Clark’s humanness

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.

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