in Frieze | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

Blind Date

Last season art was all over British TV. Has there been a change in television's attitude towards contemporary art?

in Frieze | 03 MAR 98

Why is it that every time you turn on British TV, there's an artist looking back at you? It used to be that TV either ignored or attacked contemporary art. Sometimes 'The Late Show' took it seriously, but it was axed, leaving only the yearly embarrassment of Channel 4's Turner Prize coverage. But then... overload. In recent months we've had The South Bank Show, Turner Prize discussions, and whole series of 'TV Sculpture', 'Expanding Pictures' and 'Date with an Artist'.

What's interesting is the change in attitude. 'Date with an Artist' in particular had the feel, not of education, but docudrama. Art on TV used to be an 'educate the masses' kind of thing: 'worthy' but dull. Condescending, in fact - the sort of thing you felt guilty about not wanting to watch. To a certain breed of person, bringing art to the people always seems like a socially responsible activity. But nobody wants to watch what they don't want to watch, and it betrays an astonishing arrogance to claim that they should. This point was made by Jake Chapman in an episode of 'Date with an Artist'. He was the only artist to express doubts about putting art on TV (even quipping 'This is conceptual art really, we shouldn't have to make this on telly'). 'Art is marginal', he said, 'it doesn't really get around to the general public. And I don't really think it deserves to. I don't think of art as some kind of surrogate religion that can edify the masses into greater appreciation of life.'

So why is there so much art on TV now? Well, it has to be accepted that art is not what it used to be: much work being produced here at the moment tends to be entertaining if nothing else. Many artists are producing video works as part of their oeuvre anyway, and certainly the outstanding work of the 'Expanding Pictures' series (which commissioned video pieces from artists) was Gillian Wearing's 2 Into 1 (all works 1997). Assured rather than 'experimental', her video was neither boring nor alienating.

'TV Sculpture' also commissioned new works, and was particularly interesting since it gave the artists a chance to say a little about what TV meant to them. Richard Hamilton, the oldest of the group, appreciated the TV's hearth-like function, suggesting that 'it is best to avoid content on television', something many of the world's channels seem to have managed with ease. Consequently his piece was intended to play in the background, an undulating source of light, the box becoming an object rather than a window or communication medium. Interestingly, the other artist to attempt this was the second oldest of the group, Anish Kapoor, whose hypnotic, slowly changing colour field showed us hues far brighter than everyday programming usually allows.

Mona Hatoum was the only real disappointment, presenting a simple reworking of documentation from an early performance. As the artist writhes naked, smearing either shit or shit-substitute across the clear plastic tent that encloses her, we are meant to feel that she is trapped within the TV. But we don't. The scale is wrong, not only for the size of the figure on screen, but for the piece altogether. It is simply not a small-screen work, and is somehow belittled when shown in this way.

Unlike Hamilton and Kapoor, though, Hatoum produced a piece that, if not actually narrative, contained a meaningful 'activity' as opposed to an 'experience'. The other artists in the series - Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers - also produced work to be understood in this way. The Chapmans even tried to deal with a televisual issue: censorship. Their work, A Black and White Menstrual Show, consisted almost entirely of a blank screen. Occasionally, with a strobe effect, an indistinct image flashes on screen and disappears again. Russell Haswell's electronic feedback of the Japanese Noise variety provides the soundtrack. The image, we guess, is of the Chapmans' sculptures, since we can just about make out little girls' mutated faces, but this fails to shock since in the preamble to the artwork the viewer had already been shown their 'fuckface' sculptures. The point of the piece, though, was really to prove that censorship is self-defeating; by denying a full view of the image the viewer quickly imagined the details themselves. Our imaginations, of course, are more horrific than any image. To censor an image is to increase its power.

Damien Hirst, as you might have guessed, made the most powerful piece. Television is well-suited to Hirst. The work, no God, like all those in the series, was quite simple. We see an image of the inside of a television set (imagine the box with the tube removed). Flies buzz around inside the empty shell. Periodically they were zapped by a blue electric spark emanating from the centre of the case. They smoke and drop. It is moderately entertaining, but the real genius is in the music. The piece opens with up-tempo classical music and moves on to the fractured sounds of channel-hopping, before finishing with a funky dance track. The timing is excellent, with just the right balance between stupidity, seriousness and self-mockery; and crucially, you do not need to be a gallery-goer to appreciate it. The film ends with a disclaimer: 'no flies were killed in the making of this film.'

Perhaps the most successful series was 'Date with an Artist', precisely because of its mainstream intentions. Broadcast at an accessible hour, these programmes allowed artists to choose a non-artworld person for whom they would like to make a work. Each episode showed the artist meeting their 'date' and discussing intentions, observed the production of the work, and finally witnessed the recipient's reaction when the piece was installed in their home. What was great about these programmes was that, although a few of the 'dates' expressed initial doubts about contemporary art, they all seemed to be won over in the end, pleasantly surprised by the intelligence and amicability of the artists. By removing responsibility for the success of the show from the artwork, and placing it onto the human drama of the scenario, appreciation for the artists and their works seemed to slip in almost unnoticed, with both the artists and their 'dates' gaining from the experience.

One thing these programmes did show, though, was that despite the hype, artists are not the new popstars. Although some are minor celebrities in their own right, all the artists appeared awkward and shy in front of the camera. This hierarchy in our culture was graphically illustrated by Jake and Dinos Chapman, who repeatedly conceded artistic ground to their chosen date, Justine Frischmann of Elastica. The conversation, involving Jake, Dinos and Justine, went like this.

The Chapmans propose a work for Justine...

JC: Who could refuse that?

JF: I don't find it aesthetically very pleasing.

JC: Okay.

DC: So you don't want this?

JC: Right, chuck it out then.

DC: Is there something else you'd like?

JC: So you think it's rubbish?

JF: (half-jokingly) Yes, I think it's crap.

JC: We should move on then.

Justine finds a work that she likes...

DC: So you want one of those ones then?

JF: Yes, I'd absolutely love one of those, actually.

DC: Okay.

The Chapmans unveil the new work installed in Justine's house...

JF: Can I have it without the wig? Is that alright? Is that allowed?

DC: No.

JF: I've got to have the wig on?

DC: Yes.

JC: On and off.

JF: On and off?

JC: On when we're here, off when we're off.

When Frischmann's boyfriend, Damon Albarn, sees the piece he suggests that he'd prefer to see it lying on its face instead of standing upright. Jake immediately lies it down.

The way that the Chapmans - who are hardly small-fry in the art world - pander to Justine's every whim told you all you needed to know about art's position in the hierarchy of cultural activities. Justine, for her part, could only manage to say of the whole experience that 'it's just been really good to see that they're having fun with it'; it's hard to imagine anything more condescending. While it seems that art is no longer as derided as it was, and has become more visible, it would be misguided to suggest it may be moving up in the cultural hierarchy. Contemporary British art is not the new anything, it seems, except art.