Jones clearly is smitten with Kenneth Clark, the writer and presenter of the seminal 1969 BBC2 documentary about art, architecture and philosophy of the past 1000 years, called Civilisation. Beginning his presentation with an image of his hero, Jones makes the case for the series’ cultural importance then and now, and puts right some of the persistent misconceptions that over the past 40 years have served to discredit both the presenter and the series. Coming to it relatively recently, admittedly too young to have seen at the time of it’s original airing, Jones was hooked. The expected dismissive reaction was dashed at his first sitting and rather than being staid, conservative, and irrelevant to contemporary life and intellectual thought, the premise of the series, according to Jones, has withstood the test of time. Clark is admired as a liberal and opinionated critic unafraid to be provocative.
What was the premise of the series? For Clark, beautiful art has the ability to raise the spirit, enabling us to more fully understand ourselves. Clark however, does not define ‘civilisation’ and neither does Jones, who has been a consultant for several months on the BBC remake, currently underway. Instead, Jones takes his audience through an argument that extends Clark’s idea of beauty and calls for the inclusion of savagery, (rawness, primitiveness, bestial urges) as a necessary component for good art.
In way of illustration, Jones takes us on an art history tour beginning with Titian’s painting entitled Bacchus and Ariadne. In it, Titian’s mastery of colour, balanced composition and narrative intent belies the savage violence depicted within the scene. Look closely and severed animal parts sit calmly within a jubilant escapade. Skipping ahead a few hundreds years, we are then shown Picasso’s painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is, according to Jones, art history’s first foray into modern art because it rejects the civilising ambitions of the Renaissance painters such as Titian. Instead, this painting introduces a new form of composition, includes influences from beyond Europe, and depicts a shocking scene of prostitutes lining up before a client (the viewer). Lastly, a contemporary reference is made to the Chapman Brothers’ sculpture commonly called Hell. Here, Jones places their work (and that of other contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin) within the tradition of the turn of the last century Dadaists whose anti-art and ready-mades unravelled the remaining threads of art making and meaning as we had come to define it.
Art that is “too civilised becomes boring” according to Jones. The twin elements of beauty and savagery are required to provoke us out of a state of comfort. This may be good art for Jones, but does it then still achieve the uplifting spiritual aim thought to be a requisite intention by Clark? Jones does not address this question directly, nor others put to him by a sparse, but nevertheless attentive and inquisitive audience. Other questions not fully flushed out included: what is the role of the viewer, does it matter if s/he is shocked or not by art that contains both beauty and savagery?; who has a say into how “civilisation” is defined, what role does feminist art play in the decisions of what is considered beautiful, or it’s reverse, savagery?; should we assume that museums and galleries contain good art?
Jones’s contention is that the notion of “civilisation” needs resurrection. We live in a democratic, mature, and wealthy society, with a culture that has endured and survived over the centuries because art allows us access to savagery in a controlled and filtered manner. Upon viewing savagery in art, we need not feel compelled to act savagely against another. Art has a civilising affect on us, he says; when we take our children to museums and galleries, they become civilised.
What made the original series compelling was the wealth of knowledge gifted to us by Clark, in an enthusiastic and sincere delivery that may be difficult to reproduce today. If someone equally as gripping to watch and listen to is found for the remake, the series may have to be doubled to address the myriad of questions that were inconceivable in Clark’s time. It’s a noble aim.