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Civilisation: A Marxist View

The BBC is considering reviving the programme CIVILISATION - A PERSONAL VIEW originally broadcast by Lord Clark in 1969 as a Riethian exercise in educating the masses in the moral civility of the bourgeois liberal arts. Lord Clark’s Patrician account of Civilisation was to be his own rarefied view of art and architecture reflecting the cultural mores of an urbane gentleman. As a man of wealth and privilege, Oxbridge educated and a respected curator of the Kings painting, Lord Clark was surrounded by his own private art collection displayed in a Wealden castle whose moat kept the new barbarians at bay. Clark’s contract with the BBC made it abundantly clear that any Marxist discussion of European art and architecture was proscribed. Art was all about beauty, truth and the intellectual and aesthetic improvement of the mind not vulgar and unpleasant topics like class and class exploitation. He loathed and despised “Marxists” (THE CULTURE SHOW, BBC 2 31st May 2014).

Debate has been fierce around who should front the new version of Civilisation; perhaps a professor of art drawn from the continent of Africa to illustrate how much artistic production during the 18th century was dependent either on the profits streaming into Britain from the slave trade and sugar plantations or the compensation from the British government to former slave owners at the abolition of slavery in 1807; country houses like Marble Hill House in Twickenham with its painting, The Landscape with the Arch of Constantine, by the Italian, Giovanni Paolo Panini whose images of slaves so repulsed the poet, Percy Shelley when he first saw the painting( SLAVERY AND THE BRITISH COUNTRY HOUSE, ed. M Dresser and A Hann, English Heritage, 2013 p.95).

Others have called for a female academic or historian to explain why the commissioning of prestigious architecture for public spaces and the visual consumption of painting and sculpture in the privacy of a palace and chapel was usually the preserve of privileged men (Caitlin Moran, “I want my children to see a history of the world that, for once, isn’t written by the victors” TIMES MAGAZINE 24th July 2014).

A better candidate, though, would be a Marxist and for a very good reason. In Marxist literature, “civilisation” means class society as Lord Clark rightly recognised to his concern; the entire period which lies between primitive communism and the classless, wageless Socialist society of the future. The term “civilisation” does not carry in Marxist circles the connotation of superiority that it has in bourgeois literature. In his book THE ORIGIN OF THE FAMILY, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE STATE, Engels wrote:

But this is not admitted. What is good for the ruling class, is alleged to be good for the whole of society with which the ruling class identifies itself. The more civilization advances, the more it is found to cover with the cloak of charity the evils necessarily created by it, to excuse them or to deny their existence, in short to introduce a conventional hypocrisy that culminates in the declaration: The exploitation of the oppressed class is carried on by the exploiting class solely in the interest of the exploited class itself. And if the latter does not recognize this, but even becomes rebellious, it is simply the worst ingratitude to its benefactors, the exploiter

This was just the account of “civilisation” Lord Clark wanted to avoid as had been the case of those before him for the word “civilisation” entered the English language in 1772 when James Boswell (friend of Dr Johnson) used the term in contrast with “barbarism”. This contrast between culture and vulgarity was alive and well a couple of centuries later as Lord Clark recalled the difference between his world-view and those who wished to destroy it. In the opening of the first episode, after loving panoramic shots of the Parthenon, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Arc de Triomphe, Lord Clark opined with deadly gravitas:

Looking at those great works of Western Man, it does seem hard to believe that European civilisation could ever vanish. And yet it has, once – when the Barbarian hordes overran the Roman Empire

This was supposed to be a warning from history. The filming of the episode of Civilisation in Paris, a opportunity for Clark to celebrate Parisian culture, took place as the riot police battled it out with students under a hail of broken pavement slabs and the swirling smoke of CS gas. The series ended in apocalyptic images of immanent nuclear destruction and the new barbarians approaching from the East.

Who Built Thebes of the 7 Gates?

Lord Clark’s purple language might be open to the charge of Eurocentrism and gender blindness but one group who were conveniently erased from the original 13 part series were the people who actually built the temples, cathedrals, country houses and the arts and crafts piles set in the English countryside of 19th century Britain.

As the playwright Berthold Brecht sardonically noted:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did Kings haul up the lumps of rocks?
And Babylon, many times demolished, Who raised it up so many times?
In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?


And just where did the social wealth come from to enable the ruling class to commission paintings, sculpture, theatre, literature, poetry, architecture and music? After all, in his biography Lord Clark referred to his father as one of “the idle rich”. In short; for “civilisation” to flourish at all, it first required the exploitation of slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, the serfs and artisans during European Feudalism and the working class under capitalism.

Here are a few examples of the dramatis personae left out of Lord Clark’s account of European civilisation:

The Acropolis, Greece: Fifty per cent of the population of ancient Athens were slaves. Two factors, the city's great wealth and its large population of skilled workers and slaves, enabled the Athenians to build the Parthenon entirely of stone. From the accounts of the Erechtheum with its caryatids symbolising the position of women in Athenian society, it is known that highly skilled slaves as well as metics (resident foreigners) participated in the work on the friezes and columns. The slaves worked side by side with their masters who took the money owing to both the slaves and themselves (GREEK HISTORYy Robin Osbourne 2004 p.92).

The Colosseum, Rome: An estimated 100,000 prisoners were bought back to Rome as slaves after the Jewish War where they undertook the manual labour such as working in the quarries at Tivoli where the travertine was quarried for the Colosseum. Slaves would also have been used to lift and transport the heavy stones 20 miles from Tivoli to Rome; their contribution to Civilisation’s narrative was a deafening silence.

St Albans Abbey: Left out of account of Cathedrals and Abbeys (like St Albans), were those who built them; unskilled labourers, blacksmiths, scaffolders, carpenters, carriers of water, stone and lime, those who mixed the mortar, stone cutters, masons and architects. Also missing was the class relationship between guild masters and journeymen manifesting itself in what Marx and Engels described in The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO as a “class struggle”. Abbeys and Cathedrals were also symbols of political power and class oppression. The Peasants did not besiege the Abbey Gate at St Albans in 1381, for the fun of it but in order to destroy the hated court rolls of the manors used against them in court cases, particularly over common rights. In a civilising act of retribution John Bull was defrocked and hung drawn and quartered in the market place in front of the King. No memorial blue plaque marks the spot where John Bull died.

The Great Barn at Coxwell: The Great tithe barn at Coxwell in Oxfordshire was admired by William Morris. He described it as “unapproachable in its dignity, as beautiful as a cathedral, yet with no ostentation of the builder’s art”. According to his daughter, he regularly took his guests to see the barn and called it “the finest piece of architecture in England”. Yet the barn had once enjoyed real economic significance based on feudal class relations. King John gave the Cistercian monks the royal manor of Farringdon in 1203 for a new abbey. The barn was in fact, a place to hold a surplus plunder taken away from the peasant population by a feudal ruling class for their own unearned benefit. Apart from wool and the requirements for feed and seed, the entire produce was sold and the proceeds were paid in cash to the abbey.

Cragside: Richard Norman Shaw’s baronial House in Northumberland built for the arms manufacture and industrialist William Armstrong (he sold armaments to both the South and North during the American Civil war) raises the important question; where did the money come from to build the house and the estate consisting of 1,729 acres and seven million trees, five artificial lakes and 31 miles (50 km) of carriage drives come from? You will not find the answer either in the glossy brochure produced by the National Trust (vague references to Newcastle and the Industrial Revolution) or in the monographs of the building and its architect by fawning and obsequious architectural historians. The answer is contained in the pages of Capital by Karl Marx and his theory of surplus value where the working class are paid less in wages and salaries then they produce in social wealth. Armstrong and his class lived off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit –Clark’s “Idle rich”. The foundations of Cragside rest on class exploitation just as they did with the cathedrals and palaces of feudalism and the temples and theatres of classical Greece and Rome.

What of contemporary “civilisation”. We need to look no further than the luxury property development on Saadiyat Island near Abu Dhabi. The opulent villas being built around sponsored art galleries from the Guggenheim Museum to the Louvre, have been designed by celebrity international architects which include Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid; buildings to whet the aesthetic appetite of any budding Lord Clark. In class society nothing changes. According to Andrew Ross, writing in the INTERNATIONAL NEW YORK TIMES:

…the construction work force is almost entirely made up of Indian, Pakistan, Bangladeshi, Sri Lanken and Nepalese migrant labourers. Bound to an employer by the kafala sponsorship system, they arrive heavily indebted from recruitment and transit fees, only to find their gulf dream a mirage…the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses the workers in substandard labour camps, pays much less than they were promise and enforces a punishing regime under the desert sun (March 31st 2014)

After all, It is only Sunday supplement architecture, so who cares? Not Zaha Hadid, who remarked about deaths of workers on another one of her construction sites in Qatar:

I have nothing to do with the workers. It is not my duty as an architect to look at it (loc cit).

As the art critic, Walter Benjamin noted just before his death:

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism (THESES ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY, 1940).

A Marxist View of Civilisation

Ideas, beliefs, social relationships, methods of production are not innocent of political consideration and this applies to art as well as to philosophy. We cannot escape class relations and the social system in which all types of production, industrial, literary, artistic, musical and so on take place.

A painter celebrating the power of an aristocrat or businessman is engaged in a political act. In his book PERMANENT RED: ESSAYS IN SEEING (1960), John Berger interprets the Gainsborough painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews in the National Gallery in the following way;

Among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr and Mrs Andrews was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as landowner and his pleasure was enhanced by the ability of oil paint to render their land in all its substantiality (p 108).

While, Michael Baxandall, in his book PAINTING AND EXPERIENCE IN 15TH CENTURY ITALY (1984), writes of the contractual relationship between artist and patron;

A fifteenth-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship. On one side there was a painter who made the picture, or at least supervised its making. On the other side there was somebody else who asked him to make it. Provided the funds for him to make it, reckoned on using it in some way or other. Both parties worked within institutions and conventions-commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social-that were different from ours and influenced the forms of what they together made (p.1).

If civilisation is intimately related to class society then we should not be celebrating the building of the rich and powerful but replacing capitalism consciously and politically to create a world in which free men and women can create buildings of social use rather than symbols of class privilege. Instead of the fetish of commodity production and exchange society should produce beautiful things to use, wear and look at rather than for the market and profit. In this William Morris, a critic of “civilisation” had something useful to say in “SOCIETY OF THE FUTURE” (1888):

I feel sure that no special claim need be made for the art and literature of the future: healthy bodily conditions, a sound and all round development of the senses, joined to the due social ethics which the destruction of all slavery will give us, will, I am convinced, as a matter of course give us our due art and literature, wherever that due may turn out to be (May, Morris, ed., William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, 2 vols. Oxford 1936, Vol. II, p. 465)

So what is the usefulness of art in the struggle from “Civilisation” to a classless society; from capitalism to socialism? We could do no better than to quote from Brecht again:

Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it

There will be no criticism of class society and its artistic production, exchange and consumption in any new revival of CIVILISATION. The BBC will not ask a Marxist to take a hammer to civilisation and shape a vision of a Socialist alternative to capitalism and class society. The reality of class and its relation to art and architecture will not be questioned. The “barbarians” will not be let loose at the BBC.

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