It is one of those interesting quirks of postwar cultural history that John Berger, who has died at the age of 90, could have presented Civilisation. Millions of viewers who saw that unsurpassed – unsurpassable – series when its 13 programmes were screened in 1969, or who have seen it in the years since, associate Civilisation with Kenneth Clark – Lord Clark of Civilisation, as he came to be known. But Berger might easily have got the nod.
It was Clark himself who suggested to Michael Gill, Civilisation‘s producer, that he might find a more congenial ally in Berger, who, of course, three years later presented Ways of Seeing as a counter-argument to Clark’s magisterial televisual essays. Who knows? Had Berger presented Civilisation perhaps Clark would then have responded with a Ways of Seeing of his own. It’s quite a thought.
Clark, every inch the patrician, has been chided, mocked even, by ‘progressive’ critics for his great-man interpretation of civilisation. There was a touch of that condescension when Will Gompertz, the BBC’s excitable arts correspondent, praised Berger for teaching people ‘to look at things not as individuals, but together’. The problem is, people do look at paintings and buildings as individuals: there is no other way to look at them.
Berger was an interesting writer on art but, like others on the hard left, he was indulged. Throughout his life he clung to a kind of Marxism that was discredited long ago. He even gave his 1972 Booker Prize winnings to the Black Panthers. Berger’s apologists have been swift to defend their chap. One obituary claimed that the intellectual climate of England was ‘too unserious for him’; an odd phrase. A critic who knew him well thought that ‘art for him was never something apart from the business of being alive’, as if only left-wingers were capable of making connections between the quotidian and the world of the imagination.
Marxists like Berger have always felt more comfortable in continental Europe, and it was no surprise that he chose to spend most of his adult life in France, initially among peasants in the Savoy Alps (good for the soul) and then in Paris. It hardly makes him more European than a man like Clark, his antipode, who knew every dealer and art connoisseur between Bond Street and the heel of Italy.
Clearly Berger was not, unlike the revolting and unrepentant historian Eric Hobsbawm, a man who should have been put in the stocks. However distinguished he was, Hobsbawm never felt the need to apologise for his appalling political views, even when he was manifestly on the wrong side of history. Berger offered a bracing alternative view to Clark’s intellectual tour d’horizon, but the fact is, and it cannot be said often enough, Clark wins every time.
Art is created by different people at different times but it has nothing to do with any notion of democracy (which Gompertz was implying) and is rarely to do with reality. Think about Matisse, who lived through two world wars and yet whose work never hinted at the upheaval. Does that make him a lesser figure than the more socially-engaged Picasso?
The urge to paint, to write, to compose comes from within a human soul. As Clark understood, and as he said at the conclusion of Civilisation as he patted a sculpture by Henry Moore, the greatest work grows out of individual genius.
Time has been kinder to Clark than the snoots imagined. It wasn’t the socially committed Marxist who opened the eyes of millions to great art. It was the man who lived in a castle and wasn’t afraid to explain why some works are better than others.
It’s a lesson every generation must learn in its own way.
The BBC is remaking Civilisation, with Mary Beard and Simon ‘nodding dog’ Schama among the presenters. Bad idea. Just show Clark’s original programmes again, in all their glory.