Civilisations: Unthinking The Inevitable

Civilisations airs on PBS and can also be streamed online. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown can be streamed on multiple outlets.

Benin, royal mask. Those are little heads of Portuguese merchants in the crown.

Great great beauty has heft. It transcends the current limits of our thinking and expectations. Understanding it’s impact on people over time can upend stereo-types and mental constructs. It may help us understand the ways in which our society limits people unawares. It hints at the ways in which we might appreciate, uplift and magnify people. If maybe we saw more clearly.

We live in a time when the instinct to clobber one another over the head with cultural beliefs and identities tends more to be encouraged than not. We lose a little beauty in doing so.

“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty…an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” — “Remarks at Amherst College upon receiving an Honorary Degree (439),” October 26, 1963, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1963.

We still have the capacities those that came before us did. If the arguments, or the fact that we are still having arguments over the value of education, higher education, the arts or cultural expressions of who we are — dishearten you at all, this Civilisations (returning to PBS tonight, June 12th) is a good series to watch.

The Blue Mosque

The premise of the series is that what makes us essentially human is our imagination, our creative capacity. It sets out in some ways to show just how much what we imagine sets what becomes history in motion. This falls squarely in line with what I personally believe about human nature — that this ability, when exercised, develops, humanizes and connects us and is critical to our well being. I know just how much this assumption can fly in the face of the daily conventional wisdoms that circumscribe manylives. If you’ve had an inner resistance to this idea, because most do, can you ask yourself what you believe instead?

This series sees in this instinct to make art, in this drive and its fruits, a sanctity of a kind. It sees a validation of our worth and of being alive. It’s an interesting thing to consider, how one of our most fluid and varied and undefinable of capacities, is still frequently our best conduit to meaning and purpose. We may not notice it. Yet we feel it’s influence everywhere. Throughout the series there are moments in which you grasp just how deeply belief and a sense of the sacred, and love, frequently, informed what was created.

The why of it is can be as awe inspiring as the work itself. The why of St. Paul’s and the Blue Mosque. The why of the Taj Mahal, the Lascaux cave paintings and Picasso’s painting series of bulls. And some of the cultural exchanges upend common beliefs about human advancement. There area different levels and kinds of achievement across various continents. Cracked Ice by Maruyama Okyo plays with space and texture and how we recognize where we are in a way that demonstrates a complete understanding of perspective, but also of how we inhabit space. It’s so modern. And yet, it’s not.

Cracked Ice. Marayuma Okyo. British Museum.

As a kid I watched Kenneth Clark’s Civilization — which both thrilled me and left me with questions that I had to answer myself. It was Bronowski’s Ascent of Man that I liked better. This excitement surrounding innovation and the hilarious and even squalid situations people had them in was a little Monty Python but had in its premises an inherent respect for people and their capacities. While the awe Clark wanted to instill was definitely something I shared, it felt claustrophobic in its superiorities.

This series is not. It’s focus on imagination, innovation, how art and societies shape or reflect one another is extended around the globe. It’s enjoyable, expansive and at times wise. A backward glance at how individual imagination had a role in civilizations is informative. It made me reflect on just how important it is to free each individual’s imagination. And how manipulable imaginations are.

Still from a video of Picasso painting a bull.

All the correspondences the show shine a light, for me, on our current need to distinguish between between accepting where we are — and envisioning where we want to be. The first requires curiosity, humility, and endurance. It requires critical thinking and a sense that we share the world. It requires accepting the less admirable aspects of our history and situation so that we can act intelligently in response to them.

The second, which can only really come about if we do accept where we are, requires the ability to imagine an alternative.

Or, to put it another way, when what we believe is informed by what we have been able to accept, we are able to better imagine what’s possible. We are also better able to create more authentic, moving and effective art.

And the show is responsive to where we are in understanding the negative aspects of what we’ve called civilization up until now. The breadth of it’s scope can serve to level an lingering inherent biases or assumptions about who and what and how people are civilized. If people watch it.

Which makes me think of Anthony Bourdain. I began this piece before we lost him. And it feels right to mention his efforts to show us the humanity and depth he was able to find everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. And that, for me, is the greatest indication of being civilized. Not posture, poise, gloss, chandeliers or season tickets, but to see with that level of clarity and to want to share it. If you haven’t watched Bourdain’s shows, I hope you will.

When we step into a television program, we are inherently exchanging one frame of reference for another. It’s a great program that either makes you aware of this and pushes you to make connections or which reminds you that we have within ourselves the making of our own frames of reference. Bourdain was a master of doing exactly that.

There are some moments in Civilizations when I feel Simon Schama stretching a bit, seeing an idealization of female beauty in a small carved head, that is beautiful, but could reflect so many many things. It’s fine line between projection and insight.

And frankly, that’s useful thing have demonstrated. And in a sense, this moment and any moments that strike viewers as stretching a bit, are ones in which we are seeing just how much what we believe informs what we imagine.

“Everything you can imagine is real.” — Pablo Picasso

We can “unthink the inevitability” of destructive outlooks about who we are and what we are meant to be. ( As Harvard University’s Maya Jasanoff said about the advance and influence of colonialism.) We can encounter our world as it is with the belief that we can transform it.

Our confidence and faith in ourselves as full human beings makes that possible. So, perhaps whatever contributes to our health and connection, our belief in our capacity to envision, contributes to civilization.

So many of our struggles and conflicts stem from the fact that we make this world together. But so do our moments of joy, completion and fulfillment.



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