One might say that the three cultures of the 19th century all, at least, concerned ” nature “, that this at least formed their shared central concern. But as an idea, ” nature ” is a vacuum, sucking into it all of our indefinite fears concerning a universe we claim to master, even though we continually rediscover how little we know of it. Romantic poets attempt mastery over the sublime by recording it in a text; yet the very nature of the sublime is that it cannot be known, and if it cannot be known, what arrogant child could possibly believe that it could be mastered? Thus, if the 19th century European thought has any centrally shared concern, this has to do with a vacuity explored, tortured, surrendered, praised, then destroyed. This hardly can be expected to generate the structures of a new civilization. And indeed, with the exception of a handful of very bright cooperative Scientists, the 20th century produced no community one could possibly consider civilized except for purposes of propaganda. Instead the 19th century realized itself in the 20th century by producing Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and George W. Bush; the four horsebutts of the apocalypse.

Clark shares a common misconception of his day, that the collapse of Christendom during the Reformation had opened up the possibility of building a new civilization out of its ruins. Unfortunately, many civilized readers in history during that era fail to take into account the explicit renunciation of civilization found in the texts of the first reformers. Martin Luther, Calvin, Zwingli – all are quite honest about their general opinion of whatever might inform the development of a Christian civilization: the Devil’s playground, needing destruction. They didn’t want any of it – not books of poetry or philosophy, not arts of depiction or imagination, not the music of dance, not the inventions of architecture. And of course a politics committed to preserving the past while at the same time liberalizing it, was not even open to discussion; religious war needed to be fought against such tendencies – and it was. Since the Reformers won the battle for the history of the West, we are taught all the gory details of Roman Church suppression of heresies; yet the Protestant violence of the Reformation was far worse, since it did not depend on any justification that the brutalized or killed might find their ultimate redemption, and happiness, in heaven. A non-Protestant had no hope; tortured and killed here on earth, and to be tortured in Hell for eternity. The Protestant god not only lacked mercy – he was down-right sadistic.

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