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March 2018

Civilization, Civilizations, and Art at the World Bank

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture
Eat the News, installation, table, place settings (5) collage, newspaper clippings, enamel, 2017. Courtesy of the Artist, Helen Zughaib
Eat the News, installation, table, place settings (5)
collage, newspaper clippings, enamel, 2017.
Courtesy of the Artist

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.”