BBC launches Civilisations and the Civilisations Festival at The National Gallery, London

Introduction by Jonty Claypole, Director of Arts, BBC

The greatest homage we can make is not to imitate the answers of a predecessor but the questions they asked - and to approach them with the same seriousness, ambition and depth.Jonty Claypole, Director of Arts, BBC
Date: 07.02.2018     Last updated: 07.02.2018 at 13.41
It’s astonishing how much an informal encounter can change the world.

I’ve thought a lot over the past few years about the now famous lunch between David Attenborough and Kenneth Clark in 1966 during which, according to biographer James Stourton, Clark "was munching his smoked salmon rather apathetically when Attenborough used the word ‘civilisation’."

We remember Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation as one of the greatest broadcasting events in British history: it certainly changed the way arts programming is made and talked about. There was the scale of the series - with many of the highlights of Western art screened for the first time in glorious colour - matched with the insights of a great scholar. But there was something else too. Although Clark set out to chart the steady rise of European culture from near obliteration in the Dark Ages to global influence in the 20th Century, he made it strikingly clear at the beginning of the series that it was really an enquiry into civilisation itself.

“What is civilisation?”, Clark asks the nation. Although he declines to define it in words, he makes a strong case for his belief that it is the result of the ‘life-giving human activities’ of philosophy, poetry, science and law-making by which humanity reveals itself an ‘intelligent, creative, orderly and compassionate animal’.

Clark’s series is proudly and pointedly ‘a personal view’, but its message resonated with millions.

Clark asked his question against the backdrop of the turbulence of 1968: student occupations, global unrest, and a generation of artists who didn’t seem to have much regard for tradition. But ‘what is civilisation?’ remains as vital a question as it was then, because it prompts the follow on: ‘how do we make ours better?’ These are questions that strike to the heart of our identity - as individuals, as Britons and as citizens of the world in the 21st Century. And, at a time when we are reshaping ourselves as a nation and when phrases like ‘clash of civilisation’ are regularly used, they have never been more urgent.

The greatest homage we can make is not to imitate the answers of a predecessor but the questions they asked - and to approach them with the same seriousness, ambition and depth. Back in 2014, mindful of being a few years from the 50th anniversary, we set out to ask ‘what is civilisation?’ once more, sharing Clark’s conviction that the story of art and culture is that of civilisation itself - and that through art and culture we find more than aesthetic pleasure but the essence of what it means to be human.

We didn’t want to repeat the story Clark told, so focused on the role of art in human cultures right across the world: not one civilisation, but many. And we wanted a range of different opinions and expertise. Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga came together in our minds as an irresistible combination: each at once a scholar and a public intellectual, equally at home in the library as on our screens.

In spring 2018, BBC Two is broadcasting eleven programmes under the banner of Civilisations. At the heart of the season is the nine-part series on global art, three years in the making, capturing some of the greatest artworks of humankind across six continents and thirty-one countries. Each film is a ‘personal view’ of an aspect of human experience that civilisations have consistently called upon art to make sense of: from our attempts to communicate with the divine to how we understand our place in nature.

An additional programme, also on BBC Two and presented by Mary Beard, looks at the themes of the series through museums across the UK. And we are proud to join with Arts Council England and Battersea Arts Centre in presenting two special collaborations between artists working in the UK today, including choreographer Wayne McGregor and poet Akala.

Alongside this we have programming across Radio, including An Alternative History of Art on Radio 4 and a week of Essays on music and civilisations on Radio 3. There are eleven regional programmes on BBC One that look at what collections in respective parts of the UK tell us about civilisation. And we have joined up with over 250 museums and galleries in a Civilisations Festival that will result in many events inspired by the series, as well as a Civilisations augmented-reality app putting objects from collections into people’s devices. BBC Nations and Regions will connect many of the stories from those museums with audiences across the country.

All this amounts to by far the biggest event in arts broadcasting in my fifteen years at the BBC and has involved immense and committed work from many teams across the BBC, Nutopia, the OU and all our partners in galleries, museums and arts organisations.

For me, an enquiry as philosophical as ‘what is civilisation?’ embodies the BBC’s public service mission as the nation’s broadcaster, taking us beyond day-to-day programming into deep and long-running intellectual enquiry. I am glad the BBC is still here to ask that same question fifty years on from Clark, and I sincerely hope it will be asking it again fifty years from now.