History ain’t what it used to be and the new BBC documentary Civilisations (plural) proves it. After dismal footage of Isis demolishing Palmyra there is a short primer on Greek sculpture revealing it to be just another ancient tradition rather than the foundation of all Western art. Simon Schama, the host of the excellent Power of Art (2006) apologetically underscores that these terrorists are the worst kind of iconoclasts and their violent desecration illustrates the opposite of what civilization means. Take that Isis! By the end of the series we are back pedaling fast to eject our cozy deep connections to Greco/Roman heritage. I may be old fashioned but you can’t just whistle away the past by seeing Hamilton.
In the throes of thinly veiled Identity Politics, an art historian from Harvard starts the engine debunking colonialism and begins retrieving art from cultures in arbitrary parts of the world. They are especially keen on Mezo-American pyramids covered in glyphs. The Spanish were the worst, of course. They built cathedrals over the Mayan Temples and dabbled in ethnic cleansing. Should we send in fundamentalists to knock that Baroque number down? Sorry, I have caught a whiff of a disconcerting subtext planted here that it’s OK to take a sledgehammer to classical art in Syria and behead the curator?
The documentary (now on NetFlix) follows ineptly in the footsteps of Kenneth Clark’s original Civilization from back in the day (1969) that could have been ripe for a Monty Python parody. Clark’s tone equated Art with Civilisation. Seems self-evident to me. The revisionists purport that All Art is Equal. Not the same thing. There is a reason all public buildings, banks, libraries and courthouses are neo-classical. By the end of the series they are undermining my favorite patriarchal tropes about genius and masterpieces.
I admit I am a sucker for Greeks and Romans but I spent my formative years wondering why modern life and the western world and was so underpinned by these Dudes. Aren’t TV and Rock n’ Roll more important? The Odyssey was so wordy and history old and out of date. They were all misogynists. Did Troy even exist? Yet here I am defending those snobby proto-toga wearers from multi-culturalists!
A good case can be made for the rest of the world being left out of the Western narrative. They were not part of it. So the aim at correction is overblown. These cultural backlashes are parallel to distorted political tides to and frowing; the swing to Obama (Yes We Can) after Bush (Shock and Awe) and the swing way back to our current (Great Again) Bombast-in-Chief. All that makes me want to create a middle ground where logic presides over emotion. Art is a slower mechanism, thank goodness. Or it should be. The Western narrative makes us what we are today and popular culture cannot pretend to offer enough substance to undo 3000 years of history and myth no matter how the Oscars and Grammy’s struggle to “equalize” the silly barometer of skin color. If Civilisations really needed a woman artist to balance things, they could’ve used Artemesia Ghentileschi (1593-1656). She was nearly as good as Caravaggio and her auction prices are up! Check out her Judith Beheading Holofernes and picture Harvey Weinstein decapitated instead.
It’s fine to add multiple cultures to the Global Contemporary canon but re-writing history is bogus. Superimposing our present beliefs over ancient ones seems arrogant and self-serving. Some Roman Emperors did practice Damnatio Memoriae, eradication of their predecessors painted or carved images (often sons and brothers) but luckily it was not a policy written in stone. Up to recently, political art was a third rate form ostracized by Modernists! So, how did Identity Politics manage to go so far as to challenge Art History in such a short time? Not sure. It started with safe spaces on campuses quite recently. Can a populist and superficial zeitgeist replace such well-worn and researched paradigms?
The documentary goes further south when it brings Civilisations into present day virtue signaling. Kehinde Wiley paintings may serve as example of a right-on wit used to bolster the case but what is this to do with world cultures? I have always found his paintings sophomoric: Rap stars shown in poses cribbed from art history? Sure it’s perfect for evincing the present day and perfect for President Obama’s portrait. Kara Walker has more weight. A well-regarded contemporary, her work has always challenged a reading of the past and doesn’t rely on a populist sentiment. Her work predates Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and has always shocked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t benefit by being used illustratively in this broad context. She is seen with some humor describing her views on Georgia’s Stone Mountain (she’s from Georgia) depicting Robert E. Lee, ‘Stonewall” Jackson and the nasty Jefferson Davis. True, the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world is a touchstone for the alt-right and it is right to mock but smashing up Robert E. Lee seems a sop to the safe-space mentality. Remember, war memorials have always pulled from a long line of equestrian sculpture starting with Marcus Aurelius and he was a cool guy. Sure, Stone Mountain was begun by Gutzon Borglum, the nutty sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, and it deserves an over-the-top award but demolition? I hope Rushmore itself isn’t under threat. Are we going to burn the hundreds of thousands of books on the military history of the Civil War? They give such great solace to nerds like myself. Maybe what is needed is better and more honest interpretative writing?
On the flip side of victim culture is Anselm Keifer. He is interviewed by Simon Schama as someone darkly obsessed with Germanic history (what a surprise) and he doesn’t sugarcoat it. His contrarian brooding on Germany’s awful legacy is as potent as ever and his latest jets made out of lead are menacing and virile. “Embrace” the past or you forget it.
Today we have convinced ourselves that art is whatever it means to the viewer no matter how uninformed or ignorant. When I was an art history professor, I used out-takes from Clark’s Civilisation to show students how one opinion can be better than another. They didn’t get it. The class textbook was Art Through the Ages (a Global History). Most students refused to buy the book or even look it up on-line. The editors had particular trouble defining recent Contemporary Art without offending anyone. As devil’s advocate, I also used The Story of Art, a British primer by E. H. Gombrich, first published in 1950. His bias was what you’d expect from a privileged Brit of the period but it’s solidly written text was an excellent place to start a dialogue. I assigned it to students so they could hear a voice that was not washed down academic speak of the PC variety. Since then the progressive walk-back has grown more pervasive, homogenous and eager to expunge the actual things that make us diverse in the first place. Perhaps, we should go back to a healthy conservation of Art and give a little more thought as to what culture is and why Islamic State hates it so much.