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Uncivilised nation

This is Civilisation, by Matthew Collings (21 Publishing)

Aidan Campbell
posted 18 June 2008

Matthew Collings is an art critic who is famous for being the anchorman for Channel 4’s annual Turner Prize night. On the quiet, he is an abstract expressionist artist. Collings has also broadcast several art documentary series for Channel 4, including This is Civilisation, which accompanies this book. He currently writes for Modern Painters art magazine and, if this book is anything to go by, he is considerably browned off with the Turner Prize and the whole global contemporary art ensemble.

Collings explicitly sees This is Civilisation as an update of Kenneth Clark’s magisterial Civilisation: a personal view television series of 1969. Lord Clark was a scholar of the old school. Collings was a radical art student. Ironically, they both love the same academic art. So how well does Collings replicate his master’s voice? Clark’s essay had a definite theme: at the end of the sixties the barbarian Marxists seemed on the cusp of taking over the West but civilisation might be salvaged if some art can be saved. Clark delivered his agenda in a calm and reflective manner, the epitome of the British gentleman who maintains his stiff upper lip in every circumstance. In contrast, Collings’ theme is hard to discern. He is evasive, preferring to ask myriad questions rather than make a point. When he does make a statement, it is obscure or ambiguous or contradicts what he has previously written. An illustration of Collings’ dithering is his comments on the meanings and meaninglessness of the geometric patterns to be found on the walls of Islamic mosques (pp83-89).

What is civilisation, and is it in jeopardy as both Clark and Collings seem to think? Clark gave the distinct impression that his tradition was largely moribund but still possessed some treasures worth preserving. Collings’ approach is the complete opposite. Though they both admire the same antique art, he sees Clark’s social class as an alien expansionary force defiling everything of value and especially works of art; and he is determined to set a restraint on it. Clark thought capitalism was the height of civilisation; Collings thinks it’s the height of civilisation to use art to cap capitalism.

Obviously Clark was wrong to imagine that the revolution was ready to extinguish society in 1969. But was he also correct to identify art as the sole product of civilisation that was worth saving? Collings can agree with Clark on this latter point at least. Indeed Collings seems to think that the only civilised values are cultural ones. In his book, he claims that art enables us to see more clearly, to resist chaos, to restore social harmony, motherhood and apple pie. Why this extravagant boostering of culture? It’s not just Collings at it; everyone wants to be a cultural cheerleader staunchly fending off every attempt to dumb down art. This chorus of culture vultures definitely does not indicate that people are becoming more civilised nowadays, however. In many ways, it’s the opposite. It is because we are much more prone to irrational outbursts. In the past, whenever people have failed to change society for the better, they have nearly always taken to religion to console themselves. In our more profane times, when similar setbacks occur, we seek solace in culture or sport instead. After the defeat of socialist ideals in the nineties, we look to cultural icons and celebrities to sort out our issues.

This is Civilisation is ostensibly a paean to the best art, unsullied by the crass commercialism of contemporary marketing and its obnoxious celebrities. In reality, the bulk of the book is given over to adumbrating the toils and troubles of the author and his family, in particular his dissolute mother. ‘This is Collings’ may have a better choice of title. Clark would never have paraded his private difficulties in this way (and he had plenty: his son was the notorious rake Alan Clark, the only MP ever to have been accused of being drunk at the Commons’ despatch box). In the past, you indicated your individuality by demonstrating how well you met and even exceeded your class values. Baron Clark of Saltwood’s home was the castle in Kent where the plot to murder Saint Thomas à Becket was hatched in 1170. Clark had only to open his mouth to exude his noble credentials. Now the aristocracy scarcely dares to raise its head above the parapet. Indeed there is no class in society which anyone wholeheartedly identifies with. All social groupings have been discredited. That’s why nihilism is so common today: it merely reflects the status quo.

It is of some interest to note that, while Kenneth Clark subtitled his essay on civilisation ‘a personal view’, he never dreamt of tarnishing his ideas by disclosing any confidential information. So why does his supposed admirer Collings lay his private problems on us with a trowel? Because venting an endless barrage of embarrassing confessions is the only way that contemporary mankind has of validating itself. Collings is a rich and famous cultural commentator with a loving family, yet, after owning up that he’s a failed painter of daubs outshone by his wife (the mosaicist Emma Biggs), the overall picture that emerges is one of a beaten man devoid of identity.

Cipher Collings has been liberated from loyalty to any nation, class or group. On the other hand, this rejection of social associations has a cost. When every collective experience appears incoherent and disjointed, it is easy for the individual to misconstrue it all as a personal endorsement or repudiation or both. Collings’ résumé is one of a globe-trotting art critic who nevertheless feels hard-done-by and unappreciated. When you imagine that you are alone in the world, constantly battling against adversity, continually being conspired against, the next step is to envisage that the whole world is a victim of the plotting too. Consequently our author’s habitual theme, in both his magazine articles and his books, is viewing himself fighting a one-man art mission against mass culture.

In his book, Collings repeatedly notes that art now takes centre stage in society, but he never once asks why this has happened. He blithely feels that every civilised society should have culture at its core, and complacently assumes that neglecting art always constitutes boorish behaviour. In Collings’ opinion, civilisation equals art. The only issue for him is why our society has chosen to promote such a dubious form of art. He feels obliged to explain why he doesn’t like post-millennial culture, and why he thinks the art of the past was a lot better. His answer is that contemporary art is the pawn of the mass culture inaugurated by Pop Art in the sixties. Contemporary culture is not really art at all, in his eyes, but a sop to cloak the alien agendas of mass marketing and all-consuming greed.

According to Collings, art has dutifully pursued its own development down through the ages. Firstly, it realised the perfect body in Greek classical sculpture; then it founded the different symbolisms of Byzantine and Islamic mosaics. Later, in medieval Europe, the image of the tortured body came to the fore, until this gave way to the heroic body exemplified by Renaissance art. The French artist Jacques-Louis David master-minded art as the weapon of revolutionary politics, while the Spanish romantic Francisco Goya traced the reactionary response to this. Victorian art critic John Ruskin paved the way for Modernism by creating an artistic refuge in Nature from industrialisation. This sanctuary from progress eventually extinguished itself in the geometric void created by American abstract expressionism, which represented the final stage of great art. Conveniently AbEx is Collings’ chosen aesthetic.

In his version, the impudent Pop Art that succeeded AbEx in the sixties terminated this legacy of visual experimentation. Pop’s blatantly consumerist proposition that ‘everything is artistic’ has allowed the forces of global materialism first to infiltrate and then to commandeer the West’s glorious culture. Contemporary art is the mirror image of nasty Nazi art. Instead of the fascist certainty of order, nowadays we have the globalised manufacture of uncertainty (where contemporary culture devises meanings we know are not true, but which are enormously profitable). That, believes Collings, is just as bad. Art can benevolently run society, he asserts, but first it has to achieve equilibrium between our absolutist appetites and our relativising reasoning. The ancient Greeks showed us the civilised way forward out of this impasse. Their urbane competitiveness still defines our civilisation: Greek democracy cracked the problem of balance as their enlightened rulers saw art as a model that could resolve any discrepancy between order and uncertainty. 

So sorry but there is little that is balanced or poised about Collings’ version of Civilisation. Instead of an inspiring vision replete with transcendental awe, we get a tiresome whinge with too much information about his intimate details; we also get an unattractive diatribe by a very rich and famous person against too much consumption by the plebs; and finally we get a tirade against the Young Brit Artists for stoking it all up in the first place. Collings blames artists like Damien Hirst for being punk louts and yuppie millionaires hell-bent on commercialising art. He brands entrepreneurs like advertising mogul Charles Saatchi as ‘positive Nazis’ for glorifying cultural decadence and for turning art into a retail commodity available from every Ikea store.

If Collings’ shrill response to mass culture defines civilisation, perhaps we should begin questioning what part art plays in modern society. Call me an iconoclast, but if ‘this is civilisation’ then its further development urgently requires a review of what civilisation actually means.


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