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Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation – There’s more to culture than our insecure rulers can see

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A new exhibition at the Tate Britain revisits influential critic Kenneth Clark. Annette Mackin argues we should reject his attempt to keep art in the establishment’s hands
Issue 2408
Coventry Cathedral by John Piper (1940), showing the bombed wreckage

Coventry Cathedral by John Piper (1940), showing the bombed wreckage (Pic: © Crown Copyright, Manchester City Galleries)

Kenneth Clark was an art critic, collector, patron and broadcaster. In the early 1970s his face was as well known on television as David Attenborough is today.

In the 30 years since he died he has slipped into obscurity and now he is likely to be confused with his Tory party namesake.

So why has London’s Tate Britain put on Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, a large exhibition exploring his life and work?

It has taken many artworks from his personal collection. Clark was appointed curator of the National Gallery at the age of 30.

But the key lies in the reference to Civilisation, Clark’s TV documentary series broadcast in 1969. 

In 13 lavish episodes it showed a history of art from the “Dark Ages” to the present. Most reviewers considered it a masterpiece, and it was shown in more than 60 countries. 

But it was also criticised for presenting a Eurocentric, traditionalist view of art. It therefore gave a very partial view of culture—art as seen by Europe’s rulers.

Clark grew up amid inherited wealth. As an adult he lived in Saltwood Castle in Kent with a moat and his own art collection.

In Civilisation, he denounced “the moral and intellectual failure of Marxism”.

He was highly critical of much modern art, writing for instance, “The whole cubist movement has revealed the poverty of human invention when forced to spin a web from its own guts.”

The radical critic John Berger made his own seminal series Ways of Seeing in 1972 partially as a response to Clark’s world view expressed in Civilisation. 

Berger said, “The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” In the exhibition this is very clear.

Clark was championed for “democratising” art by bringing it to the masses on TV. But his greatest concern was to preserve a culture that he saw was under threat.

It presents many of the great works he popularised, including paintings by John Constable and Georges Seurat.

For Clark, art went hand in hand with a Western idea of civilisation. 

Divided into rooms displaying works Clark collected and commissioned, many of the pieces capture a sense of bourgeois insecurity with a changing world.

One room is dedicated to paintings he commissioned during the Second World War. Scene after scene depicts bombed out wreckages of buildings—such as John Piper’s Coventry Cathedral.

Most of the scenes are depopulated. It is not the suffering of people he is concerned with, rather what the buildings signify. They include churches and the House of Commons.

At a time when these bourgeois structures and values are in crisis, this exhibition seeks to put them back at the centre of culture.

Kenneth Clark—Looking for Civilisation
Tate Britain, London SW1P 4RG
until 10 August £10/£8.60


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