The Lessons of Civilisation
In our recent off-topic post about The Romantic Spirit--the finest television treatment ever given to European Romanticism--we noted the series' specificity of focus and commented that if one wished to supplement it with a broad survey of the history of Western culture (from a noble though not particularly Romantic point of view), one could turn to Kenneth Clark's magisterial BBC documentary, Civilisation.
While we were reminiscing about Civilisation, we recollected a passage from the seventh episode in Lord Clark's series, one that is highly relevant to the topic of this forum.
The following video shows the excerpt in question, followed by the text of Clark's narration. The clip is only two and a half minutes long, so we encourage our readers to view it, as the host's delivery is quite compelling.
The episode as a whole deals with the Counter-Reformation: the Catholic Church's organized effort to overcome the challenge of Protestantism in the 16th century. Although, in this particular clip, Clark voices the Catholic position, the Judgment of Paris venerates both traditions. Each served Western culture very well, with Protestantism suiting the austere character of Northern Europe as much as Catholicism befitted the voluptuous character of the South. We highlight this passage not for any religious purpose, but because it has an applicability to our core themes (as we will presently discuss).
Here is the transcript of Lord Clark's commentary:
The latter point that Lord Clark makes, contrasting the pagan/Catholic celebration of the flesh with the Protestant repression of the body, gives credence to the long-held view that one of the reasons why the androgynous, emaciated aesthetic took hold over the United States was due to America's puritanical origins, which were marked by an "over-zealous condemnation of the sins of the flesh" (as Clark puts it).
Keep in mind that the Classical ideal originated in the pagan world of Ancient Greece. As Clark observes--using the work of Titian as an example--Catholicism harmoniously absorbed this pagan aesthetic tradition, while the Protestant North condemned it on theological grounds.
The work that Lord Clark cites, incidentally, is Titian's Bacchanal on Andros (1523Ė26),
which the video shows dissolving into Rubens's free copy, from the following century:
Given that the United States originated as a colony of Protestant England, America may indeed have retained in its cultural outlook the mother country's puritanical tendency to be "afraid of the human body"--or at least the generously indulged female form.
However, in the above video, Clark makes an even more significant point, which is the following:
Rather than making self-defeating concessions to the anti-plus aesthetic of straight-size fashion--which, after all, has as its goal the elimination of any trace of the female gender (consider the source!)--the plus-fashion industry should more resolutely, boldly, and enthusiastically champion the very qualities that visibly distinguish full-figured femininity, the very attributes that identify a girl as a plus-size model.
This uncompromising approach enabled the Catholic Church to defend itself against the ideological and cultural challenge of Protestantism (which sought its destruction), and this approach would also enable plus-size modelling to more resolutely establish itself as an alternative to the minus-size industry, giving full-figured women the sense that they have an aesthetic of their own, an aesthetic that is just as valid as (in fact, more valid than) anorexia-inducing androgyny, a timeless ideal that has the sanction of three millennia of Western history behind it.
Rather than whittling down the size of its models to paltry faux-plus proportions, the plus-size fashion industry should feature models in sumptuous sizes 16, 18, 20, 22, and so forth, who are everything that the starving, androgynous models are not: full-figured, fleshy, and feminine; soft, natural, and beautiful.
A culture only dies when it loses its foundations. It never declines when it is too traditional; rather, it declines when it is not traditional enough. Timeless beauty was displaced by the alien aesthetic because it lost confidence in itself and became easy prey to the destructive forces of modernism, which were united in their resentment-driven desire to topple noble, Old-World culture in all of its manifestations.
Now is the time for the Classical ideal to reaffirm its own identity, to reassert its own distinct qualities. Far from aping the minus-size standard (which creates so much misery among women worldwide), plus-size fashion should glory in the fact that it runs counter to this inhuman death aesthetic and celebrate the fact that it is a visual expression of the robust enjoyment of life.
This is the most important lesson of Civilisation.
The sumptuous beauty of Shannon Marie, still today the most gorgeous plus-size model of all time, a goddess whom Titian or Rubens would have clamoured to immortalize in their canvasses, if she had lived during the Renaissance or Baroque:
Re: The Lessons of Civilisation
And of course, Protestantism also created works of sumptuous magnificence, such as the Frauenkirche in Dresden (which has been mentioned here many times), or the mighty Berliner Dom, which was conceived as a kind of Protestant answer to St. Peter's. Protestantism was still part of the glory of the West. It wasn't until the 20th century and the blight of modernism that European culture was assaulted by an alien repudiation of the beauty tradition.
At any rate, the Civilisation video in the above post (which really is worth watching) and the ensuing commentary reminded me of an article on beauty that I read a while back. I didn't post it here at the time, because it has a religious aspect. But I think it's worth considering from a purely aesthetic perspective, irrespective of its religious component, just like the Counter-Reformation itself.
The title sets out the theme, which is to associate beauty with generous indulgence in food, and to associate the deprivation of beauty (i.e. modern minimalism) with the deprivation of food (i.e., diet-starvation).
The analogy works well. It points to the overall "aesthetics of guilt" that this site has talked about time and again. The modern insistence on exclusively depicting women in the media who look undernourished, and who have minimal beauty, is part of the same impulse that results in all modern buildings looking bare, bleak, flat and angular -- just like today's fashion models. Minimalism in female aesthetics is an aspect of minimalism's cultural dominance in general.
But who wants to live in this kind of dreary, deprived, dessicated world? Just as women's bodies crave food to blossom into the full, voluptuous proportions nature meant them to possess, so do we all desire beauty to feel imaginatively fulfilled.
It is time for the restoration of an opulent aesthetic in femininity, in fashion, and in the world that we create all around us.
Re: The Lessons of Civilisation
As 2011 draws to an end, this year's discussion threads will soon be closed. Before this happens, however, we though it worth coming back to this commentary on Kenneth Clark's landmark TV series, Civilisation.
We mentioned, in our original post, that Lord Clark's series provides a supplement for the television program The Romantic Spirit, covering all of the eras of Western culture which the Romanticism-specific series does not address. One could turn this premise around, of course, and state that The Romantic Spirit is a supplement to Civilisation, filling a lacuna in Clark's series, given that Clark was himself not a Romantic and that his coverage of the Romantic movement lacks the necessary brio.
Nevertheless, in at least one sense, Clark's treatment of Romanticism is spot on, and that is in his singling out of Ludwig van Beethoven and Lord Byron as "the two archetypal Romantic heroes." That he venerates these two figures speaks well of his scholarly insight, for Clark himself was anything but Byronic in temperament. Furthermore, the kind of Promethean Romanticism that both Byron and Beethoven represent was always more congenial to the continental Faustian disposition than to the more muted character of the English.
Lord Clark's introduction to Romanticism also effectively delineate its difference from its immediate aesthetic predecessor, Neoclassicism. Furthermore, Civilisation predates The Romantic Spirit by 13 years, so the latter program's memorable arch-Romantic visuals of rocky coastlines and pounding surf may well have been influenced by the similar, if less epic footage in Clark's series.
Here, then, for the benefit of those who have found this year's Romanticism-related discussions interesting, is a second excerpt from Civilisation, this one presenting Clark's commentary on the two greatest arch-Romantics, Beethoven and Lord Byron. Note in particular the host's substantial remarks on the Sublime, from 10:50 onwards.
- See also: The Romantic Spirit.
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