The idea of 'civilisation' has always been debated, even fought over. At the heart of those debates lies the big question of how people - from prehistory to the present day - have depicted themselves and others, both human and divine. In Civilisations: How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith, which accompanies Mary Beard's episodes in the landmark BBC series, Mary Beard explores how art has shaped, and been shaped by, the people who created it. How have we looked at these images? Why have they sometimes been so contentious?

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Read the introduction below.

Mary Beard


‘Civilisation’ has always been contested, argued over and impossible to pin down. In 1969 Kenneth Clark opened his BBC series Civilisation by reflecting on the concept itself: ‘What is civilisation?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it.’ This betrayed a certain lofty self-confidence in his own cultural judgement; but Clark was also acknowledging the ragged and shifting edges of the category.

This book is written in the conviction that what we see is as important to our understanding of civilisation as what we read or hear. It celebrates a dazzling array of human creativity over thousands of years and across thousands of miles, from ancient Greece to ancient China, from sculpted human heads in prehistoric Mexico to a twenty-first century mosque on the outskirts of Istanbul. But it also prods at some of our certainties about how art works and how it should be explained. For it is not only about the men and women who – with their paints and pencils, their clays and chisels – created the images that fill our world, from cheap trinkets to ‘priceless masterpieces’. It is even more about the generations of humankind who have used, interpreted, argued over and given meaning to those images. One of the most influential art historians of the twentieth century, E. H. Gombrich, once wrote, ‘There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists.’ I am putting the viewers of art back into the frame. Mine is not a ‘Great Man’ view of art history, with all its usual heroes and geniuses.

I concentrate on two of the most intriguing and contested themes in human artistic culture. Part One highlights the art of the body, focusing on some very early depictions of men and women around the world, asking what they were for and how they were seen – whether the colossal images of a pharaoh from ancient Egypt or the terracotta warriors buried with the first emperor of China. Part Two turns to images of God and gods. It takes a wider time range, reflecting on how all religions, ancient and modern, have faced irreconcilable problems in trying to picture the divine. It is not just some particular religions, such as Judaism or Islam, that have worried about such visual images. All religions throughout history have been concerned about – and have sometimes fought over – what it means to represent God, and they have found elegant, intriguing and awkward ways to confront that dilemma. The violent destruction of images is one end of an artistic spectrum that has ‘idolatry’ at the other.

Part of my project is to expose the very long history of how we look. All over the world ancient art, its debates and its controversies still matter. In the West, the art of classical Greece and Rome in particular – and the different engagement people have had with that tradition, over many centuries – still has an enormous impact on modern viewers, even if we do not always recognise it. Western assumptions about what a ‘naturalistic’ representation of the human body is date back to a particular artistic revolution in Greece around the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. And many of our ways of talking about art continue the conversations of the classical world. The modern idea that the female nude implies the existence of a predatory male gaze was not first thought up, as is often imagined, in the feminism of the 1960s. As Part One will explain, what is believed to be the very first life-sized statue of a female nude in classical Greece – a fourthcentury BCE image of the goddess Aphrodite – provoked exactly the same kind of debate. And some of the earliest intellectuals that are known to us argued fiercely about the rights and wrongs of portraying gods in human form. One sixth-century BCE Greek philosopher sharply observed that if horses and cattle could paint and sculpt, they would represent the gods just like themselves – as horses and cattle.

Clark’s opening question – ‘What is civilisation?’ – is one of my own main questions too. The two parts of this book are based on two programmes I wrote for the new BBC series of Civilisations, first broadcast in 2018. This was an attempt not to ‘re-make’ Clark’s original version, but to take a fresh look at its themes with a much wider frame of reference, moving outside Europe (Clark once or twice strayed across the Atlantic, but that was all), and back into prehistory. That is what the plural in the new title indicates.

I am even more concerned than Clark with the discontents and debates around the idea of civilisation, and with how that rather fragile concept is justified and defended. One of its most powerful weapons has always been ‘barbarity’: ‘we’ know that ‘we’ are civilised by contrasting ourselves with those we deem to be uncivilised, with those who do not – or cannot be trusted to – share our values. Civilisation is a process of exclusion as well as inclusion. The boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ may be an internal one (for much of world history the idea of a ‘civilised woman’ has been a contradiction in terms), or an external one, as the word ‘barbarian’ suggests; it was originally a derogatory and ethnocentric ancient Greek term for foreigners you could not understand, because they spoke in an incomprehensible babble: ‘bar-bar-bar ...’ The inconvenient truth, of course, is that so-called ‘barbarians’ may be no more than those with a different view from ourselves of what it is to be civilised, and of what matters in human culture. In the end, one person’s barbarity is another person’s civilisation.

Wherever possible I try to see things from the other side of the dividing line, and to read civilisation ‘against the grain’. I shall be looking at some images from the distant past with the same suspicious eyes that we usually keep for those in the modern world. It is important to remember that plenty of ancient Egyptian viewers, or ancient Romans, may have been just as cynical about the colossal statues of their rulers as we now are about the parade of images of modern autocrats. And I shall be looking at some of those on the losing, as well as the winning, sides in the historic conflicts over images, and over what should and should not be represented, or how. Those who destroy statues and paintings – whether in the name of religion or not – are regularly seen in the West as some of history’s worst barbarian thugs, and we lament the works of art that, thanks to these ‘iconoclasts’, we have lost. But, as we shall see, they have their own story to tell too, even their own artfulness.

But let’s begin in Mexico, with the very earliest image in the book ...

Buy your copy of Civilisations: How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith