Civilisations: Episode 8 – The Cult of Progress

Civilisations Episode 8
Picture Shows: David Olusoga with Gaugin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image Credit: BBC/Nutopia.

In his second episode David Olusoga looks at the conflict that came about when western civilisation tried to impose its values on what it considered to be “primitive cultures”.

Beginning with the industrial revolution, we had artists trying to capture scientific developments, before empires expanding resulted in art movements like orientalism, which had little to do with depicting other cultures as they really were.

While J. M. W. Turner depicted industrial Britain, artists working in the USA took different approaches: Thomas Cole painted the raw nature of the land, and his most famous five-piece work “The Course of Empire” show a civilisation rise and fall; while George Catlin painted the Native Americans, but was not exactly a supporter of their rights. This stands in contrast to Czech artist Gottfried Lindauer who worked closely with the Maori of New Zealand.

Later we get to the impressionists, some of whom depicted the grim realities of city life like Degas, while others like Gauguin aspired to escape it. Later Picasso was inspired by African art to make some of his greatest works, before the First World War showed how uncivilised western culture could be, as depicted in the art of German artist Otto Dix.

Olusoga clearly tries to demonstrate how we in the west too often overlook art from other cultures. Throughout the episode, as well as dealing with western art, he also repeatedly turns back to the original cultures and shows their native art, from Native American pictures of animal hide depicting battles with the colonising west, to Maori tattoos. This is something that I personally feel a bit of a connection to in my work as a critic of Japanese animation and comics. When it comes to western coverage of this art, especially in the UK, it is often of sexualised content, and often seen through the British guise that cartoons are only for children, and anything that isn’t is somehow wrong.

Ultimately, the programme ends by reminding us that we in the west are far from perfect, and that while the industrial revolution had many benefits, it also had many downsides, from poor urban planning and caused the poor to suffer in slums, to mechanised warfare. Sometime, civilisation can be bleak.

Civilisations is on BBC Two on Thursdays at 21.00 and the entire series is on BBC iPlayer.