An Art Exhibition About an Art Critic?

Nobody goes to a baseball game to watch the umpires, so why would someone go to a museum to see an exhibition dedicated to an art critic—one of those arbiters of taste who hopes to mediate but sometimes only muddles the interaction between artists and the public? England’s Tate Britain bets that the British public will come to watch the umpire in their new exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation. Not just your average umpire, Sir Kenneth Clark (shown above) ruled over art criticism for decades, stretching from his becoming Director of the British National Gallery in 1933 at just 30 years of age all the way to his crowning achievement with the 13-part documentary Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark in 1969. Although the main focus of the show is on Clark’s work in the 1930s and 1940s, by having the show’s title hark back to his highly personal broadcast of what was civilization and art, it raises the larger question of how this public servant served the public for well-intentioned good and possibly ill, as any critic can.

Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation includes screens playing clips from Civilisation as well as rarer clips from the late 1950s and earlier 1960s, when television was essentially in its infancy and arts television was finding its place. As you listen to Clark’s crisp, patrician voice cast down judgments from his personal Mount Olympus, you walk among 200 objects from Clark’s personal collection, which creates a kind of cause and effect—here he is telling you what’s civilization and here he is showing you. The two main themes that run through Clark’s collection and the show itself are Clark’s two main visions of civilization itself: the Old (and not as Old) Masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, John Constable, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne who build up the tradition and the Modern British Masters such as Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland who kept the tradition alive in the face of fascism and other threats to civilization.

Born into a wealthy family, Clark from his youth used his wealth to buy art, to support struggling artists financially, and to commission art. He also used his growing influence to get museums to buy these artists’ works for their collections. Clark viewed himself as part of the long line of art patrons reaching back to the Renaissance that was slowly slipping away and, as a result, breaking the bond between the artist and society, thus making art more solipsistic and solitary and, therefore, useless to society. Clark’s taste for representational, tradition-rooted art (even when it turned to modern methods) reflected his belief that art was a life or death reality for society—lose art and you lose civilization. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 solidified Clark’s faith in art as salvation as Britain and the Nazis locked in a clash of civilizations where only one could survive. Clark’s private patronage became a public project with the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which resulted in 5,570 works of art produced by over 400 artists (including the aforementioned Moore and Sutherland) documenting Britain in its “finest hour.” If art ever had a true believer, it was Clark.

Clark continued to evangelize for art after the war, even when the postwar world was changing around him. As Clark continued to act as the great popularizer of the Western tradition of art and to extol its civilizing charms, critics from that new world took aim at him. In particular, Marxist critic John Berger called Clark out by name in Ways of Seeing for failing to see the flaws of the Western tradition and how blind adherence to that tradition continued to exclude non-Western traditions as well as women and minorities. For many, Clark stood as the unapologetic voice of the establishment against which feminism, multiculturalism, and all the new “isms” stormed.

But was Clark really an unapologetic voice? If you watch the last ten minutes of the final episode of Civilisation, you might change your mind. We take for granted today the Ken Burns or Simon Schama-ish, long-form, multi-episode TV documentary, but Civilisation really broke new ground as one of the first color documentaries as well as one of the first on location series that didn’t just talk about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling but actually “took” you there, thus opening up whole new worlds for those who couldn’t afford such travels. Civilisation (which helped put not just England’s BBC Two, but also America’s PBS, on the map) set the standard to which later educational series such as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), David Attenborough’s Life on Earth (1979), and pretty much everything that followed aspired. Yet, for all that traversing of the landscape of civilization, Clark brings it home by bringing the story back to his home, specifically his library and study.

Against the background of that study, Clark admits freely to his status as “a stick in the mud.” He knows that the times might be changing and that his “personal view” might be too Western, too male, and too white, but he adds that he made his choices based on preferences for order over chaos, creation over destruction, and gentleness over violence. For Clark, the ideological battle behind World War II never ended. “Advanced thinkers, who even in Roman times thought it fine to gang up with the barbarians, have begun to question whether civilization is indeed worth preserving,” Clark says. “It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs.” Clark wasn’t blind to art beyond the Western canon—he collected prints by Hokusai and art from Tang Dynasty China. Clark, however, believed that there was something in art, regardless of its origin, that holds civilizations together. Clark spent his life reminding people that no matter how different people are or how the world changes, there will always be some core values most beautifully expressed in art that we should cling to as a life preserver against a sea of troubles and the whirlpools of anarchy that threaten to pull us down. All the “isms” are correctives to the flaws of personal, outdated visions such as Clark’s, but those correctives should never be allowed to pull the whole house down.

If you painted a portrait of me as a young nerd, I’d most likely be reading the musty old hardback copy of Civilisation or watching the fuzzy VHS of the series from my local library. One of the first art books I read twice was Clark’s The Nude, which I loved not just for its ideas but even more for the beauty of its prose. “Timeless” is a dangerous word—one that makes “isms” reach for their critical theories—but just as Clark saw a timeless value in art, he also explained that value in a timeless way that some might see as archaic while others might judge as classic. Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation will divide opinion, but it will certainly start a public conversation, something Clark himself would have heartily approved of. It’s another baseball adage that the best umpires are the ones you never notice, the ones who call the game without unfairly influencing the outcome. Unlike that perfect umpire, Clark couldn’t hide and achieve what he did, but I never felt that he did less than call them as he saw them. An art exhibition about an art critic seems as problematic as a baseball game played to showcase an umpire, but maybe we need the occasional reminder that there’s a need for an umpire, a need for an art critic not to tip the scales of opinion unfairly, but to remind us that order and common core beliefs are why we play the game.

[Many thanks to Tate Britain, London, UK, for providing me with press materials related to their exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, which runs through August 10, 2014.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.