With an exploration of Kenneth Clark currently at Tate Britain and an upcoming reboot of his landmark BBC series, Civilisation, we ask what the future holds for art on TV 

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  • Production shot of Kenneth Clark Courtesy BBC Archives
    Production shot of Kenneth Clark being mic'd up for recording of Civilisation
  • Production shot of Kenneth Clark Courtesy BBC Archives
    Production shot of Kenneth Clark on location for Civilisation
  • Production shot of Kenneth Clark Courtesy BBC Archives
    Production shot of Kenneth Clark on location for Civilisation
  • Production shot of Kenneth Clark Courtesy BBC Archives
  • Production shot of Kenneth Clark Courtesy BBC Archives
    Production shot of Kenneth Clark on location for Civilisation

This evening, arts commentators come together to debate on the future of arts broadcasting – prompted by the Kenneth Clark exhibition at Tate Britain, and the forthcoming revival of Clark’s landmark arts series, Civilisation.

It’s an interesting question. Civilisation, or to give it its full title, Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, was commissioned to make use of the new colour TV technology for BBC2 in 1969. Clark took his viewers on a thirteen-part journey through the traditional view of art history from the ‘Dark Ages’ to the late twentieth century, taking in visual art, architecture, philosophical thought and technological advances. Coming as it did on the tail of Clark’s other TV broadcasts such as What is Good Taste? (not flying ducks and modern clocks masquerading as baroque, in case you were wondering), Civilisation built on Clark’s influential position in the British art world as a patron and proponent of a particular sort of figurative (or at least rooted in figuration) art.

Though the series was acclaimed and sold across the world, it aired just after the social upheavals of 1968. Clark’s patrician (some might say patronising) views, and the suggestion that there was simply one Story of Art was deeply unfashionable amongst the anti-authoritarian youth. Quickly followed by John Berger’s series Ways of Seeing, which focused on unpicking visual culture from feminist, economic or political points of view, Civilisation (and Clark by association) was roundly discredited.

But did we throw the baby out with the bath water? Nobody objects to nature or science documentaries which tend to have an all-knowing narrator, presumably because we’ve all decided that nature is objective, while art is subjective. And there is no lack of one-off documentaries on all aspects of art and art history – it’s just the idea of a single linear narrative of art that is out of fashion.

It’s easy to say we can’t tell the overarching story of western art any more, but it is hard to critique a traditionalist view without knowing what the traditionalist view was in the first place.

 So if the BBC are planning to reboot Civilisation for the 21st-century, what should that look like? Should it have a ‘knowledgeable’ art historian like Clark telling us what’s good for us? Or should it take a thematic or chronological visual approach and let us make up our own minds? Should it remind us of the society that made those works, warts and all, or present art as transcendent of its beginnings?

Was Clark elitist to suggest that the ‘great art’ of the western world deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, that ‘ordinary people’s’ lives would be improved by a greater understanding of or interest in visual art? And as we move to on demand television, can the arts ever hope to create a ‘date to view’ culture again?

Radio 3’s commentators will no doubt address some of these questions in Free Thinking, a round table debate tonight at 10pm — but at the heart of it all is a question that rolls on and on and on. What should the future of art history look like?


I'm not sure that the dearth of long-form arts documentaries is really down to the shift in art historical attitudes over the last 50 years (although that shift is certainly real). Art programmes on UK television tend to be presented by art critics rather than academics and don't really reflect contemporary art historical fashions (this isn't necessarily a drawback).

The contemporary TV documentary, whatever the subject matter, has become a highly standardised template, almost always limited to the magic number of 3 instalments. The only recent exception that I can think of on an arts topic almost proves the rule. The wonderful 15-part series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey - broadcast on More4 in 2011 - was a personal project by Mark Cousins, who had the advantage of being a film-maker, able to direct, shoot and edit his own footage. This autonomy gave him unique freedom, not just over length but also over the style of the series. Quite remarkably, Cousins himself never appeared on screen, and his voice-over commentary was fragmentary and meditative. Were a critic or film historian to make a similar series, at the mercy of a slick documentary production unit, they would have been squeezed into the standard format: compelled to prance around for the cameras, 'go on a journey', sound VERY excited at around 5' and 55' ("This is where THE MODERN WORLD WE KNOW was born!"), don white cotton gloves for some gratuitous 'archive' scene, experience a moment of self-doubt at around 35' that calls for a pained whisper in video-diary style close-up ("The trouble is, the more I'm finding out, the less I think I know what the Renaissance was really about.") … You know the drill.

It's the dismal standardisation of TV formats, rather than the move away from 'grand narratives' in academic art history, that acts as a blocker to ambitious programme-making in this area.

Rant over, and picking up your question about whether this planned new 'Civilisation' should "remind us of the society that made those works ... or present art as transcendent of its beginnings", I would argue that it should surely do both. Indeed, I would suggest that one of the principal reasons why works of art from other eras and cultures excite us so profoundly - perhaps the main reason - lies in their mysterious amalgam of the enchantingly alien and the eerily familiar.

The ukiyo-e prints so beloved of Kenneth Clark are a perfect case in point. From a 21st-century western perspective, so much about their world is wondrously strange - and yet just as much chimes with our own everyday feelings and experiences. (And of course their aesthetic, which would have astonished the European contemporaries of Harunobu or Utamaro, now seems like part of an international visual heritage.)

I've just come across a nice little video of Stephen Greenblatt talking about this very issue. Quoting a 16th-century poem by Thomas Wyatt, Greenblatt comments: 'If the poem works as it does for me, it works because it somehow is making connection to me across this huge gap of time and class and culture and identity. I can't explain fully why ... And that's what is the fascination of works of art. But it doesn't mean that it's universal. It doesn't mean that it escapes from time and place. It means that it's able to be mobile."


To be at all engaging, a lengthy survey of art history needs to have a large quotient of art that has this quality of 'mobility'. Works of art that lack this quality hold about the same level of interest as archaeological artefacts: pointers to reconstructing a bygone culture with little further resonance besides the skill and beauty of their manufacture. That said, I think the job of the programme-maker is to focus on elucidating the cultural background and social function of artworks - helping to unpick what makes art from one place and time different to that from another - and touch ever-so lightly on the aspects that speak to more directly to us in the present. We don't need to be told every five minutes that a 500-year old portrait "looks just like someone you might come across in the streets of Florence today!" That sort of stuff we can work out for ourselves, without so much as picking up an art history book.