In the 13th and final episode of art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, Clark binds together a lot of the strands he has talked about in the course of the series, as well as introducing some more. The episode spans almost two centuries, from the 1780’s to the 1960’s, indeed the time right up to when the series was made. In this time frame, Clark sees at least two distinct periods, that can be described as the Age of Industrialisation and the Age of the Atom.

Clark is critical of the Age of Industrialisation. In his introduction, he talks of New York as its symbol, claiming it was built “to the glory of mammon – money, gain, the new god of the nineteenth century.” Beautiful from afar, but from close bylots of squalor, and, in the luxury, something parasitical.

He says the new heavy industries, especially when they grew in scale, are symbols of the mouth of hell,and ‘monstrous’. On closer inspection though, his criticism has some gaps in the logic. If poverty, hunger, plagues, diseasewere

the background of history right up to end of the nineteenth century, and most people regarded them as inevitable – like bad weather,

something must have changed for the better in the 19th century. But Clark chooses to stress the bad, going so far as to claim that England

by failing to control her industrial development (…) had suffered a defeat, in terms of human life, far more costly than any military disaster in the Napoleonic Wars.

In the end, his judgement of the century seems needlessly harsh, informed more by descriptions – such as those in Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes and the novels by Charles Dickens – of the circumstances, than by a comparison with prevailing conditions in previous eras. No-one doubts the horrors of the 19th century, but between the lines, even Clark has to admit there might not have been a credible alternative:

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.

There are more contradictions. While he has previously declared Christianity dead, especially in England, in this episode Clark must mention, however much in passing, the enormous influence of Christianity on the century’s reformers. From the abolition of slavery, to prison reform, to:

the greatest civilising achievement of the nineteenth century, humanitarianism,

all these were inspired by Christianity. And for all his criticism of Industrialisation, he praises the new form of art it created, engineering, placing it above most other cultural products of the age. Take Clark’s glowing description of the, then new, Forth Bridge, the red one in the background. It has since been superseded by a new bridge, closest to the viewer, with the older, Forth railroad bridge visible in the background.

The new Forth Bridge is our own style, which expresses our own age as the Baroque expressed the seventeenth century, and it is the result of a hundred years of engineering. It is a new creation, but it is related to the past by one of the chief continuous traditions of the western mind: the tradition of mathematics. For this reason, the builders of the Renaissance – Piero della Francesca and Leonardo da Vinci, and the great philosophers of the seventeenth century – Descartes, Pascal, Newton and Wren, would all have looked at it with respect.

Of the Age of the Atom, Clark cannot say anything conclusive, as he points out that “it is the era in which we are still living.” Although he sees much that is threatening, Clark seems to still be positive about this, our era. Almost fifty years later, it is hard to share some of his positive ideas, whereas some of the negatives aren’t as heavy on our mind as they were before the end of the Cold War. But Clark’s idea, that “it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation,” is stronger than ever. The words by Yeats, which he quotes, are probably more true now, than they were in 1969:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This article is part of a series. Click this link to the first in the series.