Sir Kenneth Clark's 13 lectures called "Civilisation," the television hit of 1970, brought more art to more people than any presentation before or since. But truth to tell, my most vivid memories are of his pronunciation of the title word (sound your "s") and the word "Byzantine," before which phonetic ingenuity fails.
Nonetheless, I imagine this kindly, witty, acerbic man who died the other day at 79 would smile at this confession. For he was embarrassed to tears--literally--that his engaging lectures were, or could be, considered "educational."
In November 1970 he appeared at the National Gallery to receive a special medal. As he walked to the ceremony, amid roaring crowds of American admirers, he wept. He felt "like some visitor to a plague-stricken country who has been mistaken for a doctor but is not a doctor."
Kenneth Clark knew what Americans once also knew but have almost forgotten: that there is a difference between education and entertainment. "Civilisation," he insisted, was entertainment. It cost no pain. Clark's ingratiating strolls and musings among the great buildings, pictures and trinkets of Western art slid down the gullet as smoothly as plum pudding, albeit laced with the choice brandy of his wit.
Yet "Civilisation" was no cheap trick. Clark proved that people of quite ordinary visual gifts could, with proper tutelage, become aesthetes-for-an-hour. The average man was "pleased when someone spoke to him in a friendly, natural manner about things that he had always assumed were out of his reach."
Clark's pleasant technique could be seen in his handling of the only American artifacts that won his unqualified approval--Thomas Jefferson's house and grounds at Charlottesville, Va. He rightly said that you can't grasp Jefferson's character until you visit Monticello and see, for example, the ingenious bed from which you can emerge into either of two rooms. And who else has noticed--it had not occurred to me, I admit--that the practical aspect of Mr. Jefferson's serpentine walls is that they are stable at a single brick's thickness?
Clark's theme was that only "the book of its art" (Ruskin's phrase) tells the ultimate truth about a place or an age. All your highfalutin aspirations will turn to dust, but your artifacts, your pictures and buildings, will remain to declare, unarguably, where your heart lay.
Americans did not hold it against Kenneth Clark that this doctrine holds forth the bleakest prospects for our great cities, where skyscraping towers of commerce declare the glories of profit. "Heroic materialism," he called it.
Kenneth Clark was, as his more formal books reveal, a man of the finest standards and discriminations, but for him art was finally important as a humanizing force. As he was completing the "Civilisation" series, his producer told him he must end with a summary of his beliefs--"a blow," he tells us in his memoirs, because "I had hoped that my beliefs were sufficiently revealed . . . and I dreaded the idea of summarizing them in a few banal sentences."
A few banal sentences? The inspired words he wrote out under protest in his hotel room could, if billboards had anything to do with civilisation, be seen and read on every roadway. Here is what he said, identifying himself as a "stick-in-the-mud" holding "a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time":
"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.
"I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last 2,000 years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves.
". . . I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people's feelings by satisfying our own egos. And . . . that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible."
Read and remember! Here you have the creed--and, sadly, the epitaph--of a civilised man.