July 2023 Print

The Cause of "Civilisation"

By William Edmund Fahey


Works of art call for a response. They call for communion. A thoughtful person will understand that this means appreciation, evaluation, and discernment. This is a difficult business, as man is a complex creature. Except in the hands of a moral brute, a work of art communicates some truth seen by its creator. The creative man leaves behind this vision in his artifacts, whether in word or image. The living can participate in the original vision of the author and artist. Literature and song are internalized and made alive again in their silent recitation, but especially when spoken or sung. But what of painting, sculpture, or architecture? How does one participate in these? Only the attentive can catch man’s complexity through observing art. Or perhaps it would be better to say, patient observation of art lends itself to a deepening vision of what it means to be human, that complex creature made imago Dei, and such observation lends itself to transcendence, the perfection beyond the human. Yet, again, discernment of art and understanding of its role in human formation is a difficult activity. What guide have we?

John Senior is known for the gentle and noble guidance he gave to his students, and to all lovers of Christian culture. Amongst his adages, perhaps the most thrilling remains his call to put aside those mechanical props and contrivances that seduce us away from reality (this reached its final form in The Restoration of Christian Culture): “Smash the television set, turn out the lights, build a fire in the fireplace, move the family into the living room, put a pot on to boil some tea and toddy, and have an experiment in merriment.” Thus, it was with some amusement that I cast my eyes upon words familiar, now made surprising, that conclude Senior’s “Thousand Great Books.” After the books proper, with a kind of coda, he turned to music and art. The recommendation for art is quite brief and can be quoted in full: “The Kenneth Clark series ‘Civilisation.’ Clark published a book with illustrations and the text of the series. And most important, visits to museums and galleries.” In communication with two of Senior’s former students, I learned that Senior, in fact, owned a complete 8mm copy of Clark’s 13-part series and would show it with relish to students. “He would rave about Clark and the need to return to civilizational roots,” as one remarked. Had Senior merely recommended the book, one would hardly take note, but here—though qualified—is a recommendation for one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary television shows. Here we might have a worthy guide.

The Origins of a Civilized Man

Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) had a fairy tale life, both in its charm and in the doom which hung over it. From a certain vantage point, his family were part of the destroyers of Christian culture in the British Isles—textile industrialists and bankers who formed the new oligarchy of Victorian Britain. Clark’s father was a boozy rake, his mother a frigid Quaker; of their union Clark was the only child (due to his caesarian birth, which according to the mores of the day meant no further children for the woman). Clark traveled as a boy throughout Europe, visiting places of great beauty, as his father gambled, womanized, purchased luxurious homes and art, and lived the bon vivant lifestyle of his class. In the last segment of the series, Clark remarked about the adoration of the upper echelon of the passing society. It could stand as a summary of his own class: “They had charming manners, but they were as ignorant as swans.” Yet Clark, like other singular men of his generation, kept the charm, but won considerable intelligence by arduous study. After a cosmopolitan childhood, where affection came via a Scottish nanny rather than through his own blood, Clark received a quintessential English education at Wixenford, Winchester, and Trinity College, Oxford. His initial foray into History was thwarted by Clark’s own boredom with the dominant economic interpretation of society. But he learned to write well and navigate the academic world. His survival came through a deep reading of the works of John Ruskin, whose views on art were always mixed with a particular sympathy for the poor, and an old aristocratic outrage for the foibles of new money. In Ruskin, Clark found a new academic discipline, one for which he had a natural inclination: Art History and Criticism. Shortly after Oxford, Clark traveled to Italy and was accepted into a kind of literary apprenticeship under Bernard Berenson, then the greatest art critic in Europe. Clark’s rise would be meteoric. He held positions well in advance of his age: Director of the Ashmolean Museum followed only three years later by the Director of the National Gallery, Cataloger of the da Vinci drawings at Windsor Castle, the Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, and a knighthood. All these positions required both academic prowess and political finesse, which Clark possessed despite also having a knack for making and infuriating enemies in the worlds of high culture and high politics.

During the Second World War Clark oversaw the evacuation and storage of European art in Welsh mine shafts, and turned this flight into a kind of cultural Dunkirk by creating massive public support for their preservation and then overseeing the timed (if temporary) return of single masterpieces for the war-weary British populace to visit, accompanied by free concerts and luncheons. Never before had the British people owed so much cultural renewal to a single man. Clark was deeply involved in propaganda though the Ministry of Information, where he was at the helm shaping major decisions on film-making, poster production, pamphlets, radio broadcasts, and the overall effort to define the war effort by reminding (or in many cases informing) the public what Britain and western civilization was. During the War, millions visited the National Gallery or listened to lectures arranged by Clark through the BBC. It should be no surprise to discover Clark deep in controversy over the use of new media, but a stalwart in establishing the Independent Television Authority in the 1950s. From experience, he could see certain possibilities for education and cultural assimilation through popular means.

Clark’s approach to art criticism—or, perhaps, more intelligible to a lay audience: art appreciation—had certain features that appeared from the beginning, and others that developed over time. From the beginning, Clark wanted to speak both deeply to specialists and broadly to as many men and women as he could reach. One sees this first in his 1938 100 Details, where he skillfully uses black and white photographic closeups and the technique of juxtaposition with his emergent ability to summarize mountains of scholarship in pithy, even charming, sentences. His remarks, as he put it, “represent the kind of conversation which two people fond of painting might have while going around the National Gallery.” This warm, conversational tone would remain Clark’s forte, as would an uncanny sense of timing. 100 Details was published on the brink of war, as the very masterpieces they depicted were about to be evacuated from London and the public was feeling acutely the precarious value of human creativity.

Over his long career Clark would publish nearly two dozen books, most of which were built around numerous lectures given in England, Europe, and America. Specialized works such as The Gothic Revival and The Nude; general works such as Looking at Pictures and Landscape into Art, two books on Leonardo, two on Rembrandt, works on the Italian renaissance, studies of Romanticism—all these appeared at regular pace through the 1940s onward. All firmly established Clark’s reputation as an accessible mandarin, wisely guarding and gently introducing the masterworks of the West.

“By the Skin of Our Teeth”: The Fragile Origins of “Civilisation”

Behind Clark was always his wife, Elizabeth “Jane” (née Martin) Clark. Jane and Kenneth had fallen deeply in love at the end of Clark’s Oxford days. Jane was possessed of great intelligence and natural beauty. She would sacrifice everything for her husband’s career and loved attempting to orchestrate grand social gatherings to highlight his achievement. But Jane soon succumbed to a nervous disposition and mental turmoil. For most of her adult life she was an alcoholic and, over time, abusive of painkillers. The Clarks had three children and attempted to enjoy the benefits of their standing and class, but behind the grand public appearance was the reality of pain, quarrels, and Clark’s constant need to hide or explain away his wife’s hysteria and “accidents.” Jane’s fits both brought on and were exasperated by Kenneth’s restless desire to be in the presence of beauty—not merely art. Clark had numerous “amities amoureuses,” most of which seemed to be emotional or aesthetic—especially luncheons where he could sit with someone beautiful and speak about his ideas—but some may have been more involved. Jane, too, had at least one love affair. Regardless, neither Clark contemplated divorce or even separation, and as age and the natural waning of energy were compounded in Jane’s case by substance abuse, Kenneth Clark became heroically resolved to care for his wife. But the toll was inevitable and penetrating. Clark was living a declining life financially, physically, emotionally, and professionally. His writing increasingly is marked by a stoic but darkening sense of human nature.

It was at this moment that an idea was introduced to Clark. Over a dull luncheon, David Attenborough, then a young producer at the BBC, described a television series he had mind, one that would be in color (something quite novel for British television in mid-60s). Chewing on some mediocre smoked salmon, Clark half listened when he caught Attenborough saying the word: “civilization.” It was like a clap of thunder. Suddenly, his whole life and being came back together in a vision, as Clark put it: “there flashed across my mind a way in which the history of European civilization from the dark ages to 1914 could be made dramatic and visually interesting.” The washed-out Clark was summoned to a noble purpose.

The 13-episode “Civilisation” took three years to produce. Most critics (hostile and friendly) see it as a monumental moment in the liaison between popular and academic culture. Most critics view it as a simple summation of Clark’s past. After all, Clark did no research whatsoever to write the text and advise the directors. He almost never took a book from a shelf, except if he wanted to be sure a quotation was correct. He wrote the episodes with great dispatch—most famously the segment on the Roman Counter-Reformation, which Clark produced in a titanic effusion over three days in Rome, mostly on the streets or at a café. But most fail to see the growth and change that had occurred in those dark fallow years. Clark, who always considered well the plight of the common man and voted solidly (as did many British elites) with the Labor party, had grown alarmed at ideological materialism and the anti-traditionalism of the avant-garde. In his notebook, he dashed this early thought about the series and its purpose: “…not Marxist, not a history of economics, nor of political ideals… religion will play a bigger part than economics.” This may seem mild to some, but in so conceiving what he intended to do, Clark was hoisting a flag for western civilization and Christianity against the march of Marxist socialism and the suicidal impulses of the age. All his notes and interviews consistently reveal a man gravely concerned with societal decline, a man self-conceived as an almost medieval hero called back to rescue his people, and yet struck with compunction over his own moral failings. Clark was not immediately sure how to define civilization, but he knew it was threatened and this would be his hour, his moment to redeem not just the time, but himself.

Filmed in exquisite 35mm, “Civilisation” pulls together all Clark’s powers as a lecturer with over 60 years of in-the-bones familiarity with Europe. This was a man, as Belloc would describe, for whom History was “stuff and being,” precisely because his had not been a mere bookish life. European civilization was something Clark had lived, walked, breathed, gazed upon, experienced, and reflected—something he loved. Clark took almost no direction on the content of the series; he didn’t need it. Although he regretted leaving Spain aside, he knew exactly where in the eleven countries and over 100 locations he and the film crew should visit. “Civilisation” also brought together Clark’s innate sense of blending the visual, the textual, and the auditory. Clark’s words are not only combined with what even today unsurpassed footage (200,000 feet of film), but a soundtrack, and a collapse of time (Clark and his crew did not avoid, in fact they sought, juxtapositions between the ages Clark was discussing and the contemporary scene). “Civilisation” not only brought together sound, image, and thought, it brought together Kenneth and Jane Clark. Jane traveled to many of the sites with her husband, and though her alcoholism did not subside, their love was kindled anew, and in their autumn tour of civilization they found some solace together.

In the United Kingdom and America alone, over 10 million people watched “Civilisation.” When the series came to the United States, it was not shown first on television, but in an auditorium at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The auditorium had 350 seats. 10,000 people waited on the streets for the opening. A quarter of a million came to the Gallery to watch the series in the first year. Has there been any attempt at public education that has been more popular? More importantly, what accounts for its popularity?

A Condescending Lord

“Civilisation” is one of the finest examples available of sublime condescension. By condescension, I mean that uplifting humility which marks someone who has more than others and who shares of himself with those who have less—or even none. The lives and works of Mark Van Doren and Russell Kirk spring to mind as other superlative examples. “Civilisation” will stand the test of time, not because it is filled with novel judgments or techniques for art appreciation, but because it ennobles the viewer to understand what is true, good, and beautiful in our culture, without weighing either art or the mind of the student with arcane terminology or arrogant concepts. And viewers seemed to respond. Clark’s audience adored him, despite his class and curious manners, or rather through his personality viewers felt part of something—their own civilization.

Clark’s methodology for teaching about culture sprang from his wonderful blend of aristocratic hauteur with chummy fellowship. You simply feel lucky to be in Clark’s presence, even if he is a bit distant, perhaps even stuffy. Remarks like “I am standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris” or “I am back in Rome, standing on the steps of the ancient church of Santa Maria Maggiore” mark the whole of “Civilisation” just as abundant French quotations were strewn about his earlier books. “We’re all in this together” is the attitude, and erudition is presented as part of our knowledge and our past—not as something special for Sir Kenneth Clark. Combined with the vivid footage and sweeping music, the effect is irresistible. Even more important is Clark’s careful inclusion of the reader-viewer through the balanced us of “we” and “our” for noble sentiments or common burdens, and “I” for what introduces a difficult matter. Sir Kenneth Clark’s is, paradoxically, a humble way of engaging us, making us feel that he understands not just art, but us and, in turn, we want to understand what he appreciates. It is quite moving when a master lecturer and scholar says to us “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms—yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.” Remarks like that communicate a grand invitation for us to travel with him across the ages and through varied places that few even today are able to see with such physical proximity or moral insight.

Clark’s famously tentative definition of civilization was not just rhetoric. He knew definitions were fine for certain technical things, but civilization? This required the communicative power of description and art. Art served to draw the viewer to something. It wasn’t there for classification. Most of the series demonstrates civilization—through image, sound, commentary, and especially Clark’s noble bearing. In the tumultuous age of riot and “rock,” Clark patiently strolls through civilization, calmly and poetically inviting us with him. He is well dressed and unhurried. What he claims, we also wish to claim as our patrimony. In everything he demonstrates the superiority of age, courtesy, discernment—in a word: experience.

In offhand remarks, Clark revealed how deeply he read not merely the history of religion, but of Christianity, and not merely the history, but the great authors themselves. While his affections were with St. Francis, his mind certainly turned over St. Thomas. Did he have in mind the Four Causes when he conceived of “Civilisation”? I don’t know, but a reading or viewing of the series in their light is fruitful. Clark takes his audience through the obvious material causes of civilization (cities, buildings, music, art), but with each part, he dedicates more time on the formal (vision or arrangement), efficient (craftsmen, artists, and patron) and final cause. The final cause is the driver—what is it for after all? Whom is it for? Consciously writing against all cultural materialists—especially Marxists, as well as those who hold an utterly subjective view of art (i.e., “you have your tastes and I mine”) and what he calls the “smart set” of intellectuals, who hide in technical esotericism, Clark demonstrates a happy restlessness that strives towards some deeper understanding. Civilization is variously described as exhibiting energy, creativity, order, vigor, action; it instills confidence and it supports friendship; it challenges man to create an environment of stability and near permanence in order that man can have time to enjoy leisure and look both forward and backward; it inspires him to lift up those who suffer and see that they too have dignity; it brings learning to bear on the question of human happiness; it creates a restrained and tolerant public life; it cherishes women; and it recognizes men of genius—a genius that Clark had long studied, but now understood and expressed as “God-given.”

With hindsight, one can see Clark’s views had developed organically towards God as the final cause. But it was slow and subtle. He himself quickly moved from the material to the efficient and formal causes. In 1938 he would lay out his 100 Details to culminate with images of Our Lady and the life of Christ. But though he would speak there of humanity raised up to the divine, he was chiefly concerned with how human moral grandeur could be expressed and observed in art. In the 1940s, language about the “active spirits” behind great art appears, but his gaze is largely focused on that indefatigable human spirit, which he sees as struggling for noble expressions—but why? For what? By the 1950s and ’60s, the “truth” dominates his narratives—the truth of the human condition and the real—“the realism of St. Thomas.” Now the artist was seen less as a person dealing with materials and schools of craft, and more as the serious pursuer of truth. Clark stated in a 1964 lecture (later published as What is a Masterpiece?) that the aim of the greatest creators “does not aim at art, but the truth.” His works increasingly condemn modernity (though maintaining a cordial hope for the contemporary artists), a modernity which finds its own works condemned by tradition and great art, all of which—Clark documented—was produced by men and women of serious religious conviction, specifically a well-informed Christian faith.

Quite intentionally, Clark began “Civilisation” with the Fall of Rome. That is to say, he did not want to confuse or restrict what he meant with classical culture, certainly not paganism. In fact, just the opposite. Civilization is essentially Christian. Only Christian society fully achieved what Clark endeavors to communicate. It is impossible to watch the series and, even-handed though it appears, not see that Clark highlights Catholic culture within that civilization. It is the Catholic Church that is the great patron of the arts—of course—but more importantly the great humanizer of his story, the exemplar of moral sensibilities, the mater and magistra of chivalry, crusade, and pilgrimage, even the embryonic conservator of nature. Not that he is blind to the human defects within the Temporal City, but all subsequent ages take their bearings from the heart of Christian culture—the Catholic Church. During the filming of the series, Clark annoyed, bemused, and eventually moved his secular film crew by the amount of time he spent in churches not merely looking at art, but clearly communing in prayer. Clark startled his audience and especially the English intellectual class by his highlighting of the Christian convictions of all the greatest artists, and even more so by his cool reception of most things Protestant (emotional convictions about the moment of the Luther’s “I’ll take my stand” or the intellectual freedom of northern Europe notwithstanding). The Elizabethan Age is cast as brutal and skeptical, his own class is blinded by the Black Legend, and of all things (for an alleged member of the British establishment), Clark hails the creative vision and productivity of the Counter-Reformation. In no way was “Civilisation” an overt apology for Catholicism, but it was made clear that without Catholicism, there was no civilization. Perhaps it was a sign of his persuasive powers, but certainly of his integrity, that despite such polite rebuffs to his own age and class, Clark was made a Peer of England—Lord Clark of Saltwood.

The Final Cause

Even his intellectual critics could not help but admit that Clark was dedicated to making art interesting and accessible, and more than that—Clark’s entire life was dedicated to encouraging people to look upon art and see the positive goods of civilization both as an essential part of their heritage, but essential to their own well-being. Some of Clark’s defenders were not entirely comfortable with the degree to which Clark was dedicated to this, especially as he revealed himself in the concluding moments of the last episode of “Civilisation.” Amongst the intellectual class, he was mocked and excoriated for his concluding “credo”:

I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellectuals of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

These were not late discoveries, but a spontaneous testimony to the gift of perceiving what was precious, what if fact, constituted the heart of civilization. Clark would be somewhat bashful about the “Credo,” but nevertheless printed it up as a gift to send to correspondents. Demureness aside, the “Credo” represented Clark. Clark had spent his whole life slowly tracing things back to a final cause, the God who was creative and gave birth to those artists that enliven western civilization. He did not express it in the language of Aristotle and St. Thomas, but no sensitive Catholic reader of Clark’s work can understand it otherwise. Anticipations of it can be found in his earlier work. In 1953, during the concluding lecture of what would become The Nude, Clark remarked that the perfection of human form in classical art and the dignified honesty in the alternative tradition of northern realism (e.g., the medieval tradition through Rembrandt), brought man “close to divinity” when through “flashes of self-identification… we seem to be aware of a universal order.” And in a 1954 lecture (“Moments of Vision”), Clark spoke openly about the intense perception that was manifest in creators, a kind of “divine agitation” in which the familiar became revelatory of the transcendent. How it all worked, Clark could not then say, “I have been driven deeper and deeper into the dark forest of ancient memory and myth.” The series “Civilisation” shows Clark working towards a concluding answer.

Is Kenneth Clark merely a sound guide to art and material culture, or does he point to the way grace can operate through culture, most especially those masterpieces of Christian civilization? The sole passage that Clark indexed in his autobiography on religious experience takes the reader to an event that occurred circa 1950: “It took place in the Church of San Lorenzo, but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes my whole being was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had known before.” The joy this moment brought lasted several months. It was a “flood of grace” of which Clark thought he was unworthy. He knew his life was flawed. He feared his family would think him mad. He ascribed the experience to his love of reading religious books. He did not act upon it then, but still he knew it was “the finger of God” and it helped him “to understand the joy of the saints.” The feeling passed, but not the memory. He set it down again with avouched curiosity almost thirty years later. The finger touched and pressed.

What few know (even the admirers of Clark) was that after his wife Jane’s death, Clark remarried a Franco-American and a Catholic. The marriage lasted for the remaining four years of Clark’s increasingly private life. After his own death, stories of a deathbed conversion circulated. This was and continues to be viewed with great skepticism, even by his chief biographer, himself a Roman Catholic. And yet, though it seems forgotten, The Times corroborated what was portrayed as rumor by skeptics. An Irish Augustinian priest, who had been stationed near Clark’s home at Hythe, and who had met previously with Clark, was on the day of his death summoned by Lord Clark. After a conversation of which no one knows the details, Clark was given Extreme Unction and Communion “according to the proper rites.” Clark would smile, fall asleep, and pass away, but not before turning to the priest and saying, “Thank you, Father, that is what I have been longing for.”

Works Consulted and Referenced

Kenneth Clark, 100 Details from Pictures in the National Gallery (London, 1938; second edition Cambridge and London, 1990)

-----. Landscape into Art (London, 1949; second edition New York and London, 1976)

-----. Looking at Pictures (New York, 1960)

-----. Civilisation (New York and London, 1969)

-----. The Art of Humanism (New York and London, 1970)

-----. Another Part of the Wood (London, 1974)

-----. The Other Half (London, 1977)

-----. An Introduction to Rembrandt (New York and London, 1978)

-----. What is a Masterpiece? (London, 1979)

-----. Moments of Vision & Other Essays (New York and London, 1981)

James Stourton, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation (New York, 2016)

The Times (London), “Memorial services: Lord Clark, OM CH” (October 14, 1983), p. 14

The Times (London), “Convert Clark” (October 15, 1983), p. 8.