When the BBC produced “Civilisation” in 1969, the 13-part examination of Western European culture set a benchmark for television treatments of history and culture, not only in the United Kingdom but around the world. The series, subtitled “A Personal View by Lord Clark,” was developed by David Attenborough and presented by Kenneth Clark, an art historian and museum director with a great synthesizing intelligence, excellent diction and bad teeth. Its impact was huge (it was rereleased in 2005).
Without its precedent, it’s almost impossible to imagine John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” (1972), Robert Hughes’s “The Shock of the New” (1980) or any number of similar television projects — including “Civilizations,” a nine-part history of world art that begins airing Tuesday on PBS.
“Civilizations,” like “Ways of Seeing,” is an attempt to update Clark’s series. But it’s also an unprecedented undertaking in the annals of television. Unlike “Civilisation,” which was focused on Western art from the so-called Dark Ages until the 20th century, the scope of “Civilizations” is global and reaches right back to cave painting.
If the expanded view makes the ensuing narrative necessarily amorphous, it’s also exciting, and compulsory viewing for a new generation of viewers who may not have seen the earlier productions.
The series’ bias is toward objects and how they were made rather than overarching ideas or colorful personalities. But there’s a bit of all three, and the mix feels right.
If you thought you knew it all, you’ll be in for surprises — often just by virtue of being suddenly plonked down in Benin, or Lisbon, or Lahore, or in the studio of a woodblock printer in Japan. If you know nothing, this is a wonderful and accessible place to start.
Is it perfect? Far from it. There are baffling omissions (I don’t know how you can tell the story of art without mentioning Jan van Eyck). Sometimes the narrative is glib. And some will complain that the series, despite the wider parameters, is still too biased in favor of Europe and America. But to be willing to tell big stories is to open oneself to accusations of bias. It’s the willingness, despite this, that impresses. The success of the series arises directly from its ambition.
“Civilizations” is a transatlantic endeavor, a Nutopia production for the BBC and PBS in association with the Open University. The U.S. version, which differs significantly from the British version, features narration by Liev Schreiber, complemented by a trio of British presenters who pop up on location around the world. They are: Simon Schama, a historian, art critic and veteran presenter of culture on TV; David Olusoga, a British Nigerian historian; and Mary Beard, an author and classics professor.
All three play a bigger role in the U.K. version of “Civilizations,” and sadly, Mary Beard virtually disappears from the PBS version. But there is added commentary by a range of experts, many from Egypt, India, Japan and China, and there are guest appearances by such contemporary artists as Anselm Kiefer, Damien Hirst and Kehinde Wiley.
The ensemble cast works well enough, but it’s a bit like growing up in a commune. You feel tugged this way and that, but will anyone actually take responsibility for you? There are times when you yearn for the coherence, the gravitas, the grip of Clark’s “personal view.”
In truth, the comparison is invidious. “Civilisation” was great, but the series is 50 years old, and looks it. Today, neither Lord Clark’s benign pomposity nor his open disdain for contemporary culture would fly. His focus, too, on the West seems perverse in our globalized era, when we all have become more conscious of the complexity of interactions between cultures throughout history.
This reboot is structured thematically and chronologically. It begins, dramatically, with recent footage of the destruction by ISIS of archaeological sites at Palmyra in Syria. Instantly, we understand what’s at stake.
The theme of what “civilization” actually is, or entails, is examined from different perspectives throughout the series. Is it always aligned with city-states? Is it a term that necessarily implies an assumption of superiority over so-called barbarians? And does civilization hold within itself its own inherent barbarism?
Civilization is “infectious,” we are told in the first episode, which takes us from Palmyra to Crete, Mycenae and Petra, then on to China, Mexico and Honduras. Subsequent episodes focus on the human figure; art and spirituality; cross-cultural encounters; “renaissances”; landscape; color and light; the “cult of progress”; and the 20th century.
The series looks great. It’s refreshing to see images of old pyramids and ruins sandwiched between so many lavish shots of colorful urban hubbub or humid tropical jungles.
Sometimes, the British presenters can feel a little too frisky and eager to please, as when Beard declares in front of a statue of Ramses II that “the one thing you really get here is that size matters.” Similarly, Schama’s on-camera charisma can feel as if it has entered its own weird late phase, teetering on self-parody.
But I like a bit of personality in my presenters, and wish PBS hadn’t cut so much of them. Schama in particular has a rare ability to convey urgency, and gives a memorably dramatic account of a famous bronze-casting near-fiasco in the Renaissance workshop of Benvenuto Cellini.
The best episode is “Encounters,” the fourth in the series. Presented by Olusoga, it looks at cross-cultural exchanges that, for the most part, took place during the age of exploration, before “conquest, plunder, and empire” became the norms. So we see the impact of the Portuguese in Benin and Japan, the Spanish in Central America, the Dutch in Suriname and Japan, and the British in India, and are reminded that these fascinating encounters all took place before Europe’s powers had bullied their way to dominance.
Empire-building and oppression came soon enough. But we need, says Harvard University’s Maya Jasanoff, who is prominent throughout the series, to “unthink the inevitability” of the power relations that calcified later. These earlier encounters took so many forms. They were precursors not just to imperial conquest, but also to more positive manifestations of contemporary globalism.
By the standards of today (many of them, let’s be honest, observed more in the breach), almost every civilization that has preceded us appears barbaric: patriarchal, bloodthirsty, undemocratic, racist, you name it. But what will later generations make of our civilization? What will be the great cultural artifacts they remember us by? And will they include TV?
Civilizations premieres Tuesday on PBS at 8 p.m., with the next four episodes airing Tuesdays through May 15. Four more consecutive episodes will air starting June 12. pbs.org/civilizations/home.