My commented excerpts of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation can now be read orderly, starting with chapter 1 (here). Keep in mind that when I typed those excerpts last year Civilisation was still unavailable online. Typos are my fault, not of Clark’s editors.
This piece has been chosen for my collection Day of Wrath. It was slightly modified and presently can only be read as a PDF within the book, ready for printing in your home for a truly comfortable reading. Cheers. The author
“The Cathedrals were built to the glory of God; New York was built to the glory of Mammon.”
(From Francis Parker’s Yockey’s The Enemy of Europe:)
For the purpose of demonstrating with the utmost clarity the elements of the two world-outlooks in this period of Western history between the Second and Third World Wars, a paradigm is appended:
Primacy of the Spirit / Materialism
Will-to-Power / Will-to-Riches
Rank as social distinction / Wealth as social distinction
Society as organism / Society as a collection of individuals
Fulfilment of Duty / “Pursuit of happiness”
Absolute will to biological fertility / Race-suicide, birth control
Hierarchy / Equality
Aristocracy / Plutocracy
Sexual polarity / Feminism
Order / Freedom
Cultivation of soldierly virtues / Cult of bourgeois virtues
Eroticism as legitimate source of joy and fertility / Eroticism as vice, the cult of immorality
Affirmation of War and Conquest / Pacifism, preparation of the coloured populations for “self-government”
Western Man in the service of a great Mission / Man as a Machine
Art practiced in conformity with the Cultural task / “L’art pour l’art”
Politico-military expansion / Financial-military-economic expansion
(From an article by Frances Fowle:)
George Frederic Watts, in common with such social commentators as William Morris, Ruskin and Carlyle, began to question the benefits and purpose of modern industry and commerce and their dehumanizing effects. In 1880 he wrote, “Material prosperity has become our real god, but we are surprised to find that the worship of this visible deity does not make us happy.” (G.F. Watts, “The Present Conditions of Art”). Four years later he decided to personify this so-called deity—the evil “Mammon”—in paint.
The picture is nearly life-size and the seated figure against a curtained backdrop calls to mind the portraits of Titian. However, instead of an established figure or celebrated beauty, Watts depicts an object of revulsion, seated on a throne decorated with skulls. Just behind the curtained background we are offered a glimpse, not of a peaceful landscape, but of fire and destruction. The picture is painted in a rich, almost hellish palette of red, gold and black. Watts visualizes Mammon as a brutish despot: an ugly, lumpen figure seated on his throne, nursing his moneybags on his lap. The ogre brushes aside a beautiful girl with one hand, and crushes a young man under foot. Both are symbols of youth, innocence and beauty; yet, naked and vulnerable, they are also lifeless and inert. Mammon sits in glory with his “gorgeous but ill-fitting golden draperies, which fall awkwardly about his coarse limbs” (M.H. Spielmann, “The Works of Mr. George F. Watts, R.A., with a Complete Catalogue of his Pictures,” Pall Mall Gazette, 1886, p. 21). In the oil study (Watts Gallery, Compton), Watts also gives Mammon a bandaged, gouty foot, a symptom of his indulgent and excessive lifestyle.
Mammon’s crown, with its upended gold coins and ass’s ears, symbolizes Mammon’s ignorance and stupidity, but also links him with Ovid’s King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold and to whom Apollo gave ass’s ears because he did not respond to the music of the lyre. The best-known literary reference to Mammon occurs in Spencer’s Faerie Queene, book II, canto 7. Spencer describes Mammon as tanned by soot from the blacksmith’s forge, a detail that perhaps accounts for the smoke on the right hand side of the painting.
The subtitle of the picture—Dedicated to his Worshippers—is like an inscription on a monument. Watts apparently had plans to commission a sculpture of Mammon which would be set up in Hyde Park and “where he hoped his worshippers would be at least honest enough to bow the knee publicly to him.”
Originally I posted this article on April 25, 2012. But now that I have been postulating that the One Ring of greed and power—that we might start calling “the Aryan Problem”—could be the main factor in the West’s darkest hour, I am moving it at the top of this blog.
Below, some excerpts of “Heroic Materialism,” the last chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark. (For an introduction to these series, see here.) Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages. Also, the headings don’t appear in the original text:
The westerners’ new god: Mammon
Imagine an immensely speeded up movie of Manhattan Island during the last hundred years. It would look less like a work of man than like some tremendous natural upheaval. It’s godless, it’s brutal, it’s violent—but one can’t laugh it off, because in the energy, strength of will and mental grasp that have gone to make New York, materialism has transcended itself. It took almost the same time to reach its present conditions as it did to complete the Gothic cathedrals. At which point a very obvious reflection crosses one’s mind: that the cathedrals were built to the glory of God, New York was built to the glory of mammon—money, gain, the new god of the nineteenth century. So many of the same human ingredients have gone into its construction that at a distance it does look rather like a celestial city. At a distance. Come closer and it’s not so good. Lots of squalor, and, in the luxury, something parasitical.
One sees why heroic materialism is still linked with an uneasy conscience. The first large iron foundries like the Carron Works or Coalbrookdale, date from about 1780. The only people who saw through industrialism in those early days were the poets. Blake, as everybody knows, thought that mills were the work of Satan. ‘Oh Satan, my youngest born… thy work is Eternal death with Mills and Ovens and Cauldrons.’
The [slave] trade was prohibited in 1807, and as Wilberforce lay dying in 1835, slavery itself was abolished. One must regard this as a step forward for the human race, and be proud, I think, that it happened in England. But not too proud. The Victorians were very smug about it, and chose to avert their eyes from something almost equally horrible that was happening to their own countrymen.
In its early stages the Industrial Revolution was also a part of the Romantic movement. And here I may digress to say that painters had for long used iron foundries to heighten the imaginative impact of their work with what we call a romantic effect; and that they had introduced them into pictures as symbolising the mouth of hell. However, the influence of the Industrial Revolution on Romantic painters is a side issue, almost an impertinence, when compared to its influence on human life. I needn’t remind you of how cruelly it degraded and exploited a mass of people for sixty or seventy years.
What was destructive was size. After about 1790 to 1800 there appeared the large foundries and mills which dehumanised life. Long before Carlyle and Karl Marx, Wordsworth had described the arrival of a night shift ‘that turns the multitude of dizzy wheels, Men, maidens, youths, Mothers and little children, boys and girls, Perpetual sacrifice.’
The terrible truth is that the rise in population did nearly ruin us. It struck a blow at civilisation such as it hadn’t received since the barbarian invasions. First it produced the horrors of urban poverty. It must have seemed—may still seem—insoluble; yet this doesn’t excuse the callousness with which prosperous people ignored the conditions of life among the poor on which to a large extent their prosperity depended, and this in spite of the many detailed and eloquent descriptions that were available to them. I need mention only two—Engels’s Conditions of the Working Classes in England, written in 1844, and the novels written by Dickens between 1840 and 1855. Everybody read Dickens. But his terrible descriptions of poverty had very little practical effect: partly because the problem was too big; partly because politicians were held in the intellectual prison of classical economics.
The images that fit Dickens are by the French illustrator Gustave Doré. He was originally a humorist; but the sight of London sobered him. His drawings were done in the 1870s, after Dickens’s death. But one can see that things hadn’t changed much. Perhaps it took an outsider to see London as it really was.
At the beginning of this series I said that I thought one could tell more about a civilisation from its architecture that from anything else it leaves behind. Painting and literature depend largely on unpredictable individuals. But architecture is to some extent a communal art. However, I must admit that the public buildings on the nineteenth century are often lacking in style and conviction; and I believe that this is because the strongest creative impulse of the time didn’t go into the town halls or country houses, but into what was then thought of as engineering. In fact, all modern New York started with the Brooklyn Bridge.
In this series I have followed the ups and downs of civilisation historically, trying to discover results as well as causes; well, obviously I can’t do that any longer. We have no idea where we are going, and sweeping, confident articles of the future seem to me, intellectually, the most disreputable of all forms of utterance. The scientists who are best qualified to talk have kept their moths shut.
The incomprehensibility of our new cosmos seems to me, ultimately, to be the reason for the chaos of modern art. I know next to nothing about science, but I’ve spent my life trying to learn about art, and I am completely baffled by what is taking place today. I sometimes like what I see, but when I read modern critics I realise that my preferences are merely accidental.
Western civilisation has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves. I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs. Fifty years ago W.B. Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous poem.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It is true that the video-series by Roger Scruton (“Why Beauty Matters”) and Scott Burdick (“The Banishment of Beauty”) expose today’s charlatanism in the Art world. But both series are marred by the constant presence of non-whites.
We need an identical message but this time filmed by someone like Craig Bodeker.
This said, what Scruton and Burdick proclaim is pertinent when we try to approach a sophisticated work like the classic The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich, of Jewish ancestry, which I’ve just read.
In the final two chapters of the later editions of The Story, Gombrich speaks highly of the most soulless form of architecture that both Scruton and Kenneth Clark complained about. To boot, in these later chapters Gombrich reproduces several anti-art works as if they were genuine art, like Alexander Calder’s Universo (above).
The bullshit that Gombrich says in these last chapters was already refuted in “Why Beauty Matters.” For readers of TOO with good memory, perhaps they will also remember a Michael Colhaze article with the following vignette:
Both of us have no truck with Modern art and knew the artist only vaguely by name. Lucien Freud it was, grandson of you-know-who, and his hams about as uplifting as a dead rat under the sink. As we stood in front of one, an uncouth male nude reclining on a smutty bedstead with legs spread wide open while scratching reddish genitals dangling above a cavernous anus, my friend cast a look around and said: Grand Orc of the Crap Arts! Never had any sense of beauty, and never will! [image at TOO article]
I reproduce the anecdote again because Gombrich mentioned favorably the grandson of you-know-who as if he was a legit artist. So Gombrich put artistic junk at the end of his book (one more example: a whole unfolding triptych of one of Pollock’s nonsense paintings) but did not say a word of Parrish, the pictorial emblem of this blog, or about the art of Alma Tadema or the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites.
But let’s not dismiss all of Gombrich’s book: it is very erudite and often insightful. However, it is clear to me that he ignores the real art created in the century when we were born: genuine art that became heresy when these very sophisticated pundits monopolized Art Criticism (just as another Jew, Franz Boas, monopolized Anthropology).
From Kenneth Clark’s The Other Half: A Self-Portrait (ellipsis omitted between unquoted excerpts):
The last words of the programme were shot in Saltwood, in my study. As if in sympathy the camera broke down, and a new one had to be sent from London. But at last the final words were spoken, including the prophetic lines by Yeats, which I had heard him read soon after he had written them; I walked in to my library, patted a wooden figure by Henry Moore, as if to imply that there still was hope, and out of shot.
It was all over. The crew came over to the Castle for a drink. We had become a band of brothers and were not far from tears at the thought that we should not meet again. I may be fanciful, but I think something of this feeling of comradeship is perceptible in the film. It seems ridiculous to say that the happiest years of my life took place when I was sixty-eight, but so it was.
The communication with simple people was one of the things about the programmes that particularly annoyed intellectuals of the left, who believed that they had a prescriptive right to speak to the working classes. Academics were furious at the simplification of their labours. In fact my approach to history was unconsciously different from that now in favour in universities, which sees all historical change as the result of economic and communal pressures. I believe in the importance of individuals, and am a natural hero-worshiper. Each programme had its hero—Charlemagne, the Abbot Suger, Alberti, Erasmus, Luther and Montaigne, Mozart, Voltaire, Jefferson, Rousseau, Wordsworth, and finally Brunel. One whole programme is called The Hero as Artist. The majority of people share my taste for heroes, and so were glad of an historical survey that emphasised outstanding individuals rather than economic trends.
When the series was shown in the U.S.A. things got out of hand. The number of letters quadrupled, and some of them were rather dotty.
When I arrived in Georgetown to stay with my old friends David and Margie Finley, Carter Brown, the Director of the Gallery [National Gallery at Washington], rang me to say ‘For God’s sake don’t go in through the front door. You’ll be mobbed’. I went in by the back door and down a long underground corridor to a press conference. After it was over I was led back along the same corridor so that I might walk the whole length of the Gallery upstairs. It was the most terrible experience in my life. All the galleries were crammed full of people who stood up and roared at me, waving their hands and stretching them out towards me.
I then went downstairs and retired to the ‘gents’, where I burst into tears. I sobbed and howled for a quarter of an hour. I suppose politicians quite enjoy this kind of experience, and don’t get it often enough. The Saints certainly enjoyed it, but saints are very tough eggs. To me it was utterly humiliating. It simply made me feel a hoax. I came up to lunch with red eyes, and tried to put the experience out of my mind. But, as the reader will have realised, it would not let go, and has not gone. And I record it because I must be one of the few ordinary, normal men on whom this kind of experience has been inflicted. The Finleys drove me home in silence. They felt as embarrassed as I did.
Speech on receiving the National Gallery of Art medal
When I tried to read the great German philosophers, I turned over the pages of Kant and Hegel, and I couldn’t make head or tail of them. I felt absolutely frustrated and humiliated, but I had to go until I thought I understood something, and at least acquired a new mental process.
Now although I believe that this part of education is the most important part, it has a great defect. One may achieve intellectual discipline, but one doesn’t remember a single thing that one learnt in that way, because one doesn’t absorb it. I can’t translate the simplest Latin inscription, and if you ask me what Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is about I couldn’t tell you.
Education has another aspect—what you learn through delight. It is by falling in love with a subject, a period, a style, an individual hero, that one absorbs something so that it becomes a part of one’s living tissue, and one never forgets it. ‘Give all to love,’ your great underrated poet said. It’s true of education as well of life. And the first advice I would give to any young person is, when you fall in love with Roman baroque or with the essays of Montaigne or with whatever it may be, give up everything to study that one, all-absorbing theme of the moment, because your mind is in a plastic condition. A plastic period usually takes place between the ages of about fifteen to the age of twenty-two; and anyone who is learning at that moment will never forget what he has learnt. Read and read, look and look; you will never be able to do it so intensely again. I often wonder if in the last fifty years of grubbing away and reading in galleries and libraries I’ve learned anything compared to what came to me in those plastic moments.
My goodness, if people really began to be sceptical and use their minds, in order to see through cant and humbug and after self-serving lies, advertisers and public relations men and a number of politicians, and even a few favourable philosophers, would be out of business. And the way that education does this is not only by training people to use their minds, but by teaching them history. When you read history you learn that people in the past were just as clever as we are, in fact at some periods they were a good deal cleverer.
I would like to think that these programmes have done two things: they have made people feel that they are part of a great human achievement, and be proud of it, and they have made them feel humble in thinking of the great men of the past.
For an introduction to these series, see here.
Below, some excerpts of “The Light of Experience,” the eight chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark.
Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages:
I am in Holland not only because Dutch painting is a visible expression of this change of mind [the revolution that replaced divine authority by experience, experiment and observation], but because Holland—economically and intellectually—was the first country to profit from the change. When one begins to ask the question, ‘does it work?’ instead of ‘is it God’s will?’ one gets a new set of answers, and one of the first of them is this: that to try to suppress opinions which one doesn’t share is much less profitable than to tolerate them.
Nearly all the great books which revolutionised thought were first printed in Holland. What sort of society was it that allowed these intellectual time-bombs to be set off in its midst? Inside the old almshouse of Haarlem, which is now a picture gallery, there is plenty of evidence. We know more about what the seventeenth-century Dutch looked like than we do about any other society, except perhaps the first-century Romans. Each individual wanted posterity to know exactly what he was like.
One can’t imagine groups like this [Rembrandt’s Syndics] being produced in Spain or seventeenth-century Italy, even in Venice. They are the first visual evidence of bourgeois democracy. Dreadful words—so debased by propaganda that I hesitate to use them. Yet in the context of civilisation they really have a meaning. They mean that a group of individuals can come together and take corporate responsibility; that they can afford to do so because they have some leisure; and that they have some leisure because they have money in the bank.
Amsterdam was the first centre of bourgeois capitalism, the chief banking centre of Europe. I don’t say much about economics in this book chiefly because I don’t understand them—and perhaps for that reason believe that their importance has been overrated by post-Marxist historians. But, of course, there is no doubt that at a certain stage in social development fluid capital is one of the chief causes of civilisation because it ensures three essential ingredients: leisure, movement and independence.
In studying the history of civilisation one must try to keep a balance between individual genius and the moral or spiritual condition of a society. However irrational it may seem, I believe in genius. I believe that almost everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals.
Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling that the supremely great figures in history—Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe—must be to some extent a kind of summation of their times. They are too large, too all-embracing, to have developed in isolation.
Rembrandt is a crucial instance of this conundrum. It is very easy—indeed rather more convenient for the historian—to imagine Dutch art without him; and there was no one else in Holland remotely comparable to him—nothing like the group of poets and dramatists who preceded and accompanied Shakespeare. Yet the very fact that Rembrandt was so immediately and overwhelmingly successful, and went on being successful—his etchings and drawings never went out of fashion—and that for twenty years almost every Dutch painter was his pupil, shows that the spiritual life of Holland needed him and so had, to some extent, created him.
However, any attempt to relate art to society gets one into a false position. The greatest of all pictures based on the facts of vision wasn’t painted in the scientific atmosphere of Holland, but in the superstitious, convention-ridden court of Philip IV of Spain: Las Meninas, ‘The Ladies in Waiting’, which was painted by Velasquez about five years before Vermeer’s finest interiors.
The enlightened tidiness of Hooch and Vermeer and the rich imaginative experience of Rembrandt reached their zenith about 1660. During that decade the leadership of intellectual life passed from Holland to England. Towering above all these remarkable scientists [Boyle, Hooke, Halley, Wren] was Newton, one of the three or four Englishmen whose fame has transcended all national boundaries. I can’t pretend that I have read the Principia, and if I did I wouldn’t understand it any more that Samuel Pepys did when, as President of The Royal Society, it was handed to him for his approval. One must take on trust that it gave a mathematical account of the structure of the universe which for three hundred years seemed irrefutable. It was both the climax of the age of observation and the sacred book of the next century.
What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendid decorated hall.
The strange thing is that none of the nineteenth-century writers (except Carlyle and Ruskin) seemed to notice that the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism. If, from the balcony of the Greenwich Observatory, I look beyond the order of Wren’s hospital I see, stretching as far as the eye can reach, the squalid disorder of industrial society. It has grown up as a result of the same conditions that allowed the Dutch to build their beautiful towns and support their painters and print their works of philosophers: fluid capital, a free economy, a flow of exports and imports, a dislike of interference.
Every civilisation seems to have its nemesis, not only because the first bright impulses become tarnished by greed and laziness, but because of unpredictables—and in this case the unpredictable was the growth of population.
For an introduction to these series, see here.
Below, some indented excerpts of “Grandeur and Obedience,” the seventh chapter of Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, and my brief comment.
Ellipsis omitted between unquoted passages:
In my previous post criticizing Erasmus I mentioned how the modern mind is too coward to approach the main psychosis of Christendom, the doctrine of hell. Unlike the previous entries on Civilisation, of the episode about the Counter-Reformation I’ll barely quote the essentials to annotate what I have just said in that post. Clark said:
The first thing that strikes one is that those who say that the Renaissance had exhausted the Italian genius are wide off the mark. After 1527 there was a failure of confidence; and no wonder. Historians may say that the Sack of Rome was more a symbol than a historically significant event: well, symbols sometimes feed the imagination more than facts—anyway the Sack was real enough to anyone who witnessed it.
If you compare the lower part of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, which was commissioned by Clement VII as a kind of atonement for the Sack, with a group in Raphael’s Disputa or with the Creation of Adam, you can see that something very drastic has happened to the imagination of Christendom.
Michelangelo had been reluctant to undertake the Last Judgement; under Clement’s successor, Pope Paul II, he was persuaded to continue it although with a rather different purpose. It ceased to be an act of atonement, or an attempt to externalise a bad dream, and became the first and greatest assertion of the Church’s power, and of the fate that would befall heretics and schismatics. It belongs to a period of severity, when the Catholic Church was approaching its problems in rather the same puritanical spirit as the Protestants.
Paul III took the two decisions that were successfully to counter the Reformation: he sanctioned the Jesuit order and instituted the Council of Trent. [The Counter-Reformation] was also a period of austerity and restraint, typified by the leading spirit of the period, St Carlo Borromeo, whose legendary asceticism is commemorated in this picture.
How had that victory been achieved? In England most of us were brought up to believe that it depended on The Inquisition, the Index, and the Society of Jesus. I don’t believe that a great outburst of creative energy such as took place in Rome between 1620 and 1660 can be the result of negative factors, but I admit that the civilization of these years depended on certain assumptions that are out of favour in England and America today. The first of these, of course, was belief in authority, the absolute authority of the Catholic Church. This belief was extended to sections of society which we now assume to be naturally rebellious. It comes as something of a shock to find that, with a single exception (Caravaggio), the great artists of the time were all sincere, conforming Christians.
And so what most repulsed Nietzsche, the restoration of Christianity after the Italian Renaissance, was consolidated.