Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When the past is ... rewritten

Celebrating the past is one thing. Rewriting history is another. I first watched Kenneth Clark's then universally acclaimed BBC documentary Civilisation in high school in 1974. [It had been released in 1969.] In many ways, Civilisation was to documentary television in the 1970s-1980s as Ken Burns' Civil War was in the 1990s: groundbreaking television more important for how it did what it did than for how accurately it portrayed its topic. Both Kenneth Clark and Ken Burns came in for a lot of criticism [more, I feel, in both cases than was merited] on narrow technical academic grounds. Clark, for example, was pilloried in some circles for the universal-sounding name Civilisation in a series that clearly focused only on Western Europe. Few people realized that Clark didn't choose the name for the series and didn't actually like it.

None of which is precisely germane to this post. What interests me is that the entire series is now reappearing on You-Tube, which is in general a good thing, because although Kenneth Clark was Eurocentric to a fault, he was also a brilliant art historian, and if you watch the series you will learn an amazing amount about Western European art, culture, and architecture.

But it is also the version of Civilisation now reappearing that interests--and dismays--me. Take a couple minutes to examine this segment of the first episode. You can fast-foward to about 2:15 in and the organ music will stop and Clark will start talking. He will talk about the difference between the art of civilized and barbarous people, comparing the Apollo of the Belvedere with the dragon-headed prow of a Viking ship. He will point out that while both may be art--and the Viking art may actually be superior as art--that one is the reflection of an optimistic civilization and the other is the reflection of a dark, foreboding, and theatening cluster of barbarians. You really only need to watch that segment through from about 2:15 to 4:30 to get the part I am talking about.

So what's wrong with this? What's wrong is that it is not the original version of the series. It struck me when I watched the clip on You-Tube that something major was missing. When I watched this segment in 1974 I remember vividly that Clark had juxtaposed not just the Apollo and the Viking ship, but also an African mask. Was I delusional? No: I went back to check the text of a copy of the original companion volume [and also found a scholarly reference to the original script here]. After Clark discusses the Viking ship being as disturbing in its own time as the prow of a nuclear submarine, he goes on to say this [you can find most if not quite all of these two paragraphs online here]:

An even more extreme example comes to my mind, an African mask that belonged to Roger Fry. I remember when he bought 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 the Belvedere. Yet for four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon's greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

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 man reason and the laws of harmony. [p. 2]

[As you can see by this recent rant at The Wrong Monkey, the Apollo/Mask comparison remains controversial to this day.]

Apparently, somewhere along the line, Civilisation's producers realized how controversial this segment was, and edited it out of the version that is now appearing on You-Tube. I don't know when, and I have not been able to find out, but I suspect it was during the late 1970s or early 1980s, because the edit appears to be Clark himself reading from a revised script rather than a snip job.

I have tremendous problems with this. Civilisation is a tremendously influential piece of history in its own right, and the more controversial views that Clark espoused in the scripts are part of that influence and that history. The series deserves to be viewed both as European art history and as a period piece of television. What this bowdlerizing edit does is to assume that modern viewers either (a) demand everything to be remade in a politically correct image; of (b) that they cannot be entrusted with the delicate task of viewing a film from forty years ago and realizing that times changes, views change, outlooks change.

This is an all too disagreeable phenomenon of not just reinterpreting history but actually attempting to change the past either to make it more palatable or to serve somebody's present-day political agenda.

Kenneth Clark's reputation as a television pioneer and art historian is secure enough to live with the controversies.

American citizens are--or ought to be--mature enough to deal with the past as it actually happened without well-meaning nannies sanitizing it for us.

I truly hope somebody goes back and retrieves the version with the original script from Clark's first broadcast, because both he and we deserve better.

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