Reprise: Art then, now

29th January 2013

Another post from our archives, this time from 8 March 2011, when I was about to teach a very similar class to the one that I will give at the Royal College of Art tomorrow.

I am delighted to be contributing a quartet of classes to David Crowley’s Critical Writing in Art & Design course at the Royal College of Art. Our first two sessions considered television films about Henry Moore and then Kenneth Clark and Simon Schama. Tomorrow, the third session focusses on alternatives to the dominant traditions of arts programming on British television, and one key example is the 1987 series State of the Art that Illuminations produced for Channel 4. The series is published by us along with an interview with the series’ writer Sandy Nairne (available here as a double DVD for £39.99). It’s one of the major projects with which we’ve been involved and it remains close to the core of the company. And this despite the fact that when it was first shown it was roundly abused by almost everyone. 

State of the Art was made by writer Sandy Nairne, director Geoff Dunlop and myself for Channel 4 and WDR, Cologne between 1985 and 1987. Transmission was accompanied by a book and a touring exhibition of a work by each of the artists in the series, and we put together an extensive series of screenings and discussions. The films developed from conversations began after working with these collaborators on the Arts Council-funded film about new sculpture in Britain, Just What Is It…?, 1984.

We set out to consider the conventions and the inadequacies of dominant approaches to the visual arts on television, and to work towards new ways to present what the series sub-title details as ‘ideas and images in the 1980s’. Each of the six programmes takes a theme which had and has as much importance in society in general as in the art world: Value, for example, History, and Identity.

The work and ideas of four or five artists (and in the case of Value, dealers and critics) are explored within the framework of this theme, and those featured include Joseph Beuys, Cindy Sherman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Antony Gormley and the Australian artist Michael Nelson Tjakamarra (above). The concentration is exclusively on their work and associated understandings, not their biography or lifestyle.

“Make it new’ was how Ezra Pound translated a directive from Confucius, and among the strategies we adopted in pursuit of this were the absence of a presenter or singular narrator. Instead a quilt of quotations (from philosophers, critics, economists and social theorists) provides the intellectual framework, complementing the interview contributions of the artists. The quotations, together with minimal elements of conventional narration, imparting essential information, are read by four different voices in each film.

Through the use of these quotations, and associated images, both of artworks and of sequences in the world, the films have a concentrated engagement with the ideas of post-modernism, with questions of sexuality and identity, and with a leftist politics. They aim to offer alternatives to the economy and the society given form in the contemporary urban world, in its media and its spectacles.

State of the Art also has its artists and other interviewees speak direct to camera, not off to the side of frame as if to a surrogate for the viewer. Beuys and Eric Fischl, Basquiat and Barbara Kruger talk to the viewer, and the effect in many cases is vivid and direct. (A half-mirror mounted in front of the camera lens, realised by director Geoff Dunlop and director of photography Jeremy Stavenhagen, facilitated filming in this manner, allowing the interview to look straight towards the camera but in fact to see the questioner who was seated at a 90-degree angle off to one side.)

There is a rigorous avoidance of anecdote and an intense focus on artworks and ideas. These are intellectual films, documentaries that demand attention. If they want to attract and even seduce a viewer, they aim to do so by engaging the mind and the eye, but not by telling a story or introducing a quirky character.

The films also demonstrate a precision in their filming of artwork that stands up to the passage of years and which has been immensely influential in the styles with which Illuminations has worked ever since. Paintings and sculptures, for example, are filmed from originals not transparencies — we travelled extensively to shoot actual artworks, we persuaded owners to bring some out of stores and we hung or arranged them in spaces just for the camera.

Canvases are shown full-frame, and then details of an image are selected; there is minimal movement across an artwork, and what there is is strongly motivated. The pace of the editing, especially of the artwork sequences, is more measured than is conventional in television, and seems strikingly so when compared with the faster-cut programming of the early twenty-first century.

Responses to State of the Art were far from generally enthusiastic. For many, it came off the screen as inaccessible, alienating, humourless, relentless, confusing. Certainly there is not much humour, but its attempt to develop a new form for arts documentaries was bold and unquestionably appropriate for its moment. The critic Peter Fuller (in an article titled ‘The great British art disaster’) was among the more voluble critics of the series.

In so far as it is not just mindless cacophony… [State of the Art] presents an alliance between two philistinisms: that of the old New Left, and that of the yuppie, or managerial, end of the (relatively) New Right. They are united in their ‘progressive’ contempt for duty, taste, skill and position… [Nairne] offers no vision, and affirms no value. He wishes only to assert the relativity of all aesthetics, and the validity of any idea, however venal, or contradictory, it may be.”

I can’t adopt any kind of distance towards the series, but while I recognise the charge of relativism, I feel firmly that the films resist precisely this. Their effect, earnest as it often is, is the opposite of asserting the equivalence of all positions and withdrawing from discrimination. Instead, they make explicit some of the assumptions behind value judgements, and offer a complex mesh of artworks and quotation to explore the politics of the visual arts, and more broadly of all systems of representation.

My description of the series here is adapted from my book Vision On: Film, Television and the Art in Britain published by Wallflower Press in 2007. And as a taster of the series, here’s part of the section with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, which has to date attracted more than [2012: nearly three-quarters of] a million viewings on YouTube.

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