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There have been many fine video lecture series by prominent cultural figures, from Joseph Campbell to Robert Hughes, but for me, the finest is still the first, Kenneth Clark's landmark, "Civilization, A Personal View". The sub-title is important, for Clark's survey of western civilization through its art and architecture is certainly opinionated. And this gives the series a wonderful intimacy that previous televised surveys never approached.
Not only is there a wealth of information and insight in this beautiful production, but there is Kenneth Clark himself. A scholar of culture and art, admirer of Ruskin and student of Bernard Berenson, he was director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the National Galley in London, as well as pioneering arts commentator for radio and television in the UK. Kenneth, Lord Clark, raised to the peerage for his achievements, is perhaps the greatest impresario of art of the 20th century.
"Civilization, a Personal View" has been criticized by some art critics as being a bit "facile". I disagree. Clark's argumentation is always reasoned, never arbitrary. It certainly is facile for pop commentators to repeat the old tourist-pleasing but phony assertion that Michelangelo designed and built St. Peter's dome. It is Clark who points out that St. Peter's dome is the work of Giacomo della Porta, not Michelangelo. Is it facile for Clark to confess that when he was young he scorned Frans Hals out of snobbery, but later, "as I grew older," began to appreciate Hals's "convivial" figures? Facile indeed. Everything Clark says carries weight.
Aside from questions about Clark's personal views - he ends Civilization at the beginning of the modern era, not because he ran out of film but because he didn't care for modernism - it cannot be denied that he delivers them in such a lucid, congenial and engaging manner, that only the pedantic and churlish could fail to be delighted with a dapper, eloquent, beautifully spoken gentleman's tour through western history. Where else do pronunciations like caPITalism and usages such as "lie of the land" sound so wonderful than from the lips of this erudite Scotsman?
"And please allow me two minute's digression on the subject of tulips." I love it!
Clark's series is by far the best televised course in Western Civilization ever created. I doubt if it will ever be surpassed. There are two men I dearly miss having met before they died - Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark. Upon meeting Clark in "Civilization, a Personal View," I think you'll understand why.
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