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“Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings” (c. 1615-1618), by Bichitr: Connections between Mughal and Western art are not made clear (© BBC/Nutopia)

He didn’t focus on these in Civilisation not because he didn’t care about other cultures, but because his expertise lay in European art. Civilisations gets particularly wobbly when its presenters move out of their comfort zone. Mary Beard is a leading classicist but her views of Chinese terracotta sculptures or Olmec sculptures are not illuminating. Simon Schama has written superb books on 17th-century Dutch culture but how much does he really know about early Chinese landscape painting? Perhaps Clark had a point.

Critics have also attacked Clark for his confident Eurocentrism. But what is striking about the first and last episodes of Civilisation is their moving emphasis on the fragility of European civilisation. He was not some strident cheerleader for the West. Clark knew how close European civilisation came to catastrophe after the fall of Rome. He says of Rome, “That world must have seemed indestructible. However complex and solid it seems [my emphasis], it is actually quite fragile.” Is he talking about Rome or about the Edwardian world of his childhood, about the Thirties or the late Sixties? In his own lifetime, the West had almost collapsed. His own art collection included superb paintings of bombed British cities. The final sequence of Civilisation shows Clark closing his copy of W.B. Yeats, walking into his library at Saltwood Castle, replacing the book on one of several towering bookcases and walking towards the camera, pausing only to lovingly caress a sculpture by Henry Moore. Moore but also Yeats. The greatness of modern art but also “the best lack all conviction”. We should not mistake erudition for boastful confidence.

Watching Civilisations, one might ask whether we have lost confidence in a unifying story about human civilisation and, in particular, in the enormous historical and artistic contributions of the West. Neither Clark nor Bronowski, men who lived through the Second World War, ignored the stories of Western science and     ideas of liberty. For them these advances were central to the story of Western civilisation. But they never thought that was the whole story. Perhaps the most unforgettable scene in The Ascent of Man shows Bronowski, a Polish Jew, at Auschwitz, speaking of how “science stands on the edge of error” and of the dangers of dogma.


Olmec jade figurines (c. 600-200 BC) from Mexico (©BBC/NUTOPIA)

Civilisations, by contrast, has a far narrower sense of civilisation than Clark or Bronowski. There is little about science and technology, nothing about ideas of liberty and tolerance. Too often Civilisations is about the costs of Western progress, not about its achievements. 19th-century urbanisation, David Olusoga tells us, was “a social disaster”. The parks, libraries and galleries of 19th-century Europe count for nothing. Later he has a dig about “the supposed triumph of European rationalism” and “the stifling conventions of bourgeois society”. The only time the word “bourgeois” is used is in a sneer.

Clark hardly needed to be lectured about the problems of Western civilisation. His series was about the tension between fragility and achievement. But at least he thought he had a story to tell. So did Bronowski. Civilisations has none of this confidence. It has lost faith in the old story and doesn’t have anything to replace it with. Recycled versions of John Berger and Edward Said are not the same thing. Too often, what we get are the fashionable pieties of our time. It is, ultimately, a monument to what may prove a brief moment in Anglo-American political correctness.
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