Let’s suppose that Arts Council England employed the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and a team of researchers and production staff to put together a substantial 3-volume history of the art of the Netherlands. ACE committed, let’s say, £300K of public funds to the project and this was felt to be money well-spent. The result was generally agreed to be engaging, authoritative and a valuable contribution to extending awareness and understanding its subject.
Now imagine that it was announced that the book was going to be available for just one month. We could all read it together during that month, but after thirty days the book was going to be hidden away. We couldn’t even consult it in public libraries, although it might come out for another month at some point in the future, and it might be the case, although no-one could promise, that we could buy our own copies in the future.
What do you think? Appropriate use of public money? Viable model for subsidised cultural production? Well, um, probably not. But this is EXACTLY the way in which television about the arts (and much more) works now. It’s illogical, crazy, dumb – and we are all the poorer because of it. Yet no-one seems to notice just how weird it is.
The second episode of the three-part The High Art of the Low Countries, written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, premieres tonight on BBC Four. The series is a substantial project, and like the critic’s earlier explorations of the art of Spain, of Germany, of The United States and of Russia, it is engaging, authoritative and a valuable contribution to extending awareness and understanding its subject.
I don’t know, but I would guess that BBC Four has spent around £300K of licence fee funding on the series. And within a month it will disappear. There may or may not be a DVD release in the future, and some errant knave might upload it illegally to YouTube. But otherwise this publicly funded contribution to knowledge and understanding will disappear. Just like those other series written and presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon, and the series written and presented by other nice art historians and historians and classicists and scientists and more.
I recognise, of course, how we’ve reached this illogical, crazy, dumb set-up. I know that it is locked in place by custom and practice, by terms of trade and by other contractual arrangements, and by deals for all sorts of rights. I know that it came about because television used to be one thing – a limited medium of live broadcasts – and now it’s a hundred other things. Today the technology exists, not least via BBC iPlayer, to give us all continuing and free access to programmes like The High Art of the Low Countries. But we are locked into a system that is, simply and straightforwardly, wrong.
We are all prevented from having continuing access to cultural products for which we have paid. That’s the bottom line. And we should not simply accept that. Remember Network? How about if we all objected to the way things are by following Peter Finch’s example…