Kenneth Clark, I think it is safe to say, was the most influential championer of art of his time. Art consultant to King George VI, Director of Britain's National Gallery at just 29 years-of-age, Clark maintained this role through World War II, and although the paintings were removed to protect them from German bombs, he made the museum a rallying place to bolster the spirits of the people via art and music programming. Art as an antidote to war - the antithesis to American president's decision this past week to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts in favor of military spending. Clark was also creator of Independent Television - an alternative to the BBC, and is probably best remembered as creator and host of the landmark television series Civilisation, made in 1969. He was friend and patron of many artists and writers the likes of Duncan Grant, John Betjeman, and Henry Moore. It is easy to see why James Stourton was drawn to write Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) with such a compelling subject.
Stourton was thorough with the timeline of events, comprehensive in chronicling Clark's many relationships with artists, royalty and paramours, and complex in revealing his subjects contradictions - a mind described as cold and hard as a diamond, yet a nature passionate enough to break down in tears as he narrated an episode of Civilisation on the steps of the church door at Wittenberg. This biography would have been helped by a clearer sense of time and place. Although Clark accomplished some of his most memorable acts in war-torn London, they seem no different from those that occurred in the 1950s or 1960s. The decades slip by unnoticed, first the war, then the Ministry of Information and suddenly Clark is working in television. I found myself looking back a few pages looking for the indication that as Clark's vitae was covered that happened in the context of a world whose politics, science, art and design changed. We know that Clark made a call, wrote a letter, or sipped a drink, but the phone, the pen, the glass is invisible. If insulation from change was the point, this was unclear. The resulting biography was a series of deeds occurring in a vacuum, making a rich life feel strangely unanchored.
What comes through in Strourton's book regardless is what Clark stood for. Clark quoted Ruskin: "Great nations write their autobiography in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." Judging by this standard, the United States in 2017 will be remembered as thoughtless, illiterate, and impoverished.