Civilisations [Civilizations] (2018)
BBC Two, PBS
Director: Tim Niel (possibly others)
Main Cast: Simon Schama, Mary Beard, David Olusoga, Liev Schreiber (USA version only)
The BBC produced an art history mini-series entitled Civilizations that reprised a series call Civilisation from decades earlier. The series title was spelled Civilizations for its modified version aired on PBS in the USA, in which different narration is used and possible other changes were made. This review focuses on the version aired in the USA.
The early episodes discussing ancient civilizations written by Mary Beard are the best. They offer nuanced discussions of ancient art that has survived to the present, along with hypotheses about how the societies that produced that art were structured. The later, recent-era episodes written by Simon Schama and David Olusoga are troubling. Those later episodes engage in a politically reactionary “university discourse” (Jacques Lacan’s term) that sets up a highly reductionist (and biased) binary, which can fairly be called liberal blackmail: modern industrial capitalism vs. new age paganism. Scrupulously avoided in the series is any positive (or even neutral) depiction of art from communist countries or communist artists, or even anarchist ones, which would allow viewers to see an alternative to both the art of industrial capitalism and the art of various indigenous cultures and remnant monarchies. If this absence of communist-leaning art seems accidental, it isn’t. There is one episode (written by Schama) in which a Chinese artist is profiled. Who was the Chinese artist? One condemned by the Chinese government and praised by the (anticommunist) West. It is a framing that overtly revels in highly partisan cold war politics. And when modernism is discussed, the focus is on innovations in the techniques of painters and in the selection of subjects for paintings (analyzed through a lens of liberal identity politics), ignoring, for instance, one of the founding works of modernism: Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1913) painting (a similar work from another, more recent artist without any connection to the former Soviet Union is instead featured in one episode, and in the final episode Piet Mondrian is discussed as the founder of modernism, a view contrary to that of numerous other art historians). The goal here is clear, and it is anti-communist propaganda in furtherance of political liberalism that benefits the bourgeoisie and reactionaries who want to “try to roll back the wheel of history.”
My spouse was waiting for the show to profile the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But I knew the show would omit avowed communist artists like them. Kahlo and Rivera were in fact not featured in the series, nor were any artists remotely like them.
Viewers may gain much from watching the Mary Beard episodes but skipping the Schama and Olusoga ones and substituting, say, Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (1996). Yes, a show hosted by a nun is less dogmatic and less biased than those by Schama and Olusoga!
Link to an interview with Yanis Varoufakis conducted by David Broder:
“We Have Nothing to Lose but Our Debts”
Link to an article by Sharon Nelson:
“Yes, Alexa Does Eavesdrop on You!”
“Befuddlement at the rise of reactionary forces is met with an increasingly strident insistence that there is nothing to react against, that all is well if people would only shut up and follow the directions of their betters.”
Rob Urie, “White Nationalism and the Neoliberal Order”
Bonus link: Political Struggle Quote
The website Streets dot mn (sorry, no linkback bonus for you, assholes!), is a great example of misguided, dogmatic neoliberalism run amok. They endlessly wail about this or that local transportation issue, often promoting “cures” that are worse than the disease (up there among them are “traffic calming” measures, a sort of dog-whistle for poor design and driver-angering measures, or simply bicyclist/pedestrian chauvinist moralizing). They scrupulously avoid tackling any meaningful issues, like class, and promote a draconian, despotic PC liberal view of the world (described as “left neoliberalism” by Walter Benn Michaels and “progressive neoliberalism” by Nancy Fraser) under the cynical guise of civility or some such nonsense — in other words, anything to the left (or right) of their own positions is uncivil and therefore unacceptable, which amounts to simply depoliticizing their own highly political ideologies (characteristic of “discourse of the university” as explained by psychoanalysis). These people should be ashamed of themselves and their “beautiful soul” blathering. What the web site’s operators posit as technical infrastructure and and operations/maintenance problems are really symptoms of problems that are bracketed out of their purview. The real question to ask is “what is to be done?” When department of transportation engineers and corporate and real estate development flack politicians enact policies harmful to ordinary people, it isn’t because they haven’t considered the technocratic fixes that this web site promotes, or are mistaken about them. It is because they represent class interests opposed to the interests of most residents. In the case of transportation, this is often just a corollary to the “housing question”, the “property contradiction,” and other requirements and preferences of the bourgeoisie that have the state favor their own private capital accumulation. So, what is to be done is to enact systemic change, smashing the institutions of the bourgeois class and removing that class and their supporters from power. Then you can make transportation bike friendly and pedestrian friendly and environmentally responsible. To insist that these kinds of solutions can’t be discussed is to defend the status quo, by naively insisting that the powerful will act against their own class interests (if only someone had suggested such class betrayals to them!). But that is what political liberals always do, because they consistently disavow how they are actually supporters and collaborators with the classes whose policies they outwardly claim to oppose. Oh, and this web site’s comments policy is biased and, frankly, dumb, because it effectively bans the “kritik” debate format, which you may note is the format of the present commentary, and ignores the well-documented rise of a new McCarthyism. It is just an exercise in what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.” The people running the site should be sent for cultural reeducation.