When the BBC screened Civilisations earlier this year, it was all about the extra ‘s’. Whereas Kenneth Clarke’s original 1969 series, Civilisation (singular), was one wealthy, white man’s view of a very Western history of art, this was to be a broader overview of civilisation presented thematically rather than chronologically. Classicist Mary Beard covered sacred art and the art of the body. Tired of the traditional Great Man view of art – ‘one damn genius after another’ – she shifted the focus back onto the cultural consumer, asking, what does art do? From here interesting psychological insights arose. Might historical rulers have exhibited magnificent portraits of themselves not only to convince others of their greatness, as is commonly suggested, but also to bolster their own, sometimes wavering self-esteem? Reviewers bemoaned the lack of story, but in its place was an acknowledgement of the interplay between the world’s ever-shifting communities and cultures.
Historian David Olusoga, meanwhile, covered what he terms the ‘first age of globalisation’, the encounters that happened between peoples of the world from the 13th to 18th centuries. While there is a general awareness of the encounters that occurred around colonialism, Olusoga reminded us that global trade had facilitated an exchange of goods, energies and ideas for centuries beforehand and that Euro-Asian or Euro-African encounters didn’t necessarily mean domination or annihilation. Sixteenth century Japan barely tolerated Eurotraders and referred to them as namban (southern barbarians) due to their lack of table manners and poor hygiene.
What the books that accompany the series offer is more detail and a greater exploration of ideas. Some of what’s on offer is verbatim TV scripts, but there’s more here too. Beard said recently that it was arguments not art works she wished she’d been able to include more of in her programmes. She’s rehomed these in her book, including Xenophanes’ argument that cattle would depict their own gods as cattle thereby questioning the human convention of depicting gods in human form.
Olusoga provides a powerful account of the Benin Bronzes. These remarkable works were looted (a Hindustani word that entered common parlance during the colonial period) after Britain brutally stormed Benin City, capital of the Edo people (now in modern-day Nigeria), on the pretext it was retribution for a previous bloody ambush of Britons. Afterwards, they systematically removed all art from the walls of the palaces and used local people to carry it to waiting ships. Back in Britain the sophistication of the works couldn’t be comprehended. If these people were so savage and uncultured – as it suited a conquering empire to believe – how had they been able to produce such extraordinary works of art? Rather than dismantle an entire understanding of the ‘so-called Dark Continent’, commentators proposed that they must have been produced by visiting Portuguese artists, or influenced by ancient Egyptians, or perhaps they were the remnants of the Lost City of Atlantis or, more perniciously, that they were evidence African races had ‘degenerated’ (neatly segueing into Britain’s ‘civilising mission’ that cloaked the more ugly impulses of colonialism).
The unsettling photographs of the soldiers posing on top of the spoils bring to mind those from Abu Ghraib. It’s a reminder that history isn’t always as far away as we’d like and where there is ‘civilisation’ there is often an accompanying belief in ‘barbarity’ (a word derived from the incomprehensible ‘bar-bar-bar’ the Greeks said foreigners emitted). And, paradoxically, where one country believes itself to be more civilised than another, this dynamic is often enforced in barbarous ways.
In his book, Olusoga touchingly relates how his mother took him and his half-African siblings to see the Benin Bronzes at the age of six, to armour them against the still-prevalent belief that the ‘Negro imagination was impoverished and primitive’ compared to that of the European.
The series and accompanying books may not have been as great as their ambitions but, as Beard writes, ‘I’m convinced that we gain more than we lose in making the attempt to look more widely.’
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