Some gems from Kenneth Clark, “Civilization”

 

Some gems from Kenneth Clark,  Civilisation, London, The Folio Society, 1999.

 

p.13:   Ruskin: Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts,  the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.    Cf Clark: but this doesn’t mean that the history of civilization is the history of art – far from it. Great works of art can be  produced in barbarous societies.

 

p.14   The Greek ideal of perfection –  reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.

The enemies of civilization – fear (of war, invasion, plague, famine); fear of the supernatural;  exhaustion and hopelessness from too much material  prosperity.

p.15  Of course civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence – confidence in the society in which one lives,  belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers.

 

p.23:  Civilisation means something more than energy and will and creative power -…it needs  permanence – [wanderers don’t have permanence]

 

P23:  St Gregory, who looks so intensely devoted to scholarship on a tenth-century ivory, St Gregory himself is credited with having destroyed many volumes of classical literature, even whole libraries, lest they seduced men’s minds away from the study of holy writ. And in this he was certainly not alone. What with predudice and destruction, it’s surprising that the literature of pre-Christian antiquity was preserved at all. And in fact, it only squeaked through.  ….[because practically all men of intellect joined the church and some eg Gregory of Tours, were remarkably intelligent and unprejudiced men and Alcuin of York – collector of manuscripts for Charlemagne]

P 24:  monasteries couldn’t have become the guardians of civilization without stability – Kingdom of the Franks. It was achieved by fighting. All great civilizations, in their early stages, are based on their success in war.

 

P31:   We have grown so used to the idea that the Crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity that it is a shock to realize how late in the history of Christian art its power was recognized. In the first art of Christianity it hardly appears; and the earliest example, on the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, is stuck away in a corner, almost out of sight…. It was the tenth century….that made the Crucifixion into a moving symbol of the Christian faith.

 

P32:  The Church was not only an organizer; it was a humaniser [and the dominant power at the end of the tenth century]

P.33: It could be argued that western civilization was basically the creation of the church. [not as the repository of Christian truth and  spiritual experience but as the dominant power – (did not suffer the  inconveniences of feudalism;  no question of divided inheritance – could conserve and expand properties; it was democratic – ordinary men of ability could rise in the church; it was international.]

 

p.39:  This feeling of tugging, of pulling everything to bits and reshaping it, was characteristic of twelfth century art, and was somehow complementary to the massive stability of its architecture. And I find rather the same situation in the realm of ideas. The main structure, the Christian faith, was unshakeable. But round it was a play of minds, a tugging and a tension, that has hardly existed ever since and was, I think, one of the things that prevented Western Europe from growing rigid, as so many other civilizations have done.

 

 P.48:  Chartres is the epitome of the first great awakening in European civilization. It is also the bridge between the Romanesque and the Gothic.

 

P.59:  The great, indeed the unique, merit of European civilization has been that it has never ceased to develop and change. It has not been based on a stationary perfection, but on ideas and inspiration; and even the ideal of courtesy can take an unexpected form. [St Francis  of Assissi] (Francesco Bernadone) [but including fashion, manners]

P. 62:  Cities, citizen, civilian, civic life: I suppose that all this ought to have a direct bearing on what we mean by civilization.  [nineteeth century historians maintained that civilization began with the Italian republics of the fourteenth century ] Civilisation can be created in a monastery or a court as well as a city but Italian republics were realistic contrast chivalric aims; (although of course not democratic – ruled by oligarchies]

P.76 Vasari, Renaissance historian of Art: The spirit of criticism:  the air of Florence making minds naturally free, and not content with mediocrity…. Clark: our contemporary attitude of pretending to understand works of art in order not to appear philistines would have seemed absurd to the Florentines.

P.82:  The discovery of the individual was made in early fifteenth –century Florence. Nothing can alter that fact. But in the last quarter of the century the Renaissance owed almost as much to the small courts of northern Italy –  Ferrara, Mantua, and above all, Urbino….one of the high water-marks of western civilization…….P.83: The Duke of Urbino”s (Federigo Montefeltro) biographer Vespasiano di Bistici,  who furnished the duke’s library, asked the duke what is necessary in ruling a kingdom: the Duke replied: essere umano –‘to be human’. Whoever invented the style, this is the spirit that invades the Palace of Urbino. [also the rediscovery of Greek philosophy through the neo-Platonists]

P.87:  Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical elements of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order….noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture;P.88…already awareness of nature is associated with the desire to escape and with hope of a  better life….

 

 

 

P.90 Renaissance pride:  Alberti:A man can do all things if he will. Clark:how naïve Alberti’s statement seems when one thinks of that great bundle of fears and memories that every individual carries around with him; to say nothing of the external forces which are totally beyond his control. …the civilization of the early Italian Renaissance was not broadly enough based.

 

P.93:  Great movements in the arts, like revolutions, don’t last for more than about fifteen years. After that the flame dies down, and people prefer a cosy glow.

 

P.96: The qualility of the heroic is not a part of most people’s idea of civilization. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilized life. It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognize that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilization depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.

 

P.98:  The shadow in Rembrandt – a means of concentrating on  the parts that are felt most intensely…

 

P.106 The Renaissance convention of depicting Biblical characters as  perfect human specimens became a deadening influence on the European mind. It deadened our sense of truth, even our sense of moral responsibility; and led, as we now see, to a hideous reaction.

 

P. 118 re Erasmus’ huge following during the Reformation: It shows that people, even in a time of crisis, yearn for tolerance and reason and simplicity of life – in fact for civilization. But on the tide of fierce emotional and  biological impulses they are powerless.

 

P.121: There can be no thought without words. Luther gave his countrymen words. Erasmus had written solely in Latin. [vernacular plus printing press – ordinary people could read and think for themselves]

P.122:  Montaigne  on the Reformation: In trying to make themselves angels, men transform themselves into beasts.

 

P. 123 Elizabethan England: – It was brutal,  unscrupulous and disorderly. But if the first requisites of civilization are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality….then it was a kind of civilization.

 

P. 126: We have been conditioned by generations of liberal, Protestant theologians who tell us that no society based on obedience, repression and superstition can be really civilized. But no one with an ounce of historical feeling or philosophic detachment can be blind to the great ideals, to the passionate belief in sanctity, to the expenditure of human genius in the service of God, which are made triumphantly visible to us with every step we take in Baroque Rome.  [eg Michelangelo, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; impact of sack of  Rome in 1527]

 

P. 126: One of the reasons why mediaeval and Renaissance architecture is so much better than our own is that the architects were artists.  Eg Brunelleschi; Bramante; Raphael; Peruzzi; Giulio Romano; Pietro da Cortona; Bernini.

P.l33:   The leaders of the Catholic Restoration had made the inspired decision not to go half-way to meet Protestantism in any of its objections, but rather to glory in those very doctrines that the Protestants had most forcibly, and sometimes, it must be admitted, most logically had repudiated. [eg divine appointment of the Pope; relics; veneration of the saints; the assumption of the Virgin Mary]

P.142:  Misgivings about extreme baroque art and architecture summed up in the words ‘illusion’ and ‘exploitation’.  Of course, all art is to some extent an illusion. It transforms experience in order to satisfy some need of the imagination. But there are degrees of illusion….One can’t help feeling that affluent Baroque, in its escape from the severities of the earlier fight against Protestantism, ended by escaping from reality into a world of illusion. P.146: [exploitation – expressions of private greed and vanity. Farnese, Borghese, Ludovisi competing to build the largest and most ornate….I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room [except the reading room of the British Museum!]

P. 150:  In studying the history of civilization one must try to keep a balance between individual genius and the moral and spiritual condition of a society. However irrational it may seem, I believe in genius. I believe that almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals. Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling that the supremely great figures in history –  Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe – must be to some extent a summation of their times. They are too large, too all –embracing, to have developed  in isolation.  Eg Rembrandt in Holland: …the spiritual life of Holland needed him and so had, to some extent, created him.

 

P. 155:  Izaac  Walton:  The Compleat Angler.   Study to be quiet.

 

P. 158:   ….although one may use works of art to illustrate the history of civilization, one must not  pretend that social conditions produce works of art or inevitably influence their form.   Eg  Velasquez:  Las Meninas  (‘The Ladies in Waiting) – produced in the superstitious, convention-ridden court of Philip the 1V in Spain)

 

P.l64:  Scientific revolution in England …and so began (with Newton) that division between scientific truth and the imagination which was to kill drama, and give a feeling of artificiality to all poetry during the next hundred years.

 

P. 164: French  prose was the form in which European intelligence shaped and communicated its thoughts about history, diplomacy, definition, criticism, human relationships – everything except metaphysics. It is arguable that the non-existence of a clear, concrete German prose has been one of the chief disasters to (sic) European civilization.

 

P. 164:  The industrial revolution in Britain produced the squalid disorder of industrial society. It has grown up as a result of the same conditions that allowed the Dutch to build their beautiful towns and support their painters and print the works of philosophers – reason:  human greed.

P. 175:  Pater: (of the Venetians)  they painted the musical intervals of our existence when ‘life itself is conceived as a kind of listening.’

P. 180:  Opera, next to Gothic architecture, is one of the strangest inventions of western man. It could not have been foreseen by any logical process. Dr Johnson’s much quoted definition, which as far as I can make out, he never wrote, ‘an extravagant and irrational entertainment’, is perfectly correct and and at first it seems surprising that it should have been brought to perfection in the Age of Reason. But cf. Rococco Architecture.

P. 182: In defence of reason and the enlightenment esp Voltaire.  The smile of reason may seem to betray a certain incomprehension of the deeper human emotions; but it didn’t prclude some strongly held beliefs – belief in natural law, belief in justice, belief in toleration. Not bad. The philosophers of the Enlightenment pushed European civilization some steps up the hill….

 

P. 187: Of the French salons:  Solitude no doubt is necessary to the poet and the philosopher, but certain life-giving thoughts are born of conversation, and conversation can flourish only in a small company where no one is stuck-up. That is a condition which cannot exist in a court…

 

P. 189:  A margin of wealth is helpful to civilization, but for some mysterious reason great wealth is destructive.  I suppose that, in the end, splendour is dehumanizing, and a certain sense of limitation seems to be a condition of what we call good taste.

 

P. 191:Talleyrand: only those who experienced the social life of eighteenth century France had known the ‘douceur de vivre’, the sweetness of living.

P. 195:  in defence of Voltaire:  ..by the middle of the eighteenth century serious minded men could see that the Church had become a tied house – tied to property and status and defending its interests by repression and injustice. Voltaire:  écrasez l’infame! Crush the vermin!

P. 226.  Connection between art and warfare:  Ruskin: No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers.

P. 238: on the emergence of the Middle Class;  The early nineteenth century created a chasm in the European mind as great as that which had split up Christendom in the sixteenth century, and even more dangerous. On one side of the chasm was the new middle class nourished by the Industrial Revolution. It was hopeful and energetic, but without a scale of values. Sandwiched between a corrupt aristocracy and a brutalized poor, it had produced a defensive morality – conventional, complacent, hypocritical.  The bourgeois.

P.240:  on the impurity of humanity:  …all those forces that threaten to impair our humanity: lies, tanks, tear-gas, ideologies, opinion polls, mechanization , planners, computers – the whole lot.

 

P. 243:  attempt to define civilization and against those who say civilization is only possible with slavery;  only if one defines civilization in terms of leisure and superfluity.  Rather it  is creative power and the enlargement of human faculties.

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Some gems from Kenneth Clark, “Civilization”

  1. Lyn C. says:

    According to my pocket Oxford dictionary, civilization is ‘an advanced stage of social development’ – no mention of technical development. By that definition I reckon the nomadic tribes of aboriginal Australia pre British invasion would qualify as a civilization well ahead of a country like for example, Nazi Germany and probably many other countries today

    • raprideaux says:

      Agree..Kenneth Clark was an unashamed Europhile …all of his books on art and cultural history are about European art and history. Nevertheless he is not unaware of the problems when you read these quotes…eg stagnation of wealth, the powerlessness of civilisation against the horrors of “emotional and biological might”etc. the paltriness of bourgeois mediocrity; the lack of artistic skill in modern architecture; the lack of emotional health in enlightenment philosophy; the limitations of breadth in Renaissance Humanism etc. He was trying to capture the essence of European civilisation not write the history of its downfall and there have been many deep “downs”. I agree with you also regarding indigenous Australian civilisation. In our philosophy club at Newhaven last Friday we were arguing this very case. When I first experienced Simpson’s Gap at 7.30 in the morning, lay down on the Nullarbor highway at midnight or read Bruce Chatwyn’s “The Songlines” or Carolyn Landon’s “Jackson’s Track” I began each time to understand the power, beauty and importance for the planet of indigenous Australian civilization. Similarly after spending time amongst the almost perfect harmony of the gardens and temples of Kyoto I fell in love with the deep wells of Japanese civilization. But neither prevented bitter and destructive Aboriginal tribal wars or Japanese involvement in WW11…there is a deeper evil and a deeper magic à la C S Lewis. Of course Clark was not interested and I think despised technical development, seeing modern society as the destruction of civilisation. He wrote very little about C20th art. He was passionate about Renaissance art, the Gothic revival and Romantic landscape painting and made his university reputation on his detailed study of the work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

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