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Excerpts from Sir Kenneth Clark,

"The Skin of Our Teeth"

The following excerpts are from a book that accompanied the very popular PBS series that appeared during the spring of 1969. I was a Freshman in college and was taking my first Art History courses. I was enthralled by the series , and it was a contributing factor in my decision to become an Art History major.

Looking back at the series from the perspective of today, I am struck by the distance and the radical changes in point of view. John Berger's television series appeared only three years later. The criticisms that Berger addresses to the Art Historical establishment are at least implicitly directed to the perspectives offered in Clark's series. Berger would probably label Sir Kenneth as a "high priest" of Art History. Note this in relationship to the antipathy of Clark to religion that comes out in the excerpts but is a recurring theme in the series.

It is particularly interesting to see the series and read these excerpts in relationship to John Berger's discussion about history: "History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past." Sir Kenneth believed profoundly in the division between culture and politics. He believed that culture presents a "higher truth" than that presented by politics. But read these passages from the perspective of the cultural and political contexts of the late 1960's: we were engaged in the Vietnam War which was justified as defense of the "Free World" from the expansion of Communism; the world lived under the fear of nuclear annihilation; in June of 1967 there was an Arab Israeli war; American cities through the late 1960's were sites of racial unrest and violence; in the spring of 1968 there was a student revolt in Paris just on the other side of the Seine river from where Sir Kenneth is speaking; in the United States student protest against the Vietnam war led to a violent clash with the police and National Guard during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago; and a youth, counter-culture manifested in the popularity of Rock and Roll, the growth of a drug culture, and widespread widespread advocation of "free love" would have one of its defining moments during the summer of 1969 at Woodstock , New York. Read these passages with these events in mind, and then think about John Berger's point "In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes...." What do you make of Clark's conception of "civilisation," and the role of art in "civilisation"?

p. 1: I am standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris. On the one side of the Seine is the harmonious, reasonable facade of the Institute of France, built as a college in about 1670. On the other bank is the Louvre, built continuously from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century: classical architecture at its most splendid and assured. Just visible upstream is the Cathedral of Notre Dame --not perhaps the most lovable of cathedrals, but the most rigorously intellectual facade in the whole of Gothic art. The houses that line the banks of the river are also a humane and reasonable solution of what town architecture should be, and in front of them, under the trees, are the open bookstalls where generations of students have found intellectual nourishment.... Across this bridge, for the last one hundred and fifty years, students from the art schools of Paris have hurried to the Louvre to study the works of art that it contains, and then back to their studios to talk and dream of doing something worthy of the great tradition. And on this bridge how many pilgrims from America, from Henry James downwards, have paused and breathed in the aroma of a long-established culture, and felt themselves to be at the very centre of civilisation.

What is civilisation? I do not know. I can't define it in abstract terms --yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it: and I am looking at it now. Ruskin said: "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." On the whole I think this is true. Writers and politicians may come out with all sorts of edifying sentiments, but they are what is known as declarations of intent. If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.

But this doesn't mean that the history of civilisation is the history of art --far from it. Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies --in fact the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality. At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it / p. 2 would have seem less agreeable --as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine.

An even more extreme example comes to my mind, an African mask that belonged to Roger Fry. I remember when he brought it and hung it up, and we agreed that it had all the qualities of a great work of art. I fancy that most people nowadays, would find it more moving than the head of the Apollo of Belvedere. Yet for four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world....

Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don't think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world --that is to say, from a world of our own imagining. To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony.

Fine words: and fine words butter no parsnips. There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Greco-Roman world. But, all the same, the /p.3 contrast between these images means something. It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself --body and spirit-- which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection --reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium. He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways --through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the visible world. The children of his imagination are also the expressions of an ideal.

Western Europe inherited such an ideal. It had been invented in Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it last practically unchanged for over six hundred years. Of course, its art became stereotyped and conventional. The same architectural language, the same imagery, the same theatres, the same temples --at any time for five hundred years you could have found them all round the Mediterranean, in Greece, Italy, France, Asia Minor, or North Africa. If you had gone into the square of any Mediterranean town in the first century you would hardly have known where you were, any more than you would in an airport today. The so-called Maison Carrée at Nîmes is a little Greek temple that might have been anywhere in the Graeco-Roman world.

Nîmes isn't very far from the Mediterranean. Graeco-Roman civilisation stretched much further than that --right up to the Rhine, right up to the borders of Scotland, although by the time it got to Carlisle it had become a bit rough, like Victorian civilisation on the North-West Frontier. It must have seemed absolutely indestructible. And of course some of it was never destroyed. The so-called Pont du Gard, the aqueduct not far from Nîmes, was materially beyond the destructive powers of the barbarians. And a vast mass of fragments remained --the Museum at Arles is full of them. "These fragments have I shored against my ruin." When the spirit of man revived, they were there to be imitated by the masons who decorated the local churches: but that was a long way off.

What happened? It took Gibbon six volumes to describe the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, so I shan't embark on that. But thinking about this almost incredible episode does tell one something about the nature of civilisation. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? Well, first of all fear --fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, that make it /p. 4 simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees or even panning next year's crops. And fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren't question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions, that destroyed self-confidence....

Civilisation might have drifted downstream for a long time, but in the middle of the seventh century there appeared a new force, with faith, energy, a will to conquer and an alternative culture: Islam. The strength of Islam was its simplicity. The early Christian Church had dissipated its strength by theological controversies, carried on for three centuries with incredible violence and ingenuity. But Mahomet, the prophet of Islam, preached the simplest doctrine that has ever gained acceptance; and it gave to his followers the invincible solidarity that had once directed the Roman legions. In a miraculously short --about fifty years-- the classical world was overrun. Only its bleached bones stood out against the Mediterranean sky.

The old source of civilisation was sealed off, and if a new civilisation was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic. What a hope! People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilisation. I doubt if they have given it a long enough tiral. Like the people of Alexandria they are bored by civilisation; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope....

p. 31:....By the year 1000, the year in which many timid people had feared that the world would come to an end, the long dominance of the barbarian dominance was over, and Western Europe was prepared for its first great age of civilisation.

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