BY Dennis Abbott in Frieze | 06 JUN 01
Featured in
Issue 60

Nothing Like the Real Thing

Bemoaning the caricaturing of artists on TV

BY Dennis Abbott in Frieze | 06 JUN 01

As with certain paintings, there are some people on TV whose eyes seem to follow me around the room. At times like this I have to take a deep breath, press the least used button on the remote and remind myself of the young woman recently prosecuted for stalking Billie Piper and sending her death threats. The woman's defence was that the perky pop starlet gave her a 'sly look' while recording a TV show. Not surprisingly, the court found against her.

While I'm on the subject of eyes, has anyone else noticed that Johnny Vegas (Happiness) has the most sensitive, lovely eyes on television? Whereas Steve McFadden (Eastenders) has eyes that look like two sapphires rammed violently into a raw potato, Johnny's are like two tiny dark pebbles lovingly polished and pressed firmly into a suet pudding. Is this of any importance? I don't know. But thoughts like this occur all the time when Television Takes Over.

Reality and fiction get a bit blurred when you're glued to the telly night after night. And now that 'reality' has established itself as the dominant televisual subject, they're not just blurred but altogether indistinguishable. I know that I wasn't actually in the Big Brother house and I remind myself that Lawrence can't hear me swearing at the screen every time he makes an appearance, but when they start making programmes about the art world, that's it. I'm sure I'm not the only one squirming on the sofa, watching through slits in my fingers and ranting like a full-on Tourette's Syndrome sufferer. We've been subjected to quite a few 'meet the art world' shows lately. They invariably take the form of fly-on-the-wall documentaries and, bad as they are, you sort of know the score before watching: embarrassing footage of artists happily confirming the public's strongly held belief that we're a bunch of decadent, irresponsible, talentless halfwits. Usually I simply switch over, but this is no longer feasible when artists start appearing on mainstream shows as celebrities.

There I was on a Friday night, despondently consulting my TV guide to see what could possibly fill the chasm left after the third series of Spaced (more about this later) when, hurrah hurrah, 9 pm heralded the return of Have I Got News For You. So I switched on and beat me to death with a tent peg if it wasn't Our Trace sitting there. To be a successful guest on the show, you need to either be very well informed about current affairs, or funny enough not to be. Tracey Emin, like most artists, isn't famous for her passionate interest in politics, and I wouldn't have said she was in possession of the sharpest wit, so what the hell was she doing there? But come on, be good, give it a go - I was rooting for her, in fact. Then she tried to be funny, and oh dear ... I'm sure I saw tumbleweed rolling across the studio floor. Finally she turned on John Humphrys and the pair resumed their earlier slanging match on Radio Four. The only thing more depressing than artists making arses of themselves for the sake of a camera is the sight of intelligent, cultured media folk slagging off something they have no interest in or knowledge of. It was horrible television and I switched over.

While it can be difficult watching real artists on TV, Channel 4 recently provided us with a hellish alternative. Faking It was a reasonably entertaining series in which 'real' people from one profession were trained for a month as something entirely different and then went up against three other 'real' people 'really' from that profession and were judged by a team of 'real' experts. Confused? Depressed? Bear with me; they turned someone into ... an artist.

The show followed the transformation of Paul O'Hare, a painter and decorator from Liverpool. He arrived to meet his three trainers feeling very nervous as this was all alien to him, a situation not helped by the fact that his 'mentor' turned out to be Laura Godfrey Isaacs, artist, teacher and Vulcan. O'Hare really got into the swing of it though, as Isaacs put him through what seemed like an abridged first-year BA fine art course. To his credit, O'Hare enjoyed the challenge, and worked very hard. He found, like generations of art students before him, that making art can be cathartic, and he was soon churning out prints inspired by memories of a period of paralysis he'd suffered as a child and never come to terms with. That the prints were awful and featured the repeated motif of a small boy on crutches didn't matter. What did matter, and what made me part my fingers wider and watch more closely, was the 'London art world' he had infiltrated. Who are all those people? What is Studio Voltaire? One thing was certain: it's the art world Jim, but not as we know it.

There isn't room here to go into the endless inadequacies of this badly researched programme and its portrayal of the London art world. But here are a few of the more amusing examples. O'Hare was taken shopping to be kitted out as a convincingly 'cool' art scene character. His adviser bought him a 1960s maroon velveteen suit. And a duffle coat. Punk Rock! His gallery coach was Ivan Tennant of the 'highly respected' E1 Gallery. Did the gallery's fashionable location mean it was any good? Nope. Like Cork Street in its heyday, Hoxton now finds itself home to a few decent galleries surrounded by terrible ones hoping the address will rub off. Tennant also hosts the groovily named Eat Art, a monthly 'first Tuesday' power-brunch type affair for a 'select group of influential art insiders'. O'Hare watched on CCTV as they discussed his work. He didn't like the experience much, and neither did I.

This being 'reality' TV, everything was exaggerated to make it more interesting. O'Hare was taken to meet an artist in his studio: Franko B., the notorious 'body artist'. Franko's freaky appearance must have made the producer very happy. (Now that he has run out of space on his scalp, Franko plans to start tattooing the inside of his head.) By now the show had lost my interest. If the makers had hoped to hoodwink a few prominent art world people and expose art-making as a con, they failed completely; no one of any note was involved and the 'lippy scouser' turned out to be a nice, intelligent bloke who was excited to find a subject he wanted to pursue once the charade was over. Do I need to tell you about the 'test'? O'Hare was put up against two artists of little ability, and one that probably
couldn't persuade his own family of his talent. O'Hare managed to convince two of the three judges that he was a 'real' artist. I thought they might twig when he showed them a print and said 'there's a lot of serendipity in the background of this one', but no. One of the judges was Tim Marlow of Tate magazine, who tried to qualify his involvement by saying 'nothing we've seen here today is wonderful'. Too late, poor chap, too late.

Any artist (or painter and decorator) could tell you greasepaint and turps don't mix. If a script so much as hints at an element of creativity in a character, the actor will be fully goateed up, beret-ed down and angst-ridden before you can say Vincent Van Go. Which made the appeal of Brian in Spaced all the more special. While the programme was the finest, loveliest comedy on TV for a long time, it was the character of Brian, played by Mark Heap, who made me laugh most. A gloomy, neurotic painter who inhabits the basement of a shared house, Brian is every offensive 'artistic' stereotype rolled into one scrawny dishevelled loser. Brian can't paint unless he is unhappy. When he can't 'vocalize his torment' he plays a cassette of constant screaming and wailing called Voices of Despair. He shuns the outside world, yet has a girlfriend who is in the fashion industry. 'Are you a man, or a mouse?' demanded housemate Mike. 'Man' squeaked Brian. He has the grisliest, worst goatee ever. And he is very, very funny. Heap gave the character such a ridiculously overblown personality and warmth that any offence was inverted and thrown back at the constant media misrepresentation of art and artists. Perhaps a fictional artist like Brian is the only kind that can satisfy viewers and sate the persistent desire of television producers to ridicule contemporary art. Maybe we should learn to say 'no, thank you', when we trip over lighting cables at private views and have release forms shoved under our noses. And maybe, just maybe, I should turn off the television and go and do something more interesting instead ...