This essay, on the influence of John Berger on the new BBC series Civilisations, was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a shorter piece on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants’ Act.) It was published in the Observer, 4 March 2018, under the headline ‘Can Civilisations make sense of art when we have different ways of seeing?‘
‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.’ So says Giovanni in John Berger’s 1972 Booker prize-winning novel G. The line became an epigram to both Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It could also be an epigram to the new BBC series Civilisations, which began last week.
Presented jointly by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, it has been heralded as the remaking for a new era of Civilisation, Kenneth Clark’s landmark 1969 series. The ghost that hovers over Civilisations is not, however, that of Clark, but that of Berger. Three years after Civilisation came Berger’s series Ways of Seeing. ‘The relation between what we see and what we know’, he tells us in the opening scene, ‘is never settled.’ It was a direct riposte to Clark.
For Clark, every artwork embodies unique qualities and an inherent meaning that has to be drawn out and explained. For Berger, the meaning and worth of art rests not just in the frame or the marble but also in the relationship between the viewer and the object. Meaning is not intrinsic but emerges only in the viewing. At different points in space and time, and from different vantage points in any society, Berger insists, the meaning of the same work of art will necessarily be different.
As a model for documentary-making, Clark’s Civilisation became highly influential. But as a means of understanding art, it is Berger’s Ways of Seeing that has shaped contemporary thinking. ‘The history of art’, Mary Beard tells us in episode two of Civilisations, ‘isn’t just a history of artists… It’s also the history of the men and women who looked, who interpreted what they saw, and of the changing ways in which they did so.’
The very title of Beard’s episode, How Do We Look?, echoes Berger. So does the theme of the programme – the depiction of the female body in European art through ‘the male gaze’; that was the theme of Berger’s second episode, too. ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’, as Berger put it in the opening lines of the programme. Yet, strangely, there appears to be no acknowledgment of that debt.
Berger’s approach raises profound questions about how we tell the story of art; indeed how we tell any kind of history. If there is always more than one story to be told, if meanings are always contested, which story should we tell, and which meaning should we accept? Or must we simply live with the fact that there will always be a multiplicity of stories and meanings, and that we can never settle on one as being definitive, still less as ‘true’?
It’s a debate that has raged in recent decades, with the rise of ‘postmodern’ visions, the deprecation of ‘grand narratives’, and the shift towards a more relativist appreciation of culture and history. Clark told a simple story of the progress of western art to ‘the dazzling summit of human achievement’ in the Renaissance followed by the uncertainties leading to ‘the chaos of modern art’. Civilisations rightly unpicks that easy narrative. But what to replace it with?
In the first episode, Simon Schama takes us through vast leaps in time and space, from cave art to cubism, from China to Mexico. The effect is exhilarating. In one scene we cut from the astonishingly sketched 15,000-year-old bison on the walls of caves in Altamira, Spain, to a series of Picasso’s lithographs, dating from 1945, that move from a fully fleshed-out beast, uncannily resembling an Altamira bison, to more abstracted depictions, until the beast is finally deconstructed to little more than a few swift hand strokes.
Schama talks of ‘Picasso’s belief that the hand of the artist never really changes’, adding that ‘I agree with Picasso’. Whether Picasso actually believed this is a matter of controversy. But what does such a belief say about art? Has the hand of the artist – the skill and technique and meaning it embodies – really remained unchanged since the days of cave paintings?
It’s a thrilling journey, too, as we jump across space from the Minoans in the Mediterranean to the Sanxingdui of bronze age China to the Mayan culture of fifth-century Mexico. But, again: what is it that joins it all together? Is there a narrative that wraps round all those different expressions of ‘civilisation’? Or are they to be seen as simply distinct expressions, each understood only in its own terms, and connected only by a common human impulse to creativity?
Posing such questions may be the greatest strength of Civilisations. Answering it may be almost impossible. And that may turn out to be the series’ most profound weakness.
The top image is Picasso’s 1945 series of lithograph of bulls; the cover image is of a bison from the cave wall in Altamira.