Civilizations Is an Epic Art History Lesson, and It's Well Worth Your Time

TV Reviews Civilizations
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<i>Civilizations</i> Is an Epic Art History Lesson, and It's Well Worth Your Time

Maybe I’m biased but… More. Simon. Schama.

PBS’s epic art history class Civilizations explores the origins of the artistic impulse, from the earliest known examples of creative expression to present-day artists. Obviously, this is not a small subject, and containing it within the vessel of a docuseries is a serious endeavor. The series begins with a look at “Why did humans develop the urge to make art?” and from there, it takes us on a journey through the history of art representing the human figure, art in the context of religion, art as a means of communicating one’s particular culture, how art figures into conquest and looting, the technological leaps of the Renaissance, and so on. Liev Schreiber narrates, and various art historians, archaeologists and artists interface with specific works.

At the level of exploring art history beyond the West, the series is very solid; we spend lots of time on the development of art both religious and secular in China, India, Cambodia, Mesoamerica and parts of Africa (the Benin bronzes in particular). There’s a heavy focus on how art across the globe was changed by the rise of Islam. There’s much to learn, a staggering plethora of sites visited, and a strongly conveyed sense of how vast and far-reaching and fundamental to humanity the creation of art really is.

It’s a huge subject. The history of art is the history of people.

I’m not sure I love how it’s composed. It seems to be struggling with dual impulses: to follow a linear narrative on the development of visual arts over time, from the first handprint on a cave wall to the present day; and to concatenate art into different conceptual impulses (power, spirituality, self-expression, posterity). As a result, it flits about a bit, flying us from this temple to that cave to this pyramid to that ziggurat in an effort to stay true to its global focus while also trying to adhere to various themes. I rather wish they’d chosen one or the other, or perhaps even taken a regional focus in each episode. Or made more of the opportunities afforded by not doing so, showing ways in which art manifests in the same (or totally different) ways in different cultures during a given band of time. The latter seems to be what they mean to do, but it causes the interruptions into present-day art to feel… like interruptions. It’s not bad, not by a long shot. It’s just… a little scattered.

I think my other issue with this series is, to my own surprise, the narrative personality. Schreiber has a beautiful voice, and comes across as calm, even, lucid and intelligent (we never see him, he’s just a disembodied God’s-eye voice throughout the episodes). And I might recant this later, but I believe there might be too much of him. Given the way the show’s “chaptered” (is that a word?) I understand the impulse to maintain a strong, even through line in the explicatory voiceover. But the people on the ground interacting with the artworks are so much more dynamic and interesting they make Schreiber seem like a low droning background noise, which isn’t optimal when he’s delivering most of the context. Fans of Schama’s The Power of Art are probably wondering why he’s not in the driver’s seat—in the first episode, we track him observing Maya temple sculpture, the breathtaking ruin of Petra, Jordan, and early cave paintings in Europe, and he seems a bit like a tourist, which is further emphasized when he disappears in subsequent episodes. (He comes back to curate some of the sixth episode.) Since he does almost all the curation of sites visited in the premiere, it’s a bit disorienting—we’ve been set up to expect the guy to be omnipresent, and he’s actually occasional. I admit I would have preferred someone like him, a historian with some passionate opinions and a slightly less (OK: much less) remote speaking style, providing the overarching narration. And perhaps since there’s not a single art historian who can truly speak with authority on every work of art in the known history of man, it’s much better to have a collection of curators with different areas of expertise. That said, Schreiber’s not a historian, either, and there’s a kind of frosty ultra-competence there that I would have liked to see replaced with something or someone a little more palpably engaged.

If all of this sounds like I’m flunking the series, I’m really not. It’s well executed, and the decisions the Nutopia production team made were valid; they’re just not necessarily the same ones I would have made, which I guess you’d call “artistic differences.” The photography is lovely, the on-the-ground experts are all accessible and invested in the details, and the entire series is admirably ambitious.

Even people who’ve had a lot of exposure to art history will probably learn things they didn’t know. Those who haven’t been as lucky should prepare to be dazzled by much of this program. It covers an immense amount of ground, and it does an effective job of it. It’s global and provocative, the kind of show that might spark a lot of intriguing debate among people watching it. There’s a certain amount of veering from subject to subject, and a certain arbitrary feel to the way the episodes are designed, because one largely cannot separate art into categories: The history of religious art is not separate from the history of secular art; the art of China not separate from that of India, the history of discovery not separate from the history of conquest and empire. The impulse to create images is utterly universal and has been with us from the beginning. There’s probably no single way of organizing such a huge subject that wouldn’t provoke frustration somewhere. The series is an important one—it should be watched.

Civilizations premieres Tuesday, April 17 at 8 p.m. on PBS.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.