BY Sidney Smith in Frieze | 12 MAR 09
Featured in
Issue 121

Camera Obscura

What are the reasons for television’s uneasy relationship to art?

BY Sidney Smith in Frieze | 12 MAR 09

One evening in 1936 the artist John Piper arrived at a BBC studio in London’s Alexandra Palace to take part in an experiment. The studio had been filled with art works borrowed from the city’s galleries. Piper’s job was simple: to describe them to camera. It doesn’t sound that exciting, but at the time television was in its infancy – sports and variety were about the extent of it – and a new genre was about to be born: arts television.

Think about the questions that must have been asked before Piper was invited into that studio. Was there a role for art on television? Could the technology do it justice? (A more daunting question then than now.) How should the presenter talk about it? Should he assume his audience knows a little about art, or nothing at all? Did it even need a presenter? Couldn’t the art just be shown on its own with a little musical accompaniment – a slow pan over Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) to some tasteful tinkling by Erik Satie, for instance?

All these questions would have been on the minds of those responsible for the programme and partly explain the uncertainty of Piper’s performance. He stands awkwardly: an Old Master on one side, a Picasso still life on the other and a sculpture in front, talking directly to the camera. ‘This is a carving by the English sculptor Henry Moore’, he says, with the clipped, deadpan delivery of the age, uncertainly fingering the reclining figure before him. ‘He has a rapidly rising reputation amongst critics and connoisseurs.’ (Ah, for the days when only the opinions of ‘critics and connoisseurs’ mattered and cultural Marxism was just a wild campus dream!)

Gerry Schum, Fernsehgalerie (Television Gallery), 1969, Gerry Schum, in West Germany, produced programmes for artists such as Jan Dibbets and Joseph Beuys to show films made specifically for television. Courtesy: Ursula Wevers.

Arts television has been described as culture at its most exclusive meeting culture at its most populist. Over the decades a myriad of forms has evolved: late night discussion shows, topical cultural round-ups, lavish Sunday-night ‘landmark’ documentaries, dramatized biopics, live performances, even reality shows. For millions of people art is something viewed only through the prism of the television screen. Its influence over the rest of the arts ‘industry’ – publishing, curating, not to mention the creative process itself – cannot be underestimated.

Take the career of Moore, who from Piper’s début in 1936 onwards was a favourite subject of arts television and whose reputation rocketed throughout the following two decades. John Read (the son of the poet and critic Herbert Read), the great pioneer of British arts television in the 1950s, made six films about Moore alone. While he was a great artist, Moore was also one of the few whose work, with its soft, monochromatic tones and clear lines, didn’t look terrible on low-resolution black and white television screens. In fact, you have to wonder whether it’s mere coincidence that the British sculptural renaissance of the 1950s was also the great pioneering decade of British arts television, or whether the relationship was more symbiotic than is generally recognized. When colour television arrived in the 1960s, painting in all its Technicolor glory came alive and sculpture moved to second place on our screens.

Andy Warhol, of course, understood how television could help create the superstar artist long before most others did and cultivated it early in his career. A film shot for BBC’s Monitor in 1964, following Susan Sontag on a trip to the Factory, collapses into delightful incoherence because Warhol is far more interested in the television crew and their new 16mm Eclair camera than his own role as observed subject: ‘How come your camera doesn’t make any noise?’ ‘Can I really see the camera now?’ ‘It’s just terrific.’ ‘Oh, this is so glamorous.’ In the last decade of his life he dedicated ever more time to television with Andy Warhol’s TV for cable, Andy Warhol Fifteen Minutes on MTV and guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Love Boat. He preferred entertainment because it gets the largest audiences: arts television, as a niche genre, rather defeated the point of the medium. Warhol would have loved today’s endless celebrity reality shows, although one suspects he’d also be the weirdo voted out in the first round.

TV has no interest in whether an art work should be static or silent, because it is an all-singing, all-dancing medium. If art is to grace the screen, it must sing for its supper too.

So what is this ‘arts television’ which can shape reputations, shift public opinion, enlighten the uninitiated and irritate the informed? The most important thing to remember is that broadcasters rarely make arts television out of choice. Truly independent commercial stations won’t touch it, because arts programmes simply cannot get anything like the viewing figures of drama, entertainment or news. Piper was beckoned to Alexandra Palace in 1936 not because some giant brain at the BBC leapt up and cried, ‘I know what’ll keep people riveted to their sets: modern art!’ but because the station, in extending its service from radio to television, was obliged to honour its government charter ‘to inform, educate and entertain’. It remains the case today that arts television is only made when a station has, buried somewhere in its charter, a clause denoting a certain commitment to educational and cultural programming.

The amount of arts television a country produces is therefore proportionate to the degree of state interference in its broadcasting industry. Countries such as Britain, France and Germany, because they are nanny states (or at least were when television first evolved), have plenty. Free-market capitalist countries, such as the USA or Russia, or Third World countries have very little. The joke in the British television industry is that arts programming is the ‘fig leaf’ you cover your vulgar (but lucrative) programming with in order to get a franchise. Cynical broadcasters get around this by simply disguising arts television as something else: programmes on contemporary art, for example, are nearly always about celebrity or the ‘economics of the art world’ and rarely about art itself.

Arts television exists because the state wants it to, and this becomes an Original Sin of the medium. It means that no arts programme can avoid the fact that its content is essentially paternalistic. You might get a radical thinker who despises the arts as a bourgeois luxury onto a late night cultural discussion show, but such a platform for them to express their views would not be possible without the idea that the arts are good for you. It explains too why, despite presenters of both sexes, all ages and different races appearing in other television genres, the White Seasoned Male remains the favoured arts presenter. The WSM teaches and protects us, he can also intercede between content that is often subversive (as art and artists can be) and the vehicle: the arts programme in all its benign, self-improving glory. With Piper at the helm of the BBC’s flagship arts show that quirky Picasso still life became a tool for edification, never mind the Spanish anarchist who produced it.

Arts television is pre-programmed to genuflect before the altar of art. And this is only intensified by the means of production, because the arts programme is expensive to make. Why spend a large amount of money on a documentary about an artist, only to cast doubt on his or her credibility? In the eyes of the reluctant television corporation hyperbole alone vindicates the expenditure. How often is a particular artist proclaimed ‘the greatest genius of his age’? How often did he ‘spark a revolution that would change the world for ever’ – even if, to our eyes, he just painted some nice portraits of the rich? The tone of arts television is rarely that of the detached critical observer: more like the wide-eyed evangelical who tries to stop you in the street with a greasy leaflet promising salvation.

Before an arts programme even goes into production there is therefore a sort of critical gravitational pull already being exerted. The late night discussion and topical magazine show are partly liberated by spontaneity and fast turnaround, but the longer-format feature – the anchor of arts television – reveals the traits of the medium. The feature may be a one-off film or part of a series; it may be a visual essay by a noted commentator; it may depend on talking heads or dramatic reconstructions. Whichever it is, the arts feature forces its subject to adjust to its demands, to fall into line and do its duty.

It starts with the story. Television, like all journalistic media, must have one. The arts programme-maker is looking to render his subject palatable to the largest possible audience. So whether it is a tour through the sights of Renaissance Italy, a spirited romp through the bohemian bonhomie of Impressionist Paris or a respectful, brow-furrowed appreciation of the solitary Modernist, the arts programme-maker is looking for the universal story that transcends confusing ‘-isms’ and ideological debate: he is looking for a hero or band of brothers. In doing so, he is not only satisfying a narrative need but also giving a respectful nod to the paternalistic origins of arts television: if art is good for you, then the production of art is heroic; and if art is heroic, then so is the artist, whatever his faults as a human being.

Susan Sontag, Monitor, 1964, Sontag's trip to Andy Warhol's Factory collapsed into delightful incoherence because Warhol was more interested in the film crew and their new camera than in his own role as observed subject. 

How often have you heard something like this: ‘For years the art world had been dominated by a group of artists known as A [artistic movement] because of their distinctive way of working. But by the B [decade] many young artists were beginning to feel held back. One young artist had an idea on how to change things. His name was C [artist’s name]. He turned his back on what he saw as being an old-fashioned, restrictive way of working and set out to create a work of art that would herald a new age. The result was D [art work].’

Any number of A-B-C-D name patterns can fill in the gaps. For instance: a) The Mannerists; b) 1590s; c) Caravaggio; d) The Calling of St Matthew. Or: a) The Impressionists; b) 1900s; c) Picasso; d) Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Or: a) The Abstract Expressionists; b) Late 1950s; c) Andy Warhol; d) Campbell Soup Cans. Subject and art are secondary to the narrative: they are merely tools in a story of heroic transformation.

Reductive narrative formulas have the advantage of making the arts accessible to the uninitiated, but they do so at some cost, which explains the disgust the programme-maker provokes within the art world. We are back in the 19th century: art history is reduced, in the fashion of Thomas Carlyle, to a long line of ‘great men’. These great men (rarely women) are raised above their contemporaries, who may in fact have shaped and equalled the great man: contemporaries we are encouraged to forget. The great artist is cast as problem-solver and revolutionary, both of which lead to further assumptions about what art is and should be. This in turn encourages a disparaging attitude to contemporary art, because, rather than seeing it as a bustle of collective activity out of which great work can emerge as a process, the spectator is led to ask ‘Where is the Picasso of today?’ And because there is no solitary genius towering head and shoulders above the rest, he dismisses the whole lot.

Arts programmes use a wide technical vocabulary. John Berger’s groundbreaking series Ways of Seeing (1972) deconstructed the way television manipulates our understanding of art, through the choice of music and the way the camera pans over an image. Shocking stuff at the time, but nothing compared to the post-MTV era. The camera doesn’t just pan and track any more, but using 3-D technology it can also swoop inside a picture. And where music was once used to accent a work of art or give space for reflection, it is now an uninterrupted presence. Not just mood music, but narrative music, pilfered from Hollywood soundtracks, designed to determine every response and reaction, to ensure we are taken on not an aesthetic or intellectual journey but a dramatic one. Television has no interest in whether a work of art is supposed to be static, silent or detached, because it is an all-singing, all-dancing medium: art, if it is to grace the screen, must sing for its supper too.

In the 1960s and ’70s the heroic moralism of arts television was challenged by a generation of programme-makers influenced by neo-Marxist thinkers and media theorists such as Raymond Williams and Marshall McLuhan. It was an era of renewed idealism about what television could achieve. In many cases the interceding figure of the presenter was removed to allow a direct relationship between the viewer and the art. Gerry Schum, in West Germany, produced two programmes (Land Art (1969) and Identifications (1970)) under the umbrella title Fernsehgalerie (Television Gallery) for artists such as Richard Long and Joseph Beuys to show films made specifically for television. In the USA the launch of PBS in the early ’70s saw a few years of radical experimentation, including Nam June Paik’s stint as artist-in-residence at Boston’s Public Broadcasting Laboratory. Programme-makers attempted to demystify art and cast the artist not as a divine hero but as a product of his time. The BBC might host art historian Kenneth Clark, proudly declaiming his conviction in the ‘God-given genius of certain individuals’ in his series Civilization (1969), but it also welcomed the intensely paranoiac John Berger lambasting the ‘false religiosity’ surrounding the arts in Ways of Seeing or Robert Hughes’ witty and opinionated take on Modernism, The Shock of the New (1980). Most of all, there was a belief that the arts programme could be art in itself, resulting in some of the most indulgent, as well as memorable, moments in broadcasting history: films that are to television what the folly is to architecture. Take, for instance, a BBC film from 1965 about the death of a talented young Scottish artist called Alasdair Gray. The film was a hoax made by the artist himself, a good 16 years before the publication of his novel Lanark made him famous. Or avant-garde writer B.S. Johnson’s film Fat Man on a Beach (1973) for HTV Wales, in which Johnson reads poetry, cracks jokes, tells anecdotes and does anything to distract us from the fact we are watching an hour’s worth of, well, a fat man on a beach.

John Piper, The Autumn Galleries, 1936, The studio in London's Alexandra Palace, was filled with art works borrowed from the city's galleries, and Piper's job was simple: to describe them to camera.

Over the last 15 years arts television has reverted to its conservative form. This is perhaps a consequence of the general decline in radical politics during the 1980s, but more importantly because of the growth of TV-on-demand culture brought about by cable, satellite and digital. It was once thought that an increased range of channels would liberate arts television, but what wasn’t taken into account was how dependent arts programming was on a captive audience: an audience that would rather be watching something else but, with only football or the news to choose from, might as well watch a film about two oddballs called Gilbert and George. Today TV-on-demand means even the keenest arts aficionado will struggle to sit through that film knowing that somewhere else in the digital ether a re-run of The Simpsons is on.

Recent years have seen a generation of filibustering genres – arts docudrama, arts travelogue – which hide art behind the conventions of drama or the magic of a passing landscape in order for arts television to keep its audience. The modern programme-maker is taught the importance of ‘The Tease’ (the opening 90 seconds of a programme, during which the audience is lost or won), ‘Three-Act Structure’ (with its predictable twists and resolutions) and ‘Multiple Entry’ (constant round-ups, so a browsing viewer can turn on at any point and be drawn in). This emphasis on professionalism comes at the expense of authorship: the director is not a creative but a facilitator whose job is simply to apply the formulae by which a programme constructs itself. For a director to even talk about ‘his’ or ‘her’ film has become a faux pas that will set alarm bells ringing for the television executive. The pursuit of viewing figures has seen a return to paternalism, with the avuncular WSM presenter as active as ever. The self-conscious anti-élitism that Britain’s Channel 4 pushed so heavily in the late 1980s (the programme names say it all: Without Walls, J’Accuse, Art is Dead) and 1990s (with Matthew Collings’ This is Modern Art) has declined because it assumed the existence of a large, rather than niche, audience that cared enough about art to join in a dialogue about what it is: an audience that at the moment either doesn’t exist or hasn’t been tapped into.

None of this is necessarily bad: television, like any other cultural medium, goes through trends and movements. It all evens out in the end. Arts television is the most vulgar outlet of the arts, with all the pitfalls that implies, but it still retains three great redeeming qualities: 1) it reaches a far greater audience than any other arts medium; 2) the advancement of technology means television can ‘show and tell’ better than any other medium, however glib the critical commentary might be; 3) the need to communicate beyond a specialized audience means the programme-maker must cut the crap. As Robert Hughes once said: television encourages ‘plain speech: a rare commodity in the art world’.

Sidney Smith is an arts programme-maker.