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?