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 Civilisations that reprised a series called Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clarke 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 possibly 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 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.” (Because “the abstract and conceptual art of Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), . . . tried to challenge the entirety of ‘bourgeois’ culture.”) As Hans Modrow has said, “Thomas Mann’s point of view is quite right: anticommunism is the disaster that creates this suffocating atmosphere which removes people’s ability to reason independently.”
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! Another good supplement would perhaps be Ways of Seeing. Also, the original series by Kenneth Clarke is worth seeing, for the most part. Despite being exclusively focused on European art history, and despite Clarke’s off-putting neo-feudal advocacy and recurring anti-communist diatribes, he at least openly called himself in the series a “stick-in-the-mud” advocating outtdated political ideas, which is something that Schama and Olusoga are shamefully unwilling to do in this later series.