Culture House Daily

Was Kenneth Clark wrong not to ‘understand’ the value of abstract art?

6 June 2014

Kenneth Clark’s view of culture may by now be ‘outmoded’, but I was surprised to read that it was also ‘narrow’. An exhibition at Tate Britain about Clark’s influence, Looking for Civilisation, and the BBC’s threatening to remake the Civilisation TV series, have given rise to some depressing comment. Much mention is made of Clark’s ‘stiff’ presenting style; he mostly stood in front of the camera, rather than walking to and from it as one must now. I assume we are being encouraged to take this as the sign of regrettably rigid thinking. But Clark knew where he stood. And that is at the root of the problem.

‘I believe that order is better than chaos, creation is better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence.’ One reviewer chose Clark’s closing statements as particularly demonstrative of a ‘skewed geographical and intellectual balance’. But surely we do not have to be centred – arbitrarily or not – on Renaissance Florence, to agree with Clark? It is not just that Clark dared to make judgments; the real complaint is that, though he was rather Romantic, and though he privately supported a number of modern British artists, he was never a fully convinced, doctrinaire Modernist. Twentieth-century art – like the politics – too often went in for chaos, destruction and violence. Clark meant to warn us. And so Clark must be caricatured as a fogey, or even as a spoilt dilettante proclaiming to the masses, because Modernism is, now more than ever, sacred.


When these journalists so patronisingly mention Clark’s ‘misunderstandings’, it is reminiscent of the obituaries for Gombrich that made casual reference to his ‘prejudices’ and ‘oversights’. If it really was a failure of Clark’s, and Gombrich’s, not to ‘understand’ the value of abstract art, then it was a failure they shared with – to mention just a notable few – Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti. It must take total piety to be able to ignore the reasoned concerns of those who thought hardest about art in the modern world, and devoted themselves most and best to it. Indeed, we might quite precisely call such an attitude, and such an agenda, prejudiced. Ironically, it betrays an absolute rigidity of mind and narrowness of view.

Of course, beneath it all is a fearful resentment of an old intellectual establishment that seems too cultivated; an establishment that was completely and happily independent of popular culture. They call Clark’s view narrow only because they tragically overestimate the breadth of the popular culture that did not interest him. And they make that overestimation precisely because they are blind to most of what he was able to see.

But there is an even sadder subtext. They criticise him – with arrogance and prejudice – for not writing enough about non-Western cultures or women artists. They criticise him then for writing on his subject, and not their own. Clark titled the series, Civilisation: A Personal View; and ‘a personal view’, it seems, may no longer be really allowed.

Jacob Willer is a figurative painter from London. He is writing a book about how to enjoy looking at paintings.

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  • Abstractart Lesson

    Chaos is the new order. And Abstract Art only reflects that order.

  • Bob Thomas

    Watched Civilisation for the first time late last year. Fantastic series.

  • balance_and_reason

    I think he had a point …whilst it may have been revolutionary to paint a black blank canvas…there was no artisitic skill or merit in it…it is not worth anything, it has no scarcity and yes we can nod at the message but the message could probably have been conveyed a little more fulsomely in a book or poem.
    Substantial percentage of modern art falls into this category and I really suspect it will rot in some attic or museum until it’s chucked out with the old furniture.

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    The really important question is, why did he pronounce capITalism thus? Not by analogy with commUNism, so…

  • Alison

    How much more arrogant to have included abstract art and pronounced knowledgably on its significance and influence upon civilisation at the time the programme was made. We need at least a century to see the relevance, influence, lasting effects of new ideas. Entirely abstract art was a new idea it does not fit the narrative of art up to the point it emerged, unlike other forms of modernism.

  • Ron Todd

    What I remember of the series and I was young at the time was Clark standing in front of portraits of various people and deducing from the painting the character of the subject. Either he was just guessing or more likely he was using knowledge from other sources that he was not telling us about. Anybody concerned about the dead white Western men apparent bias should read Human accomplishment 800BC to 1950

  • mariandavid

    What I recollect with enjoyment is how long the camera dwelt on art and how little on the presenter – the precise opposite of the products of today.

  • In2minds

    Clark – ” he mostly stood in front of the camera, rather than walking to and from it as one must now” –
    He also kept his hands still, I thought he was rather good.

  • edithgrove

    Failing to understand abstract art meant Clark missed the second half of the 20th century which, for an art historian, might be a bit of a problem.

    • mitate

      the greatest abstract art of the 20th century had been created way before the second half even commenced.

      • edithgrove

        what would that be Mitate?

        • mitate

          how about the hugely innovative masterworks of malevich, kandinsky, mondrian, arp, and brancusi, to mention but a few.

          • edithgrove

            You’re right. I was thinking in labels and of abstract expressionism, not constructivism and de styl.

  • IainRMuir

    “and ‘a personal view’, it seems, may no longer be really allowed.”

    Not necessarily. I hear quite a few “personal views” on TV and elsewhere, but not ones that Mr Clark would agree with.

    • balance_and_reason

      Methinks you have missed the point…by a mile

      • IainRMuir

        Well go on, explain it.

        • balance_and_reason

          When and if I am employed by the BBC, at a top dollar salary, to do a review of civilisation in the 20th and 21st centuries, I will be more than happy to run through my thoughts and views on the subject…until then , do your own work.

      • AlisonMS

        Seems clear enough to me.

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