Someone on Ask.fm suggested that I take the time to watch the famous documentary series by Kenneth Clark on the development and artistic history of Western Civilization. I’d previously only seen segments of it. I’m not finished yet, but am halfway through.
Most of it’s easy to find on Youtube via this playlist, but the first episode can be rough to find thanks to a DMCA takedown from our friends at the BBC.
Thankfully, there’s a version of it buried in the search results (due to a shoddy text description) which I’ve linked to below for your convenience:
This reminds me of the good bits of taking an art history course, along with the pleasure of traveling around Europe (which I haven’t been able to do for a long time now). For those of you unfamiliar with this, it’s a series of films from 1968 in which the presenter goes about discussing the development of European civilization after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The first episode in particular is worth watching for Clark’s articulated perspective (second-hand, I’m sure) that part of what makes civilization different is the motive force of feeling and belief in the essential goodness and excellence of that civilization. What also differentiates it from barbaric social forms is that the people actually believe in it enough to build rather permanent and beautiful structures. Barbarians roam, but civilized people settle. The artifacts that barbarians leave behind tend to be portable and durable — gem-encrusted talismans, jewelry, and statuettes. Civilized people leave behind fragile things, exquisite books, towering buildings, and heroic statuary.
Part of what makes modernity strange is that, although technology renders it super-capable in some ways, many of the things that we build lack permanence and beauty. The people are also enervated, with few honestly believing in the core spirit of that civilization. Sadness, depression, and madness emanate from a people sapped of meaning to their lives. When people can readily come to a satisfying answer about what their life is fundamentally for, they become far more animated, in a way that tends to leave indelible marks on history.
This series also leads inevitably to thoughts about the disposable nature of most contemporary artifacts and art. Our surroundings, buildings, and most of our possessions tend to lack both permanence and lasting purpose.