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What about us?

Enda O’Doherty writes: In his prologue to Civilización (1979), the Spanish translation of Civilisation: A Personal View (1969), the book based on his famous television series, Kenneth Clark makes an apology. Noting that various colleagues and friends had expressed some disappointment that his project did not have more to say about their own country, Spain, Clark explains that had Civilisation been simply a history of art then it would have been inevitable that a country which could claim El Greco, Ribera, Zurburán, Velázquez, Murillo and Goya, not to mention boasting a number of splendid Gothic cathedrals, would have occupied a prominent place in his account.

But, he insists, Civilisation was not a history of art, not even a history of art and artistic production in a wider sense than the visual. It was, rather, an enterprise concerned with tracing the development of a series of manifestations ‑ in sculpture, painting, architecture, music, literature, philosophy and social and political thought ‑ of what Clark termed the human spirit, and it was written from a certain point of view, a point of view that is normally called humanist. “The human spirit”, and humanism itself, are, he is aware, properties that not everyone has a great deal of time for: indeed not everyone will accept that something called the human spirit exists (it being, rather, “a mystification”). Nevertheless, the concept is a keystone of Clark’s personal beliefs, and for that reason, he explains, he was unable to afford a significant place in his history to what some Spaniards might consider their major contribution to world civilisation, that is the “discovery”, conquest and (partial) Christianisation of South and Central America. (It is perhaps only fair to say that Clark didn’t include the conquests and civilising efforts of the British in Africa or Asia either.) With regard to Spain, he adds that if anyone thinks his lack of enthusiasm about some aspects of its history derives from an English Protestant bias on his part, they should read his seventh chapter, on the Counter-Reformation, “Grandeza y obediencia”. We could also say, from our current vantage point, that they might consider too his deathbed conversion in 1983 to Roman Catholicism – though of course such a step may not have been in his mind in 1979.


It is said that when an important new work of contemporary political history is published many of the first visitors to the bookshops are those people who consider themselves to have been players of some stature in the events described. There, apparently, they can be seen picking the book up off the tables and turning quickly to the back to check if their names are in the index and, if so, whether the corresponding passages in the body of the work are favourable. On the results of that search will possibly depend whether they’ll be taking it to the cash desk.

But perhaps an author of an historical survey is entitled to make a judgment on what and who is important in the period studied, and who is secondary, or even tertiary. Others of course may disagree with that judgment, but it’s open to them in turn to publish their own choice of significant events, and interpretation of them.

The nineteenth century British historian James Anthony Froude once wrote: “It often seems to me as if history was [sic] like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Was he here disparaging the methods of unscrupulous, ideologically blinkered historians or ingenuously describing his own? Given his record as a very unsympathetic (to the natives) historian of Ireland, some might well think the latter.

It strikes me, however, that there may be a difference between a survey of achievement in a particular field (the pursuit that Kenneth Clark was engaged in) and an essentially political history of power and conflict. In the former case, selection is of the essence, even if some may feel annoyed at what is left out or insufficiently emphasised. In the latter enterprise – let us say, for example, in a history of Britain’s Tudor monarchs – it would seem unpardonable to leave out of the account or seriously minimise either the motives of naked greed which accompanied the transfer of monastery land into private ownership (if one is of one ideological tendency), or the large number of executions of Protestants carried out in the reign of Mary I (if one is of the other).

Clark justified the relative neglect of Spain in his book with reference to what were to him inglorious (though to others glorious) episodes in its history which failed to chime with his intellectual and emotional investment of value in toleration, order, calm, beauty, the pursuit of truth and respect for human dignity. But how did everyone else do? Are we in there at all? Well, squinting through the index of Civilisation all I can really find to cheer me up, qua Irishman, are brief references to WB Yeats, described as “more like a man of genius than anyone I have every known” and St Columba, founder of Iona, an island said to have once held 360 large stone crosses, “nearly all of which were thrown into the sea during the Reformation”. As regards outstanding individuals that would seem to be our lot. Is this less than our due? Should we demand a reassessment?

Let us imagine a grand history of European culture, stretching, say, from the Renaissance to the Modernist movement, sponsored and financed by the European Union. It might well be an excellent work, if scholars of sufficient stature were hired to contribute and edit, but one suspects it would also have to meet some political criteria. While Kenneth Clark can be guided by his personal view of what is important (which is neither right nor wrong but simply his view) and ends up giving very considerable space to Italy, quite a lot to France and Germany, some to the Low Countries and to Britain and little bits here and there to a number of other smaller players, one imagines that an EU-funded history would be bound to bestow the prize of cultural recognition on all. This of course need not pose insuperable problems, since the Cypriot, Maltese, Danish, Finnish, Bulgarian and Latvian authorities (to name but a few) would be only too happy to submit a list of their dozen most important writers, painters, musicians and scientists, who have all contributed significantly to the onward march of European civilisation. Then a simple calculation based on population weight, or on financial contribution to the project, or even on net contribution to the EU budget or some other agreed criteria, could be made to see who is going to make the final cut. It is of course impossible to predict in advance how all this would go, but I’d hope that we might at least squeeze James Joyce in the door alongside Yeats and St Columba, and since we know that everyone in Europe likes us I’d guess there’d be a fair chance of success.


Clark’s Civilisation, an ambitious project commissioned specifically to take advantage of the then new medium of colour television, was, fifty years ago, an enormous popular and critical success. There was some dissent, most notably from the art critic John Berger, whose book and TV series Ways of Seeing (1972) was largely a response, from a Marxist and feminist perspective, to what were seen as Clark’s traditionalist or conventional views on art and his alleged complacency about power imbalances in the society that paid for the artifacts and wanted its power and status confirmed by them. More recently, and perhaps rather more unreasonably, Civilisation came under fire for what it had left out, principally non-Western and ancient civilisations. In fact Clark had dealt straightforwardly with these “lacks” back in 1969 in the foreword to the book which followed the television series. The series as conceived (in collaboration with David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two)

was concerned only with Western Europe. Obviously, I could not include the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome, because to have done so would have meant another ten programmes at least; and the same was true of China, Persia, India and the world of Islam.

Of at least equal importance, he pointed out that he lacked the necessary expertise to give an adequate account of these cultural spheres. Had he been at work in the eighteenth century, he suggested, his project would most probably have been entitled Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. But contemporary publishers or television producers don’t do that kind of title. And so, forty years later, in a much more censorious age, critics hit him over the head for his supposed presumption in suggesting Western civilisation was all the civilisation there was (and that it was all produced by men).


It was therefore a welcome development when, last year, BBC Two screened a new nine-part series, Civilisations, presented by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, filmed in thirty-one countries and across six continents, presenting a global view of the role of art in shaping civilisation in quite different cultures and exploring the contacts, by no means always benign, between “Western” civilisations and others.

It has been felt possible to write a book about the Renaissance and never leave Italy. (Sixteenth century Italian humanists indeed often referred to those from across the Alps as “barbarians”.) It is also possible to write one, as the cultural historian Peter Burke triumphantly did with The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries (1998), which traces the temporal and spatial progress of impulses which derived ultimately from classical civilisation, and which were often transmitted back to the West through Byzantine, Arab and Jewish channels, to their ultimate flowering in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries all across Europe, from Italy and Flanders, to England, Scotland, France, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, Bohemia and Poland. Indeed one scholar, the late Brendan Bradshaw, traced Renaissance influence to the unlikely shores of remote Donegal on the northwestern fringes of Europe in his essay “Manus ‘The Magnificent’: O’Donnell as Renaissance Prince” (1979).

Fr Bradshaw was aware that he was kicking back against the scorn and condescension of British historians (or as he put it, “high-class journalists”), from Giraldus Cambrensis to AL Rowse, who tended to see the Irish as irredeemably barbaric and English influence on the island as both necessary and “progressive” – an early version of tough love perhaps ‑ and so he was somewhat cautious in formulating the claims he made for the existence of a significant Renaissance imprint on Gaelic Ireland (could it be said that one swallow – one figure marked by Renaissance mores, like Shane O’Neill – or two – like Shane O’Neill and Manus O’Donnell – made a summer?) Well if we have the evidence, as in this instance Brendan Bradshaw provided it, we can make a judgment on this. And in the absence of evidence, or if the evidence that exists is not brought to the light, we are disadvantaged.

Similarly, with the view of visual art provided by John Berger, and with the various views in Civilisations which suggest that the consideration of art and culture should be a wider project than the one undertaken by Kenneth Clark, we can read, consider, and make up our minds as to what, to us, seems most important and most valuable. Kenneth Clark was aware that he might be regarded by other scholars, particularly those influenced by Marxism, as a rather conservative figure (he was in fact, for all his upper class manners, a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party). In a way which is self-deprecatory in the English mode, and yet quite heavily freighted with irony and at bottom, I think, entirely unapologetic, he wrote in the final pages of Civilisation:

I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects 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 must admit I can see relatively little evidence that human sympathy ‑ that is to say interest in the person and in the wonderful complexity of the person, the essential component of humanism ‑  is a value that is currently more cherished or championed or explored in the academy than is ideology or the supposedly scientific analysis of power relations in what is rather dismally called “cultural production”. For me at least, even after fifty years, Kenneth Clark’s words still have a ring to them.

Illustrations: Quentin Matsys: The Moneylender and his wife; Jean-Baptiste Perronneau: Madame de Sourquainville; Otto Dix: The journalist Sylvia von Harden.

7/3/2019