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The Art of Being "Civilised" Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006
by Paul B. Harvey

[image] Sir Kenneth Clark stands beside a Celtic cross. [LARGER IMAGE]

The British Broadcasting Corporation is offering a remastered DVD set of the Sir Kenneth Clark series Civilisation originally broadcast on PBS in 1969 (BBC Video/Warner DVD Video, $79.98). Thirteen beautifully filmed, elegantly narrated hourlong episodes present Clark's somewhat peculiar vision of civilization.

Clark had a self-assured answer to the question, "What is civilization?" For him it was architecture, painting, and sculpture produced, above all, in Christian contexts. The written word is only significant when illustrated by, or juxtaposed with, visual art. According to Clark, the course of modern civilization began in the fourth century A.D. with the rule of Constantine, Rome's first Christian emperor. The societies of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome loom in the background and are mentioned but not discussed. Women rarely contributed to Clark's version of civilization except in religious contexts. "Primitive barbarians" required domestication by a higher culture to become civilized. Islam was at best a peripheral protagonist.

Clark was foremost an aesthete. His historical vision now seems somewhat quaint. Far too often, his commentary begins, "I think this means ..." regardless of scholarship past or present. While Clark's narrative is enjoyable to hear and argue with, the enduring value of this series is its superb visual displays, including images of the famous Cathedral of Chartres and lesser-known works such as the medieval Carolingian manuscripts. That is not to say that the objects shown are always relevant. One example: How do the famous late-first-century b.c. Dionysiac frescoes from the Pompeian Villa of the Mysteries illustrate the impact of "Eastern mystery religions" in late antiquity?

Instructors of art history and Western civilization courses may continue to use these visually stunning episodes and exploit them more effectively in this new DVD format. Readers of ARCHAEOLOGY--including this reviewer--will be less instructed than entertained by this richly illustrated, highly personal vision of the Western European artistic heritage from late antiquity to the twentieth century.

Paul B. Harvey is a professor of classics at Penn State University.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of multimedia reviews.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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