Saturday, 30 October 2010

Art on TV

Television is wonderful for visual art in one way, in that it can get closer than the viewer can, and less good in another way, in that television is hyperactive, unable to sit still or think unless it can show thought in action.

It is natural that television should prefer narrative to analysis because it is, after all, a medium whose essence is movement. So presenters are usually chosen for their attractiveness and ability to gesticulate. Mobility and personality dominate to an almost neurotic level. We must have movement or they'll go to sleep. Television isn't just the radio with a picture stuck to it.

But there is another way, which is to treat television as a steady gazing eye; an eye that extracts the maximum information from a relatively stable stimulus. Art programmes can be like that. They needn't swoop and dive are rocket this way or that. They needn't flash from colour to black and white and back again. The objects they contemplate are intended for, and invite, the steady gaze. The eye moves, of course, but generally to examine a detail. Or it moves out to take in the whole. Occasionally the eye may turn inward, as in act of memory, conjuring some other comparable subject. In the meantime the ear tunes in to the words of texts associated with the subject. But however, whenever, this happens, that aural attention is governed by the level of movement in the object. The camera is at the service of the object rather than the other way about. Television can become art, rather than art become television.

Matthew Collings's set of three programmes on artists of the Renaissance - Raphael, Hieronymus Bosch and Piero della Francesca served art well in terms of pace, gaze and idea. It was an odd choice of artists in some respects because while there is a relatively clear link between Piero and Raphael, there is very little between either and Bosch. Piero predates Raphael so having Raphael as the first programme complicated matters still further.

Nevertheless all three programmes were good, the one on Raphael being perhaps the best. That is partly because Raphael is the least fashionable of the three so an intelligent defence was in itself arresting. All three programmes, refreshingly, concentrated on the formal aspects of the work rather than on sub-semiotic readings through which one or other interesting text quickly supplants the painting as a material object. (An analysis like 'The way this figure holds her hands echoes an old alchemical sign that had been the subject of a fierce debate between...' is interesting but in the meantime we have stopped looking at the painting, which has become merely a means of thinking about something else). The programmes also avoided the trap of treating the history of painting as a myth about the heroic misunderstood forces of progress battling against the tired forces of convention and conformism.

Two traps avoided. Good start. More later.


James said...

Talking of art on tv, I'm still in awe after Nani's goal against Spurs. Many players would have gone down at that point, looking for a penalty, but he found his feet, sold that outrageous, astonishing dummy to poor Gomez, before passing the ball calmly into the net. Sublime. He reminds me of Finney when he's in that sort of mood.

There's a whole team of excellent fine arts presenters these days, and I wish they'd combine their talents into an enduring modern tv survey of the arts, Civilization-style but with a wider remit than that given Kenneth Clark (and without his - amusing and understandable, admittedly - eyepopping every time he has to venture onto the subject of Germans). A televised version of Martin Kemp's Oxford History of Western Art plus Africa, Asia, Australia and pre-Columbine Americas, plus literature and music. Too long, too expensive no doubt. But imagine dropping a set of the DVDs into every school, or creating an educational website to match it - with sessions spent talking to working artists and writers, so the viewer can back off from the academia a little bit and just smell the paint.

Mark Granier said...


Light loves to fall on flesh of any sort.
The cruciform, barrel-wide carcass of the ox

(soiled by blood and shadow, gaping open
for the pallid ochres, glutinous bags of fat)

was ample reason for the time enrolled
to flesh its afterlife and give it weight.

Hung in the Louvre today, it still holds fresh
though 'the smell of colour' might unsettle you.

George S said...

Back late from London last night so just picking up the comments. Yes, that is the issue, Mark. Fine poem. I thought Tim Marlow did some good programmes, James, and there have been other good ones. It's not a bad time for art on TV.