Thank you Sir Kenneth Clark – civilisation on TV

14th September 2011
Well, today, instead of rambling on, I thought I would paste in a quote which I quite like. And I hope you will too. It is from the celebrated English historian, writer and art critic, the late Sir Kenneth Clark. He was born in London in 1903, and died just before his eightieth birthday in 1983. During a long and illustrious career he held positions as keeper (director) of fine art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and director of London's National Gallery.
photo of English gentleman standing before old tapestry, Sir Kenneth Clark
Sir Kenneth Clark, 1903-1983.

The quote

"I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible."

Sir Kenneth and TV

Kenneth Clark is famous for his magnificent TV series 'Civilisation' and for the book that accompanied it. First aired in 1969, the project was a pioneer of the numerous arts documentaries that we tend to take for granted today. But at the time it was something new. And it set the bar pretty high, even at the the start.

Clark, as presenter, travelled to locations around the globe. He showed the viewer works of art he felt were important and uplifting. These were items that for many people at the time were quite remote, and which they would have had little opportunity to see for themselves. Thus, at the risk of introducing a cliché: it was a way of bringing great art to the masses. Not just in the UK either. The series has subsequently been seen and enjoyed world-wide.

The series might also have had quite a bit to do with the revival in interest in classical architecture. The 60's and 70's saw an enormous resurgence in enthusiasm for preserving the buildings and treasures of the past. This was counter to the earlier passion in post-war Britain for demolishing anything that looked even remotely old-fashioned. Because of this, many of our finest and most beautiful Georgian and Victorian buildings were lost. One of the great exponents of preservation was the poet Sir John Betjaman who once described Clark as "the man who made the best telly you’ve ever seen."

The whole thing is due to be shown again on the BBC, remastered in digital. And boxed sets are available. Something not to be missed.

Clark has had his critics. His definition of 'civilisation' was based predominantly on European Western culture. (note: other civilizations are available). His private life, moreover, was far from saintly. But the quote is magnificent. For me, it sums up what's best about humanity, its customs and its laws. And, of course, civilisation too.

Thank you Sir Kenneth!
mostly text - a quote

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