There is a lot of excitement regarding the new “Civilizations” series on the BBC. Anybody who watched the original 1969 “Civilization” series hosted by Kenneth Clark will find it hard to forget the extraordinary opening scene, in which a professorial Clark, properly attired in tweed and tie, exclaims: “What is civilization? I don’t know, I can’t define it in abstract terms, but I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I am looking at it now.” He then turns back and the camera focuses on Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral in all its splendor.
The new BBC series is no longer just about European civilization as seen through its artistic achievements since the Renaissance, but expands into civilizations more broadly defined, thus the additional “s.” It is hosted by legendary art historian Simon Schama, as well as Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It covers civilizations around the world including the ancient ones of China, Egypt, and Mexico. Like the original series, it uses art as a defining and unifying principle that not only accompanies it but more properly, defines and characterizes human civilization.
Why is this so? Once again, turning back to Clark, he quotes John Ruskin as saying, “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.”
These concepts are central to our work at the World Bank. Indeed, although on the surface alleviating poverty and promoting shared prosperity are primarily economic goals, development also requires the enjoyment of the broader achievements of civilization, which includes dimensions of joy, peace, freedom, hope for the future, and dignity. It is in this context that art, as the most sublime of all human manifestations, is at the same time an expression, but also a necessary condition, of human development.
The recent exhibition of works by Lebanese artist Helen Zughaib in the lobby of the Bank’s MC building showed not only the extraordinary diversity of her art, but also how important art is for development. Although many of these works highlight human affliction and anguish caused by instability and civil conflict, there is always a glimpse of something through which war is overcome: the ability of humans to always stand above the worst challenges, maintain hope, and rebuild our lives and societies. Art is clearly a necessary ingredient of development, but more broadly, the true expression of civilization.