What Is Civilization?

In 1969, the late Sir Kenneth Clark hosted a series of television programs for the BBC entitled "Civilisation." Clark sought to evaluate a nation’s civilization by an exploration of what he called "the book of their art," as opposed to their words and deeds. Sir Kenneth maintained that the arts — architecture, sculpture, painting, music, literature — portray the state of civilization of a nation at a particular point in time.

At the beginning of the series, Clark asked; "What is u2018civilisation?’ I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms — yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it." As an illustration, Sir Kenneth contrasted the Apollo of the Belvedere with an African mask.

In assessing these two works of art, Clark stated: "I fancy that most people, nowadays, would find it, (the African mask) more moving than the head of the Apollo of the Belvedere. Yet for four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation than the mask."

Because he compiled the series in 1969, Sir Kenneth was able to use the pre-multiculturalism meaning of "civilization" — a meaning that allowed scholars "to distinguish that which is life-promoting from that which is life-negating," and to differentiate between degrees of civilization and rank some as superior to others. Since then, that definition of civilization has been rejected by academia. The contemporary belief, advocated by the National Education Association, is that no culture should be considered better than any other. This "equality of cultural achievements" is currently taught in public schools and at most universities.

But in Sir Kenneth’s generation, distinctions between cultures were still permitted. And a higher state of civilization was deemed preferable to a lower one. Hence, efforts to insure its continued existence were encouraged. Regarding the survival of a civilization, Clark warned: "However complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed." And this brings me to my question: Has the civilization (I hold to Clark’s definition) of the United States been destroyed? Or maybe I should ask: Can it be salvaged?

This kind of question may be answered by contrasting the arts of our past with the arts of our present. By doing so, we can assess the degree of our "state of civilization." To avoid a lengthy discourse, I will simply contrast popular music because our art is expressed primarily by our popular culture.

In his discussion of opera in the Civilisation series, Sir Kenneth observes: "What is too silly to be said, may be sung." And songs are like that: an uncontrollable burst of spontaneous emotion. Some time ago, the early 1960s I believe, song writers and others in the music industry decided to choose the "best song ever written." The period under consideration was from 1900 to 1950.

First they chose the "most natural" song, i.e., the song that best depicted the impulsive emotional urge to burst into song that comes from overwhelming feelings of contentment or remorse; in this case contentment. The song chosen by the industry for this category was from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma." A young cowboy, while riding to the home of the girl of his dreams, is overcome with such feelings of joy that he begins to sing spontaneously: "Oh, what a beautiful morning."

For the high honor of best song ever written, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s "All the Things You Are" was selected. This song, composed in 1939, has become a "standard" over the years, recorded by almost every vocalist including Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and even the young Michael Jackson. There is even a version, a very satisfying one, recorded in 1999 by Connie Evingson; six decades after this great song’s composition.

The lyrics to this classic are:

"You are the promised kiss of springtime That makes the lonely winter seem long. You are the breathless hush of evening That trembles on the brink of a lovely song. You are the angel glow that lights a star, The dearest things I know are what you are. Some day my happy arms will hold you, And some day I’ll know that moment divine, When all the things you are, are mine!"

This lovely song, its lush lyrics and music, makes an insightful statement not only about the culture of the time, but also the values held during its vogue. Very simply, the song is about romantic love expressed poetically, with civility and decorum.

Picking a contemporary song for a contrast was not a problem even though my knowledge of today’s "music" is inadequate (by choice). Options were largely limited to Rock, Rap or Hip Hop. An Internet search for the best songs of 2003 produced listings of songs voted most popular by the public, as well as those in the music industry. After conferring with some folks, much younger than I, I was persuaded to eliminate Rock and select either Rap or Hip Hop because these two were more "representative" of contemporary culture.

Here is a sample of the lyrics of one of the "hits" from 2003; a song called "In Da Club" by 50 Cent.

"Go, go, go, go Go, go, go shorty It’s your birthday We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday We gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s yo birthday ‘Cause you know we don’t give a f–k It’s not your birthday! You can find me in the club, bottle full of Bud Mama, I got that X, if you into takin’ drugs I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love So come give me a hug if you into getting rubbed."

To gauge the state of our civilization, we can contrast this song by 50 Cent with "All the Things You Are." This simple comparison should cause us deep concern. It reflects much more than a drastic decline in our culture. It also demonstrates a radical deterioration of our principles; especially our morals.

Academia side-steps this corrosion of our civilization by redefining terminology. According to their multicultural interpretation, our civilization is neither higher nor lower but simply different. This is consistent with their basic premise: all cultures are equal. The public schools are imparting this view to their students. And, in my conversations with younger people, I have noticed that many are reluctant to make value judgments. To them, all forms of cultural expression have equal merit, including religions.