This Is Civilization DVD Review: Examining the Controversial Role of Art in Civilization

“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my pistol,” is a line attributed to the infamous Nazi Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Goering. Whether or not he actually said it is irrelevant though, as the phrase neatly sums up the relationship between artists and of those in power. The battles between artists and their patrons is as old as civilization itself. It makes for a powerful study of mankind’s development through the centuries and is the topic of the new, double-DVD set This Is Civilization from Athena.

Each of the four episodes in the series are hosted by Matthew Collings and focus on the various currents which have influenced the world of art over the years. This Is Civilization is a contemporary update of the acclaimed 1969 BBC series, titled simply Civilization. One of the main features of the new series is a focus on non-Western art. The programs were shot on location all over the world, including stops in China, Turkey, and Egypt, along with much of Europe, and the United States. It initially aired in the U.S. on the Ovation Channel in 2009.

“Ye Gods” is the first episode, and as may be gleaned from the title, it examines the role art has played in regards to religion over time. It is fascinating to see the way in which religious power has shaped, reshaped, and even destroyed artwork. Among other notable incidents, Collings shows us what were once stunning statues, which were literally defaced by Christians a few hundred years later. These ruins are weirdly intact, with the stone bodies standing tall, head intact. But the faces of these figures have been chiseled away, as if to render them ghosts.

In “Feelings,” which is the second program, we study the work of painter Jacques-Louis David. His canvases of iconic heroes is said to have spurred the French Revolution. Collings then moves on to the work of Francisco Goya, who was horrified by Napoleon. His paintings depicting monsters thirsting for blood and suffering remain some of the most indelible images ever. When we see these paintings in museums, they basically stand outside of time. What Collings does in this aptly titled episode is bring us closer to the artist and the feelings of horror he was expressing about the devastation of the Napoleonic Wars.

With the title of the third program being “Save Our Souls,” I expected another slant on religion and art. But “Save Our Souls” focuses on the much more down-to-earth topic of saving ourselves from the dehumanization of humans by modern society. As an “antidote” to the Industrial Revolution, we are shown some of the era’s most beautifully idyllic paintings. What I found even more intriguing were the surviving Gothic buildings, which burst with creative energy. The cry of “I am not an animal, I am a human being!” comes to mind with this episode. The combination of art and architecture is a clear reaction to what the powers that be seemed to want, a population of sheep. Of the four programs, I found “Save Our Souls” to be the most moving.

That is not in any way meant to diminish the final entry however. “Uncertainty” brings us up to date with the questions of “what is art?” Picasso’s famous Cubism is discussed, as is the whole Pop Art phenomenon, led by Andy Warhol and others. The series ends with a segment on the convergence of art and commerce in China today, which on its own is very interesting. It also makes one wonder that if the series is revisited another 40 years down the road, just how important this particular event may prove to be.

As for bonus features, the DVDs include biographies of the featured artists. There is also a 10-page booklet with a few thought-provoking essays, including one that asks the eternal question “Is money a blessing or a curse to art?” As usual, Athena manages to deliver some very educational material in a most entertaining manner. Additional program-related material is available on their website as well.

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Greg Barbrick

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