When the BBC produced “Civilisation” in 1969, the 13-part examination of Western European culture set a benchmark for TV treatments of history and culture. Presented by Kenneth Clark, an art historian and museum director with a great synthesizing intelligence, excellent diction and bad teeth, its impact was huge.
“Civilizations,” a nine-part history of world art that began airing Tuesday on PBS, is an attempt to update Clark’s series. But it’s also an unprecedented undertaking in the annals of television.
Unlike “Civilisation,” which focused on Western art since the so-called Dark Ages, the scope of “Civilizations” is global and reaches right back to cave painting. If the expanded view makes the ensuing narrative amorphous, it’s also exciting, and compulsory viewing for a new generation of viewers.
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.
Is it perfect? Far from it. There are baffling omissions. (How can you tell the story of art without mentioning Jan van Eyck?) Sometimes the narrative is glib. And some will complain that the series 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. The success of the series arises directly from its ambition.
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 is a transatlantic endeavor. 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 around the world: 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.
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 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 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.
By the standards of today, 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?
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays (with a repeat of the previous episode at 8 p.m.) through May 15, and June 12-July 3. Where: TPT, Ch. 2.