Although it was published just over a fortnight ago I don’t want to let pass without comment a slightly thoughtless Sunday Times article about John Berger and arts television by Waldemar Januszczak. In ‘A murky way of seeing’ (free registration required) the predictably contrarian critic took issue with the idea that Ways of Seeing (1972) made by Berger and producer-director Mike Dibb (who doesn’t rate a mention) was a significantly influential television series. Rather, Januszczak argues, it was Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which preceded Ways of Seeing by three years, and to which the later series was in some ways a riposte, that shaped much of television’s subsequent engagement with the arts, including the scribe’s own humble efforts.
There is no doubt about the central importance of Civilisation, nor that Januszczak’s series like Baroque! (2009) and The Dark Ages (2012) are a species of Civilisation-lite, albeit with added sandals and the volume control cranked right up. But it is in the following reflection that Januszczak exhibits his blindness:
If Ways of Seeing was as influential as people say it was, how and where has that influence manifested itself? Where in arts television can we actually spot its impact? Quite honestly, I cannot think of a single television programme about the arts made in the intervening years that owes anything tangible to Berger.
What he fails to acknowledge here is how Ways of Seeing kick-started a parallel strand within arts television that has run alongside Civilisation and its descendants. This strand is less central perhaps, but more provocative, more analytical, more concerned with showing rather than telling, more involved with the arts at levels other than the ‘high’, more interested in the complexities and contradictions of images, sometimes more explicitly political and always more interested in dialogue and dialectic.
This strand of arts television has rarely enjoyed its moment in the mainstream, and there has always been a touch of the alternative and the oppositional about it, a sense of the subcultural perhaps. But even if it is hard to identify today it has been there throughout the four decades and more since Ways of Seeing. Among the films that I would identify with it are the distinguished documentaries made by Mike Dibb, and works (not always directly about the arts) by filmmakers including Gina Newson, Marc Karlin, David Wheatley, Geoff Dunlop, John Akomfrah and Adam Curtis.
I doubt that the embrace and the engagement with aspects of popular culture exemplified by Arena would have looked as it did without the lead of Ways of Seeing. Nor would elements of The Late Show (1989-95) have been as stimulating and provocative. And I’m going to follow Januszczak’s lead by bringing into the discussion a series that I worked on for Channel 4, State of the Art (1987), that was deeply indebted to Ways of Seeing.
These are films and series that resist the singular voice of Civilisation and its empirical realism, where the presenter’s presence before an artwork legitimates his authority. These are films that question images and their intents, that interrogate media, that reveal their workings, and that open up meanings rather than packaging them as messages. They are films and series in which (to steal a phrase from Geoff Dyer) ideas are enacted rather than explained. For a few years in the early days of Channel 4 such films flourished, but even in harsher media ecologies they have found their place – and arts television, as well as our sense of the contemporary world, has been the richer for them.