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The Cult of Progress (2018)The Cult of Progress (2018)

In April of 2018 PBS, in partnership with the BBC, premiered a new, nine-part series called "Civilizations," the theme of which is to "examine the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity itself." The one-hour episodes include "What is Art Good For?" that I reviewed earlier for JWJ. Other episodes consider "Paradise on Earth" (depictions of nature), "God and Art" and "How Do We Look?" (the human body in art). "The Cult of Progress" begins with the familiar characterization of the Enlightenment about its unbridled optimism regarding the power of human reason, freedom, and science to create a better world, in opposition to the medieval inheritance of dogma, superstition, and ecclesial authority. Thus its "unshakable belief in progress" and science as the new religion. Today we know at least a little bit better, that those Enlightenment ideals were exported to the non-white "barbarian" lands with a violence and missionary zeal all its own, with sometimes tragic consequences for those non-Christian and traditional cultures. Later still, the Enlightenment project would devour its own self with industrialization, modernity, cultural decadence, and the violence of mechanized warfare in World War I (when this episode ends). And so the narrator David Olusoga shows how artists and photographers reflected and challenged this "cult of progress." The episode concludes with a consideration of Picasso's haunting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) with the accusatory eyes in the contorted and deconstructed bodies of the prostitutes staring out at the viewer of the painting. All nine episodes of "Civilizations" are available at the PBS website.

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