Sir Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’: Part XIII

Industrial capitalism has transformed the world and has had a massive effect on civilisation. In this episode, Clark concludes his epic series with a discussion of this epoch-defining process as it erupted through the 19th and into the early 20th centuries. As book-ends, he contrasts the industrial landscape of 19th Century England (e.g., as depicted below in Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by P. J. de Loutherbourg) with the skyscrapers of 20th Century New York City. He then asks the central question: have the material achievements of the modern world been matched by comparable advances in culture and society? Or perhaps what he calls  “Heroic Materialism” may be an oxymoron.

Fast Forward: Clark asks us to imagine the development of Manhattan through that period as a movie on fast forward:

It would look less like a work of man than like some tremendous natural upheaval. It’s godless, it’s brutal, it’s violent — in the energy, strength of will, and mental grasp that have gone to make New York, materialism has transcended itself.

Temple of Mammon: The time taken to create this promethean metropolis was comparable to that required to build the great Gothic cathedrals 

at which point a very obvious reflection crosses one’s mind: that the cathedrals were built to the glory of God, New York was built to the glory of mammon ~ money, gain, the new god of the 19th Century.

Technology & Reform: The technological power that so quickly developed to make possible such global metropolises began to emerge around the end of the 18th Century in Britain with the Industrial Revolution. It was generally welcomed. Coincidentally, that time also saw “the first organized attempt to improve the human lot” through social reform.

Dark Satanic Mills: There was a grim, dark side to this Revolution, but “it took over 20 years before ordinary people began to see what a monster had been created.” In the early days the only people who saw through Industrialism were the poets like Burns, and Blake, who famously asked:

Blake was referring to the giant steam-powered Albion Flour Mill built in 1786, near his home. It put many millers out of work, was denounced as Satanic, and mysteriously gutted by fire in 1791.

Abolition of Slavery: Clark also discusses attitudes to social reform and the abolition of slavery in Britain. He notes that hunger, poverty, prisons, plagues and disease formed “the background of history right up to the end of the 19th Century,” and were accepted with resignation as facts of life about which little could be done.

However, the evils of slavery were different: it was too horrible to contemplate and it was against Christian teaching. Consequently,

the anti-slavery movement became the first communal expression of the awakened conscience.

Despite the power of vested interests, the slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself abolished in 1833.

Mass Production: While alert to the horrendous evils of slavery, Britain was oblivious to the titanic forces of industrialization transforming her own society. Despite the pride she took in her military victory over Napoleon she “suffered a defeat, in terms of human life, far more costly than any military disaster.” The great problem was size: whereas small scale factories helped lift many people out of poverty, after 1800 “there appeared the large foundries and mills that dehumanized life.” The invention by Richard Arkwright of the water-powered spinning jenny (right) and the installation of dozens of machines in one factory had laid the basis for mass production. This “cruelly degraded and exploited masses of people for 60 or 70 years.” (Indeed, the spectre of mass production has haunted artists, poets, novelists, and film-makers ever since, as we see in Fritz Lang’s blockbuster, Metropolis (1927), where the factory becomes Moloch, the devourer of people.)

Malthus: Clark emphasises that this stupendous industrial transformation was rooted in a “new religion,” whose first great “sacred book” was the Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) by Thomas Malthus (left). This propounded the ‘Iron Law of Population’ according to which population grows geometrically while the food supply can only grow arithmetically, meaning that ever lower wages, hunger, and starvation ae inevitable, and the only possible solution is to radically regulate population growth. Malthus was complemented by the free trade theories of David Ricardo (right), which promoted economic growth in Britain but also eliminated entire industries and severely retarded national economies (e.g., India, Portugal). Both Malthus and Ricardo remain extremely influential today.

An Assault of Civilisation: But Malthus may have been right, Clark concedes:

the terrible truth is that the rise in population did nearly ruin us. It struck a blow at civilisation such as it hadn’t received since the barbarian invasions.

It brought massive urban growth and poverty, and then the horrors of bureaucracy and regimentation that came with the attempts to deny or reduce that poverty. It also brought hypocrisy, as the establishment refused to come to grips with the origins of the misery around them, preferring scripture readings and sermons to actual reform.

Engels & Dickens: Clark emphasizes the powerful critiques of industrial capitalism provided by Frederick Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), and Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and Hard Times (1854). Engels went on to partner Karl Marx as founders of the revolutionary international communist movement, while the writings of Dickens promoted reform.

Humanitarianism: Ultimately, this led to something we might now take for granted. In Clark’s view, “the early reformer’s struggle with industrialised society illustrates … the greatest civilising achievement of the 19th Century: humanitarianism.” Clark claims that ‘kindness’ would have never been recognized as an important value by “any of the earlier heroes of this series”. For example, St Francis would have valued “chastity, obedience, and poverty” above all else; Dante and Michelangelo would have “disdained baseness and injustice; and Goethe would have desired to live “in the whole and the beautiful”, before any other notion entered his mind. The concept of kindness had simply not thrust itself forward in these earlier phases of civilisation. Consequently, “the humanitarian achievements of the 19th Century cannot be under-estimated”. And this is especially so, given the previous nonchalance with which many social horrors were viewed, including the lash, the poor house, the prisons, transportation (especially to Australia),

and other even more unspeakable cruelties carried out by agents of the Establishment in defence of property.

The Railways: Meanwhile, the power of the industrial impulse was exemplified by the incredible development of the railway system. It

created a situation that was really new: a new basis of unity, a new concept of space.

Its construction was

like a great military campaign: the will, the courage, the ruthlessness, the unexpected defeats, the unforeseen victories. The Irish navvies who built the railways were like a Grande Armée,

driven forward by a general staff of engineers intent on bending time and space to their will.

The Engineering Ascendency: Clark damns the architecture of the 19th Century with faint praise. This is because

the creative impulse of the time didn’t go into town halls or country houses, but into what was then thought of as engineering.

The use of iron revolutionized construction, and previously unthinkable projects were untaken, such as (at left) the Menai Bridge (1826), the first great suspension bridge, designed by Thomas Telford; or the Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash (1859), designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Brunel: No-one exemplified this age of heroic materialism better than Brunel (right). Although he was brought up to have the utmost respect for careful engineering calculations, he was “a born romantic [who] remained all his life in love with the impossible.” He drove tunnels under the Thames and through mountains, threw bridges across deep gorges, constructed vast railway networks, and built the biggest steamship in the world, often sending himself and his shareholders into near bankruptcy and finally ruining his own health.

Triumph of Mathematics: In the early 20th Century engineering developments tended away from massive masonry and steel bridge structures towards light suspension bridges. These, Clark suggests, “express our own age as the Baroque expressed the 17th Century,” and exemplifies a triumph of mathematical calculation that would have been applauded by da Vinci and Newton, earlier numerate heroes of this series.

Ruskin: Now Clark turns to a great prophet of this Age of Iron, sadly almost forgotten. He observes that

it may seem odd to consider 19th Century art in terms of tunnels, bridges, and other feats of engineering.

Certainly it would have outraged “the more aesthetically sensitive spirits of the age,” like John Ruskin. Ruskin was a leading art critic, patron, social philosopher, and reformer. He believed art played a vital role in civilisation, believing that true beauty is only achievable in a healthy, integrated society, and that access to the arts was the birthright of all people.

Nature : Beauty : Truth Ruskin championed J.M.W. Turner in Modern Painters (1843-60), while his three-volume work, The Stones of Venice (1851-3) evolved from a study of architecture into a full-scale cultural critique of the moral and spiritual deterioration of society under the domination of materialism. Ruskin was entranced by Nature, and advocated the single-minded pursuit of Beauty, which he believed was a universal quality inherent in the world, and identified with Truth, thus completing the equation Nature : Beauty : Truth.

Influence: He promoted the Gothic style over the Renaissance, fiercely condemned the destruction wrought by industrial society, and championed traditional labour and craftsmanship. He had an immense influence, especially on the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and the Arts & Crafts movement. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, a position that Clark himself later held, and he had a great influence on Clark and on this series of Civilisation.

Social Conscience: Much of the art of the 19th Century fails to impress Clark —

it was one of those slack periods in the history of art that occur in almost every Century.

One important direction that artists did take was social commentary, and here Clark cites Ford Madox Brown, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, and his painting, Work (1852-65). It depicts the British class system: members of various classes wander by as the Irish navvies in the centre do the hard work of digging the London sewage system. Another Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt, captures a sensual moment of rural life (below) in The Hireling Shepherd (1851-2).

Courbet and Millet: Turning to France, Clark discusses Jean Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet, who also depicted the working-lives of the peasantry and proletariat, e.g., Courbet’s The Stonebreakers of 1849 (below).

Both Millet and Courbet were political radicals working around the time of the unsuccessful 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe. Courbet also painted a famous portrait (right) of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1865), a printer and self-taught philosopher who became a leading radical theorist and one of the founders of mutual help societies and anarchism.

 Social Realism: In this context Clark makes some parenthetical comments about ‘pseudo-Marxism’, which sees all art as a reflection of class struggle and champions Social Realism.  The latter sees art as a means of social engineering, highlighting the everyday lives of the lower classes, and critiquing the social structures under which they live. In its most didactic form it evolved into Socialist Realism, which was made into the state-enforced propaganda art of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc. We will explore its stultifying effects on civilisation in later weeks.

Impressionism: Clark then turns to the Impressionists, who also focussed on everyday life, but emphasised the aesthetic rather than the political dimension of life. It sought to capture the impressions made on the senses and on the role played by colour.

Their sensuous approach to landscape through the medium of colour seems to have no connection with the intellectual currents of the time

and they were dismissed as inept or mad and ignored at their peak, 1865-85. Concerning Pierre Auguste Renoir, Clark notes that the simple beauty of his Luncheon of the Boating Party concerns

no awakened conscience, and no heroic materialism. No Nietzsche, no Marx, no Freud. Just a group of ordinary human beings enjoying themselves.

Nevertheless, Impressionism became one of the most important movements in modern art. Paul Cézanne developed theories of colour and structure that served as a bridge to Post-Impressionism and Cubism.

Van Gogh:  The famously tragic figure of Vincent van Gogh is Clark’s next subject. He was

a profoundly religious man … torn between the two vocations of painter and preacher … Millet was his god

and he longed to share the lives of the poor in industrial Belgium, producing paintings, such as The Potato Eaters, that displayed their courage and dignity.

Eventually, he turned to vivid explorations of the spiritually evocative power of colour until, it seems, “the intensity of his feelings drove him mad,” and he took his own life.

The Symbolists: Contemporaneous with Impressionism was Symbolism, a major artistic and literary movement that was exploring a completely different aesthetic. It had its roots in Romanticism, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the novel, Against Nature (1884), by J-K. Huysmans, which concerned the inner life of an aesthete and dandy, and his loathing for bourgeois civilization. The Symbolists artists focussed on spirituality, metaphysics, the  mystical, and the esoteric, and took their inspiration from poetry, mythology, fantasy, the imagination, and dreams. They were reacting against naturalism and realism and the mundane everyday bourgeois world. A famous example (left) is Gustave Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele (1894-5). Semele insists that her lover, the god Jupiter, fully reveal himself to her. He does so, and she is consumed in ecstasy by the vision of his splendour. 

Klimt: Gustav Klimt was associated with the Symbolists but really stands alone. He began his career as a painter and designer of architectural decorations. However, his work became increasingly ornate and daring, focussing on the female body. His massive paintings for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna (c.1900) caused a scandal, were condemned as pornographic, and returned to the artist. (They were later destroyed by the Nazi SS).  After this scandal Klimt turned his back on public commissions and entered his ‘Golden Period’, focusing on gorgeous and evocative portraits of Vienna’s society ladies, out of which came his most famous works, including The Kiss (1907-8), a detail of which is at right.

Tolstoy Clark then turns to “the last great man of this series”.  Leo Tolstoy, who died in 1910, was

the hero of almost all generous-minded men of the late 19th Century … Tolstoy towered above his age as Dante and Michelangelo and Beethoven had done. His novels are marvels of sustained imagination.

He was also counted amongst the great anarchist and pacifist theorists of the 19th Century, promoting an idealised vision of the early Christian community as the basis of a new social order in Russia, a fantasy terminated by the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Weirdness and Chaos: It is at this point that Clark brings his epic saga to a close, recognizing perhaps that what happened next in the history of civilisation almost defies description. In concluding the series, he addresses the situation of art in the 20th Century, relating it to the blind alley in which physics found itself after Einstein. After Einstein’s discoveries it seemed the universe is not only much weirder than we ever thought; it is much weirder than we ever could think. And ultimately,

the incomprehensibility of our new cosmos seems to be the reason for the chaos of modern art.

1968: Reflecting on events around him in 1968, in the middle of the Sixties Cultural Revolution, Clark confesses himself “baffled by what is taking place  today,” in the realm of art. Looking around more broadly he notes the increased reliance of machines, especially weapons and computers. He sees these as tools of oppression and suspects they

are for the most part means by which a minority can keep free men in subjection.

He also laments the human capacity for destruction exhibited in two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.


A New Dark Age? Nevertheless, he discounted the notion that the world was then entering a new Dark Age, expressing confidence in the many new universities that were then appearing to offer tertiary education to the “bright-minded young people” of the Baby Boom generation, as he saw them at the time.  

Shallowness: On the other hand, Clark detected a pervasive shallowness in the new culture. He held firm to a much deeper aesthetic, and declared his loyalty and adherence to values that had suddenly become out-of-favour:

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 that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.

He also re-iterated his belief in courtesy, civility, and the cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility. Sadly, it was the destruction of all these values that increasingly came to characterise the 20th Century in the decades after Civilisation appeared.

The Value of Genius: All was not lost, however, because at the heart to civilisation is an unstoppable force, the power of human genius:

Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

Looking back over the vast panorama of art, architecture and literature that he had canvassed over 13 episodes, he rejoices that

this series has been filled with great works of genius … There they are; you can’t dismiss them. And they are only a fraction of what Western man has achieved in the last 1000 years.

‘The centre cannot hold’: Ultimately, Clark concludes, the growth and survival of civilisation comes down to confidence, especially amongst those able to understand, appreciate, and value the immense achievement of the West over the millennia. Sadly,

it is lack of confidence – more than anything else – that kills a civilisation

and it is this corrosive timidity that he detects around him.  To drive this point home, Clark quotes the prophetic words of W. B. Yeats in The Second Coming (1920):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It seems a collapsing culture has left us with no centre, no point of orientation, other than an oxymoronic ‘heroic materialism’ “and that isn’t enough”, indeed not nearly enough.

Looking Forward: Looking forward from 1968 Clark concludes:

One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.

And here we are, with a further 50 years of perspective on the course of civilisation, and next week in our ‘Postscript’ to Civilisation we will describe the cultural scene that challenged and appalled Clark and explore the grounds for optimism about art and civilisation as a whole.


Appendix: A Note on Sensibility

Sensibility is central to civilisation. The term emerged in its current sense in the mid-18th Century. It was one of a cluster of terms central to the new field of aesthetics. These include taste, cultivation, refinement, and discrimination, and they all relate to the appreciation of fine qualities, particularly in art, music, poetry, but also in personal characteristics and behaviour, and in natural beauty.  

A person would be said to possess or to seek to acquire and cultivate some level or quality of sensibility, i.e., a fine, acute, or discerning sensibility. One would also pursue opportunities to apply, demonstrate, and enjoy such qualities of sensibility, e.g., by viewing art, listening to music, commenting on these, and otherwise engaging in deep conversations and discussions that illuminate and expand one’s sensibility.  (This practice seems to have fallen into disuse: ‘sensibility’, which was cultivated carefully by a few, has been replaced by ‘opinion’, which is asserted wilfully by everybody.)

Then, in the mid-19th Century, the ‘sensibility’ came to be used to signify a human faculty comparable to but distinct from rationality and morality. That is, just as we can be considered to possess the faculties of reason to comprehend the world logically, and morality to comprehend it ethically, so we possess sensibility to comprehend it aesthetically.

Therefore, one would apply one’s sensibility to comprehending a work of art in a manner quite distinct from the application of rationality or morality to it.

The conceptual basis for positing the existence of these three faculties is the same: that there is an inherent and benign order to the universe that integrates human beings, society, and nature, and that humans are capable of detecting and using this order to most fully live their lives and realize their potential.

Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries there existed recognition of this underlying order, and sensibility was a key concept in the appreciation and criticism of art, literature, music, and other areas of cultural expression. It served as a principal element in the dominant aesthetic paradigm until it began to fall into disuse around 1950, when the notion of an ordered, integrated, and meaningful universe came to be rejected in favour of a view of it as chaotic, disintegrated, and meaningless, (as we will discuss next week). Although ‘sensibility’ is now in disfavour, no other concept has emerged to replace it, nor does there appear any common desire to do so.

1 comment
  • Elizabeth Beare

    ” Clark notes that the simple beauty of his Luncheon of the Boating Party concerns

    ‘no awakened conscience, and no heroic materialism. No Nietzsche, no Marx, no Freud. Just a group of ordinary human beings enjoying themselves.’ ”

    How much so many people now crave those simplest of innocent pleasures exemplified in Renoir’s crowded boating picnic day, compared to being locked away from each other for months on end for no properly argued reason, as saddened people are in Dictator Dan’s Victoria. From Renoir’s capacity to evoke the spirit of enjoyment comes sensibility; that appreciation of the evanescent in the everyday, the aesthetic of relaxing on a fine day out.

    The world since Clarke ceased his commentary in 1968 has seen more pain than I can bear to elaborate upon with some enumeration, and paradoxically some moments of great achievement and reinforcement of why we live together in nations and communities. An Aussie BBQ afternoon on a warm Sydney day in early Summer would be an excellent scene for some clever and ambitious painter to gather for us as a loved and recalled sensibility. No-one I’ve seen is doing that though, which is a shame if that is truly so.

    Geoffrey Smart did well with his man in the concrete underpass to show us a solitary oppression, a sense of loss and lostness. Sali Hermann showed the life of the Sydney terrace slums earlier in this century, and Russell Drysdale produced the iconic Drover’s Wife. I think we need more encouragement of younger artists to immerse themselves in Australia with the sensibilities of these elders, without ‘grand theories’ in play, just pure humanity as seen in the moment.

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