"It is easy to confuse sophistication with civilisation. Sophistication can be a soulless exercise in superiority rather than an appreciation of cultivated taste for its life-enhancing qualities." The ability of art to transcend context, to become Art, cannot be a matter of chance. Nor can it can be simply a question of personal taste. There must be rules.
When the essayist Anne Fadiman was asked if she would like to be part of something new called civilisation she agreed. What else was she to say to a question like that? To begin with she did not understand the Library of Congress journal Civilization was looking for its first editor. Gandhi famously quipped that he thought Western Civilisation would be a good idea. Anne Fadiman thought so too. This prompts the question of what we mean when we talk about civilisation.
We speak of having a civilised conversation. We think we are civilised. Often we can think like that only because we think (but dare not say) that out there are the savages, the barbarians, the heathen. The Library of Congress was not thinking like that, partly because such arrogance leads to such atrocious and barbaric processes as slavery and genocide. The barbarians whom the Library of Congress feared were not to be found out on the remote frontier. They were in the city, and not necessarily lurking in the subway and the alley.
What we call civilisation is a precarious notion at the best of times. Many things may signal the effects without being the thing itself. Civility is the obvious first point. But consideration for others is more than formal courtesy. There are situations where the two are in conflict. There are times when you may need to tell the candid truth out of loyalty and honour. The ability to make such moral judgements, always at the risk of censure, is a sign of a truly civilised mind, one that recognises the essence rather than the mere formality. Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good explores the world of difference between the two states of being.
Surely it is the harmony of the nice and the good that produces civilisation? A good person need not be civilised. [Are the hermits and ascetics among the Christian saints civilised?] But a civilised person must value good intentions, kindly attitudes and selfless behaviour. It is easy to confuse sophistication with civilisation. Sophistication can be a soulless exercise in superiority rather than an appreciation of cultivated taste for its life-enhancing qualities.
The nomadic peoples of pre-history do not qualify as a civilised people in the fundamental meaning of the term as those who congregate in cities. They did not create formal structures in society. But they left behind art of extraordinary power. The cave paintings and rock carvings denote advanced aesthetic and moral intuitions. They not only created significant art: they preserved it for a future time they would not know. At least, that is how it may seem to us. But consider the Dreamtime mindset of the Australian Aboriginals. The boomerang bends time. The vibrations of the didgeridoo seem to invoke a meditative, trance-like state that is outside of historical time. The civilisation created is within the mind. [Or so I surmise it to be.]
That may be a spiritually higher realm than any we know in the material world, but it is to the material world that we must refer. It is to art that we most often seem to indicate the manifestations of civilisation. The question ‘Is it art?’ is radically important because the roots of our understanding of things are contained within such a question as this.
It is, however, what an earlier generation would have called devilishly difficult to answer. Orson Welles in F for Fake quotes Kipling:
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, ‘It’s pretty, but is it Art?’
The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. You have to give the Devil his due. That whisper in the ear may confuse and upset. It requires an answer, even so. A question that cannot be answered is devilish indeed.
By art we surely mean objects that have a value beyond any useful purpose or immediate meaning. If an object can be appreciated only in context it is not art. The survival of interest in an object is one criterion. A century and more has passed since the earliest works of Chaplin and Picasso astonished the world. They have not lost their power to engage or outrage or do both. If they have survived one century they have every chance of surviving several. They may speak to other cultures when ours is as much a ruin as Knossos.
The ability of art to transcend context, to become Art, cannot be a matter of chance. Nor can it can be simply a question of personal taste. There must be rules. But we don’t know, not really, what they are. Living in the present we cannot predict the future. Whether highly-regarded work now will be remembered or forgotten a century forward is impossible to say. We should not confuse the fashionable with the vital.
Vitality in art certainly requires some rules. And these we do know. Listening to the music of an untrained but gifted composer, I tried to explain what was lacking. The melodious and complex harmonies became monotonous. The work lacked variation, the contrasts of slow movement and fast movement. The aspiring composer rejected that as outmoded, discredited classicism. Today we are free. We follow our intuitions. ‘But you need a framework,’ I said. ‘Pink Floyd has a framework.’
He didn’t want to know. The reasons for his rejection of rules and tradition were rooted in a dislike of the social formalities and the patrician ethos of the conservatoire and the concert hall. But Steve Reich in his baseball cap adheres to the rules. Every artist is a tightrope walker without a safety net. You can break the rules only when you have mastered them. T.S Eliot intensely disliked the restricting forms of classical metre. But he offered a watchword: ’The division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.’
The search is for the patterns and harmonies that may exist on the far side of the liberation from traditional forms. The concentration required in discerning those secret harmonies is no less demanding than that required of traditional forms. But it is a different concentration. What may seem at a casual glance disorder requires the sequestered space for concentration.
It is hard to find such space in distracted modern lives. The commercial arts make use of a few bars of music. They mimic modernist styles. They quote a few lines of poetry. But they do not engage with the meanings, nor do they encourage such engagement. Chaos, it can seem, is the preferred option. Publicity culture requires us to glide over the surface of things. Added to this is the quasi-radical notion that we have nothing to learn from the past. We have nothing to learn from one another. As free individuals each of us floats in a personal bubble where every year is Year One.
Nobody seriously engaged in creativity thinks like that. It was not much of a revelation to learn from Keith Richards’s autobiography that his musical influences are wide. That much was evident from those well-crafted songs that owe as much to lieder as they do to Howlin’ Wolf. Rock fans don’t like sentences like that. They want to be pioneers. Who doesn’t? But blazing a trail requires a compass, provisions and some survival techniques.
In his way Kenneth Clark blazed a trail when he talked about art on television. Civilisation was not his choice of a title. For one thing, he was acutely aware that his subject was confined to Western culture. For another, he thought the title too slick and gimmicky. The subtitle was A Personal View. Clark had some authority because he was an authority, but he wasn’t seeking to impose a definitive version. It was to be an approach in a conversational manner. The hope was to stimulate interest.
It was a huge and lasting success. A joint production between British and American public broadcasting stations, Clark, already a well-known name, became an exceptionally famous face. After forty years of polite appreciation Clark became a media star. He was surprised and touched, having been unsure if the enterprise would succeed. He thought his appearance on camera looked mannered and aloof. Born in 1903 into a very privileged world, Clark was incapable of relaxing into the demotic style of the age. He had charm and humility, but he was not humble. He was grand and gracious. [This worries the public much less than media people think. The public sees all media people as socially elevated in fact if not in manner.]
An Anglicized Scot from a family of industrialists, Clark inherited well. He rejected the philistinism of his background. He accepted his privileges, recognizing that with them went responsibilities. Clark had the money to write and to travel as he pleased, but he slowed down his production by working very hard at real jobs in arts administration. Clark was of his class and never broke away, but politically he was progressive, and this affected his attitude to culture. His hero was Ruskin. Clark quoted with approval Ruskin’s dictum ‘There is no wealth but life.’
Those who say it’s easy for the rich to speak like that forget that Clark really did value art and culture above material things. It is easy to forget also how much work went into the books, articles and lectures. He wrote well in a clear style that wore its learning lightly.
Clark was aware of his limitations. He never really came to terms with his century. His anti-Modernism was revised over the years, although he was never wholly at ease with the revolution through which he lived. There are reasons for not entirely admiring Kenneth Clark. There are also some bad motives. Many of his detractors are clearly motivated by envy. Others dislike trying to engage with people they do not agree with entirely.
I have engaged with Kenneth Clark since in my early teens I came across his work on Leonardo. I should have come across much of the art in Civilisation had I not seen the programmes and read the book. [That would not be true of everyone.] But it was useful to have the work gathered and cohered into a series of themes. It has been one of my life’s ambitions to see everything at first hand. I haven’t completed the task, but I’m nearly there. Those areas I have learned about in more depth, like Provencal culture, enable me to admire Clark’s ability to summarize without trivializing. I don’t share his doubts about Modernism. But I agree that what he terms Heroic Materialism fails to ignite the required sparks of human decency and transcendent inspiration.
I moved from Kenneth Clark to John Berger. Berger owes Clark quite a large debt., for it was Clark who pioneered the concentration on significant detail, rather than generalized admiration. Ways of Seeing is an original, radical polemic that complements Clark. It is not an attack on Clark: it is a response. [I am not alone in feeling this.] Berger replied on behalf of many others stimulated by Kenneth Clark, not only to appreciate him but to re-define their own feelings in the light of his. Surely the last thing Kenneth Clark would have wanted was monolithic conformity?
Clark’s liberal tolerance of diverse opinions was tested to the limit during the filming of Civilisation in Paris, May 1968. Other things were happening at that time. Clark’s response was interesting: ‘One doesn’t have to be young to dislike institutions. I don’t like them much myself. But I’m afraid we can’t do without them.’ It’s almost an apology. It’s certainly sympathetic to the impatience of the radical will set against the unthinking assent society often demands.
There are doubts about the validity of civilisation as a moral concept. Gathering in cities, sharing a polity, and producing a literate culture have not insured society against barbaric conduct. The rediscovery of tribal cultures has been a significant experience for many disenchanted by materialism. The roots of that disenchantment cannot be ignored. The preference is for intuition over reason. Sane, rational, liberal people calmly make mad, violent, tyrannical decisions. What use is the Categorical Imperative when Eichmann justifies his actions with reference to Kant? Reason is heartless. Is it not better to trust to instinct, to the essence of being?
The truth is that reason is only one element in the organic structure. The cold light of day is not the only condition. There are times to open the shutters, and there are times to close them. Our intuitions tempered by reason (reasonable aims and reasonable doubt) may guide us through the wilder regions of life.
The last word is Picasso’s: ‘Truth is a lie. I often paint fakes.’ Picasso’s interest in tribal African iconography signalled something more than an aesthetic mode. It was an admission of the limits of Western civilisation, and a widening of its horizons. Perhaps the most civilised response is to acknowledge the advance in understanding Picasso, above all modern artists, not only proposed but achieved.
Geoffrey Heptonstall is a widely-published poet, fiction writer and essayist.
Article courtesy of Open Democracy