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Civilisation 2.0: who could replace Kenneth Clark?

13 May 2014

The BBC’s announcement that they intend to remake the seminal Civilisation: A Personal View, originally written and presented by Kenneth Clark and broadcast in 1969, has caused something of a storm. The programme is a landmark in art history, as famous for bringing the wonders of Europe into people’s homes in glorious Technicolor as for failing to include any women or anything from Spain. The announcement did not include details of a presenter for the new version and the debate over who could and should present the programme is raging.

The primary matter for debate seems to be the presenter’s gender. Experienced broadcasters Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes were both immediate suggestions from The Telegraph, but the majority of speculated candidates were men, with ideas ranging from TV art historians Andrew Graham-Dixon and James Fox, to museum directors Neil MacGregor (British Museum, who presented A History of the World in 100 Objects for Radio 4) and Nicholas Penny (National Gallery), and presenters with historical interests Andrew Marr and Dan Snow. Kathy Lette’s petition for the BBC to consider a female host to improve the representation of women on television has been ridiculed by historian David Starkey as ‘preposterous’, with unnecessary malice, on the basis that a female host may not be the best person for the job.

This leads me to reflect on what exactly the job is. I doubt that the format of Clark’s Civilisation is still tenable for today’s art history. Over the last half century the idea that there is one story that can be presented by one person has been overturned. Clark’s programme may have been ‘a personal view’ but it was disseminated internationally; today far fewer art historians would be comfortable with their own personal art-historical canon being seen as the story of art. Moreover, the new show will feature modern and contemporary art too. Would any art historian want to step out of his or her own specialisation on what is sure to be a much-scrutinised programme? Amanda Vickery, who presents the BBC’s current The Story of Women in Art, has said that she would only do it as part of a team. Could any non-specialist produce a programme with intellectual weight to accompany what are sure to be beautiful HD visuals?

The debate also highlights the lack of people working in art historical education, in academic art history departments or in museums, contributing to the public understanding of art history. While this may seem a trivial complaint in the age of interdisciplinarity, art history having more champions in the public eye would go a long way to diminish out-dated prejudices. The new series of Civilisation should encourage the study of art history, and so the format and presenter should be of great concern for those working in art history in the UK and internationally. If the Civilisation format is out-dated, it is naïve to bury our heads in the sand; we need to work to improve how television communicates art’s histories.