How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith by Mary Beard review: compelling subset of BBC’s ‘Civilisations’
Mary Beard explores depictions of humans and gods in an erudite yet light-touch way
Mary Beard: despite some structural limitations, her book is utterly compelling, with fascinating conceptualisation and reach. Photograph: Penny Daniel
Civilisations: How Do We Look; The Eye of Faith
This beautifully produced and elegantly written work is classicist Mary Beard’s contribution to a larger project entitled Civilisations, a BBC TV series that also features both Simon Schama and David Olusoga. This new series (currently being broadcast on BBC2), is a reworking of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, originally broadcast in 1969, and whose cultural impact resonated for some time.
The pluralising of the title Civilisations captures one of the significant points of difference from the original series, and shapes the interpretation of the field of concern. This new series, although it doesn’t seek to remake the Clark series, does coalesce around a similar set of questions and themes, albeit with significantly different emphases.
Beard explains that she too is interested in Clark’s original question “What is civilisation?” but is more concerned with the discontents and debates around the concept, as well as in the manner in which its fragility is defended in different contexts and in the midst of multiple contestations. She is also arguably more attuned to the politics of representation than was Clark, although this is to be expected given how debates about culture, politics and representation have evolved in the intervening decades.
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How Do We Look:/The Eye of Faith is the book that accompanies the two episodes of the series that are written and presented by Beard, one episode focuses on how humanity represented the human body (How Do We Look) and the other focuses on how human beings depicted God or gods, (The Eye of Faith). The book comprises two sections reflecting the two TV episodes. She explains that these two themes are among the most intriguing and contested themes in human artistic culture, and she intimates in various places that these two themes intersect in interesting ways.
However, although occasionally referenced, the intersections are not explored to any degree in this volume. Rather these two themes are treated separately in the two distinct sections of the book, and while one can certainly agree with her contention that these questions about how humanity and divinity/divinities are depicted, viewed and seen are among the most interesting themes in cultural history, the lack of a connecting narrative, means the reader is unclear as to whether to read the work as one book or two.
The fact that the book is not anchored within the overall framing of the series from which it originates also magnifies the awkwardness of the structure.
These structural limitations apart, the work itself is utterly compelling. Each section is fascinating in its conceptualisation and reach, and in the erudition that it displays, albeit with Beard’s characteristic light touch.
In part one, Beard explores the long history of depictions of the human body, from the totemic to the representational. She moves from the enigmatic and colossal heads made by the Olmec of Mexico 3,000 years ago, to the more familiar terrain of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, pondering the nature of the societies that gave rise to these representations and especially to what the people of the time and since made of these depictions.
She is interested in the makers of these artefacts to a degree, but is far more interested in the diverse interpretations of these representations in different times and places. The ease with which she moves through these disparate contexts, all the while asking questions about the reception and significance of the images is impressive.
The artefacts and images are centre-stage, and their connections to political and cultural developments are often probed, especially when she is dealing with the familiar territory of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and the multiple European contexts of their reception.
The Eye of Faith takes on an equally vast canvas as it explores the many ways in which religion and art intersect. Beard discusses how humans depicted their deity or deities in many of the religious traditions of the world (although she does not examine what are often called indigenous religions), and probes some of the many controversies that have surrounded the appropriateness of attempting to convey something about the deity through human images and artefacts.
She recalls the words attributed to Xenophanes, that “if horses or oxen or lions had hands or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen” to remind readers that the anthropomorphism of much religious imagery has long been a source of debate.
Of course, religious believers didn’t simply want to represent aspects of the deity, but also often sought to “give glory to God” through the majesty and beauty of the art they created. These were also often political acts, both in terms of the contexts of their composition and of their reception. Throughout this engaging section, Beard captures the complexities entailed in the question of what it is to look religiously, and correctly, in my view, does not attempt an answer.
There is no doubt that the task attempted here is substantially different to that attempted by Clark 50 years ago. Authors and readers are far more conscious of the political acts entailed in making, viewing and interpreting art, and particularly in this domain, of the hazards of the orientalist, patriarchal and colonialist gaze. Beard attempts to avoid these pitfalls, primarily by refusing to construct an overarching evaluative narrative, as well as through her focus on the disruptions and debates associated with questions of representation.
Yet the approach that Beard adopts is not without its problems. In highlighting common patterns and themes, and moving unencumbered between centuries (even millennia), continents and world views, Beard walks a fine line and risks another form of cultural colonisation. Clearly this is not her intention and in her “Afterword” she reflects briefly on these and related problems associated with the remit and approach of her work.
The project on which she embarks in this book is as ambivalent as it is ambitious, and Beard is an exceptional and sympathetic guide.