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 a review by Liza Featherstone of Kristen Ghodsee’s book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence (2018):
But Ghodsee is open to criticism of the same sort Jodi Dean leveled at Naomi Klein: why is “unregulated capitalism” the problem rather than just “capitalism”? Isn’t Ghodsee just making typically vague (left) populist claims? We can critique that position by saying that “populism is simply a new way to imagine capitalism without its harder edges; a capitalism without its socially disruptive effects. Populism is one of today’s two opiums of the people: one is the people, and the other is opium itself. *** What remains of the passionate public engagement in the West is mostly the populist hatred, and this brings us to the other second opium of the people, the people itself, the fuzzy populist dream destined to obfuscate our own antagonisms.”
Link to an interview with Kristen R. Ghodsee conducted by Meagan Day:
Link to an interview with Terje Toomistu, director of the documentary Soviet Hippies (2017), conducted by Loren Balhorn:
“The Soviet Hippies”
Bonus links: “The Forms of Capital” and The Consumer Society (“Are they [hippies] not ultimately, from a sociological point of view, merely a luxury product of rich societies? Are not they, with their orientalist spirituality, their gaudy psychedelia, also marginals who merely exacerbate certain traits of their society?”)
David King – Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History Of The Soviet Union From 1917 To The Death Of Stalin Posters Photographs And Graphics From The David King Collection (Abrams 2009)
Red Star Over Russia is one of the best English-language overviews of the birth and early decades of the Soviet Union. This is primarily a collection of visual materials, presented in large format with high-quality printing/reproduction. There are extensive annotations to contextualize the images, which increases the value of the book tremendously. This is really an essential collection. It is a very nearly necessary supplement to written histories and biographies of the era in question. For instance, the war photographs from the Great Patriotic War (WWII) are quite indescribable, and are, alone, the sorts of things every human being should be exposed to as part of a historical education.
There are, however, a few things to note about this book. King is a Trotskyist. So there is a disproportionate amount of material on Lev (Leon) Trotsky, and essentially no criticisms of Trotsky (such as of his well-documented arrogance). There is also a staunchly anti-Stalinist perspective. While documenting Stalin’s crimes is necessary, readers should be aware that the book is tilted against Stalin (and others) in a typical Troskyist way — without, say, the acknowledgment that many Troskytists have made in recent years that elements of Stalinism were inevitable in the USSR or recognizing some of Stalin’s achievements. Anyway, as a book that focuses on visual art, with tangential discussions of the text on propaganda posters and such, readers will have to look elsewhere to lean more about the music and writing over the early Soviet era — like the great writers Andrei Platonov and Mikhail Bulgakov. Moreover, there are a few misleading comments in the book. Take for instance an indication on page 308 that TASS window posters were “hand-painted”. As detailed in Windows on the War, the TASS news agency did release a few window paintings that were free-hand painted on easel, in the manner King implies, but they were very limited in number. More common were (small-scale) reproduced stenciled posters with painterly effects (what today might be called “artisinal” in the West). Although maquettes may have been initially hand-painted, these stencil posters were not free-hand painted. The images on pages 308 and 309 of King’s book are stenciled reproductions (evident by the individual sheets glued together to form the overall image).
The criticisms of this book are all ultimately minor. King’s Trotskyist slant should, however, be noted by readers. Yet King certainly does not hide his outlook, which is commendable. Everyone has an outlook — there is no such thing as “objectivity” in these matters.