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Kenneth Clark and the Danger of Heroic Materialism

September 27, 2010


Kenneth Clark and the Danger of Heroic Materialism

By Rev. Robert Barron

Lord Kenneth Clark is one of my intellectual heroes. Clark, who died in 1983, was for many years the director of the National Gallery in London and was generally recognized as one of the most insightful and influential art critics of the twentieth century. He burst into the popular consciousness in 1969 when his television program “Civilisation: A Personal View” became an unexpected international sensation. I watched this ten part series (and devoured the accompanying book) when I was a teen-ager, and Clark’s perspectives massively shaped my own thinking about history, aesthetics, and philosophy. When, a few years ago, I embarked on the production of a ten part documentary about Catholicism, emphasizing both the truth and the artistic beauty of the church, Kenneth Clark was my model and inspiration.

Just a few days ago, in the immediate wake of our last filming trip, I watched the last few episodes of “Civilisation,” hoping to see if what we are producing is anywhere near Clark’s standard of excellence. What particularly struck me was the final espisode and Clark’s rather bleak and prophetic summation to the entire series. The segment is entitled “Heroic Materialism” and it has to do with western culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. Lord Clark indicated a number of figures in both England and America who helped to produce the world that we know today, a civilization marked by industrialization, mechanization, the emergence of mega-cities, and the triumph of practical reason and science. There is no question but that this type of culture has given rise to a more convenient and easeful life: it would be hard for most of us even to imagine a world without electricity, automobiles, airplanes, and computers, and few of us would deny that these inventions have been, on the whole, a boon for the human race.

However, Clark points out that this contemporary culture is also marked by an undeniable soullessness and superficiality, evident perhaps most obviously, in the ugliness, chaos and confusion of our great metropolises. All of its virtues notwithstanding, Manhattan is a long way indeed from the spiritually ordered harmony of, say, Renaissance Florence or Medieval Chartres, or even 19th century Paris. If our modern cities have an organizing elan it would be material gain, money-making, and this simply does not produce an aesthetically and morally pleasing way of life. As I’ve pointed out before, following the suggestion of Christopher Dawson and Joseph Campell, the dominant buildings of contemporary cities are not religious or political edifices, but rather monuments to economic power: The Empire State Building, the John Hancock Center, the Aon Building, the Chrysler Building, etc. Even the most cursory glance at the skylines of our major cities reveals, as vividly as possible, what we consider of highest value.

But, concludes Clark, heroic materialism—however impressive and practically beneficial it might be—is never enough to satisfy the deepest longing of the human heart and therefore never a sufficient organizing ideal for a human society. The Marxist narrative, he says, has been exposed as a fraud (pretty prophetic thing to say in 1969), but what we’re left with as an alternative is the heroic materialism of western capitalism and, he insists, “that is not enough.” This is not the too-easy moral equivalence approach that has seduced many in recent decades (both sides—Communism and Capitalism—are equally wrong), but rather a striking anticipation of a central theme in the writings of Pope John Paul II. There was no more focussed and energetic opponent of Communism and no more enthusiastic advocate of human rights-based democratic polity than John Paul II. Nevertheless, John Paul consistently criticized what he termed the “practical atheism” of the West, which is to say, its tendency to make material and scientific progress the ultimate values.

Throughout the “Civilisation” series, Kenneth Clark placed a stress on the role that Christian spirituality and theology played in the development of European culture. Neither Chartres nor Michelangelo, nor St. Francis, nor Dante, nor Shakespeare, nor T.S. Eliot, nor universities, nor monasteries, nor hospitals would be thinkable apart from Christianity. What he was bemoaning, in the final episode, was the fading away of the Christian story evident in the triumph of heroic materialism. Though many Christians remain in the West, he fears (and I would share this trepidation) that the Christian narrative has been occluded by a more powerful narrative, the story of material progress.

I believe that what is needed today is a compelling re-telling of the Christian story. There is, in fact, no narrative more beautiful, more powerful, more fascinating than that which the Bible in its entirety presents: the Creator of the universe, out of love, has sent his only Son so that fallen human beings might be elevated to share the very life of God. That is a story which will sing to contemporary people just as surely as it sang to men and women of past ages. That is a story which will challenge the supremacy of heroic materialism or any other secularist ideology. That is a story which will create the culture anew. We just have to muster the courage, the intelligence, and the imagination necessary to tell it again.