Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Launch of BBC Arts: Some Initial Thoughts

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Today the BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall revealed plans for the future of arts programming on the BBC. In his speech at New Broadcasting House, Hall outlined five promises that aim to place arts back at the heart of the BBC, re-establishing the corporations commitment to British art and culture.

From reading Hall’s speech, two main themes stood out as being central to his arts programming manifesto: identity and accessibility.

Identity

In his speech, Hall outlined his vision for BBC Arts, a new cross-platform strand that will connect arts programming across television, radio, iPlayer and other online BBC content. The BBC Arts brand sets out to create a clearer identity for arts programming on the BBC, making it as recognisable as categories such as sport or the news. The overall aim of this is to make arts programming substantially more visible, reflecting a cultural environment in which the arts are part of the viewer’s everyday experience.

It would seem that BBC Arts sets out not only to form its own identity within the BBC as a brand, but also to reshape the identity of the BBC itself as a broadcaster. Increasing the visibility of the arts on the BBC carries with it echoes of a Reithian approach to public service broadcasting, aiming to provide an educational and enriching viewing experience in line with a set of predetermined cultural values. Of course, this then raises concerns around elitism in regards to ‘highbrow culture’. This leads me on to the second theme in Hall’s vision for arts programming on the BBC: accessibility.

Accessibility

Hall is also striving to make the arts more accessible to a wider audience, stating that the arts are ‘not for an elite, or for the minority. They’re for everybody.’ The strategies in making the arts on the BBC more accessible are twofold:

Firstly, the BBC aims to put arts into the mainstream through programmes like The One Show and the return of BBC Two’s landmark series, Civilisation. Hall states that the motive behind this greater degree of exposure is to reflect that the arts are ‘part of the discourse of modern life’ and our everyday experience. This move also strongly suggests that the BBC are invested in nurturing new audiences for the arts on television, as opposed to ‘preaching to the converted’ on niche channels such as BBC Four.

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Secondly, the arts will also be made more accessible through an increase in the coverage of various festivals and exhibitions across the country. Hall states that the viewer will be given ‘front row seats at the very best cultural events, up and down the country, right across the year.’ It will be interesting to see which cultural events are prioritised in terms of their exposure across television, radio and online. With the increased visibility of the arts on BBC television we may see intriguing shifts in the way people understand and relate to arts and culture beyond their living rooms.

It will be fascinating to examine how Hall’s vision for BBC Arts unfolds throughout the course of my PhD research. With the charter review in 2016, over the next few years the BBC will be endeavouring to firmly establish itself as an essential part of British cultural life. It seems apparent from the speech given by Hall today that BBC Arts will play a crucial role in this task.

Portrait Artist of the Year: Painting Hilary Mantel

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Last year Nick Lord became Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2013. This title was won by taking part in Sky Arts’ series of the same name. Portrait Artist of the Year was based around a competition format in which contestants were set time limits in which to produce portraits of a given subject. The artworks they produced were then judged by a panel of representatives from the world of arts and culture. As high culture’s answer to the X Factor, this was surely an appeal to a wider audience than is normally reached by traditional arts programming. In particular, the bizarre choice of Frank Skinner as a presenter reveals a lot in regards to how producers are trying to broaden the programme’s appeal.

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In winning the competition, Nick Lord received a £10,000 commission to paint the Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel. The follow-up programme Portrait Artist of the Year: Painting Hilary Mantel sets out to follow Lord every step of the way, a bold claim for a programme only 23 minutes in length.

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The familiar face of Joan Bakewell, who along with Skinner, presented the original series, introduces the programme and is also heard in brief pieces of narration that create linking sequences throughout the programme as it moves between the views of the artist, Nick Lord, and his subject, Hilary Mantel.

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The narrative throughout the programme is split between Lord, in his studio in Cardiff, and Mantel in her home in Devon. This creates a juxtaposition between creator and subject that highlights the differences in which their roles are portrayed.

On the one hand, we have  Lord, who is happy he can now afford to pay rent for his studio from the commission. He talks us through the process of creating the piece in a very technical way, which invokes us to appreciate the skill of his work. This is reinforced by the use of shots that feature close-ups on his hands painting, or his eyes surveying the subject and his work, bringing the tools of the artist to centre stage.

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In contrast to this, from her sea view home in Devon, Mantel discusses her role as the subject within a wider cultural context of portraiture, comparing the process with that of royalty and nobility being painted, an area that she is familiar with through her own literary work in historical fiction.

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Mantel positions herself as an active producer of meaning in the piece, with Lord being tasked with representing these meanings within his work.  It is particularly revealing at then end of the programme that Mantel refers to the process of creating the work as a ‘negotiation’.

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Lord’s completed painting is unveiled at the British Library, where it will become a permanent part of their collection. The prestige of this cultural institution is reinforced by a striking shot in which the entrance of the library looms overhead, impressive and imposing.

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The programme has a circular narrative in that the first scenes we see take place at the ceremony before piece is unveiled, returning there once again at the end to witness the reveal. This sets up a sense of suspense throughout the programme, building up to the ‘big reveal’ at the end. What will the piece look like? Or more importantly judging by the number of shots focusing on the author’s face, will Hilary Mantel like it?

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The camera positioned behind a group of people creates the sense that we are witnessing the event, the spectacle, first hand. We are part of that crowd of onlookers awaiting the unveiling, and more significantly, the reaction of the subject and our peers.

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Even though the competition is over, the process of creating the piece is still framed as a challenge. The emphasis on the prestige of the subject and the surroundings in which the work will be placed suggests that this challenge is one of acceptance, of producing work that is ‘worthy’ of being showcased in such a renowned cultural institution.

Television and the Commodity of Art: Representing the Consumer

The commodity of art on television is a theme I’ve briefly discussed in my previous blog post about BBC One’s Fake or Fortune? In the post I discussed how the programme uses a crime drama narrative to conduct an investigation into the authenticity of a painting, the aim of which is to reveal whether the piece is a fake or worth a fortune.

Aimed at a slightly more niche audience, BBC Two’s The World’s Most Expensive Stolen Paintings (2013) uses similar elements of the crime drama narrative to explore the world of art theft. Although there is a strong element of aesthetic analysis courtesy of art critic Alastair Sooke, the connection between the authenticity and prestige of the pieces stolen from museums and their monetary value cannot be overlooked.

In this post I want to move away from looking at how television presents the monetary value of the artwork itself, and examine how the consumer is represented through a short analysis of The World’s Most Expensive Paintings (2011).

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As the title suggests, The World’s Most Expensive Paintings examines the top ten most expensive paintings in the world to have been auctioned. Presented by Alastair Sooke, the programme provides access to the secretive world of the arts market and its super-rich patrons.

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Originally broadcast on BBC One at 9pm, the programme uses elements of investigative journalism to create an arts documentary with mainstream appeal. There is a sense that the viewer is being given access to a dimension of our cultural world that is usually the exclusive domain of the financial elite.

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The dominant narrative throughout the programme is the tension between aesthetic and monetary value. Sooke’s aesthetic appreciation of the paintings is juxtaposed with millionaires purchasing them as luxury status symbols to display on the walls of their lavish homes.

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In a particularly telling exchange we witness art collector Jeffrey Archer showing Sooke a painting on his wall while explaining why he chose to purchase it. Archer rather abruptly turns to Sooke, pointedly stating ‘You’ve got your grubby hands on my beautiful walls.’ To which Sooke sheepishly steps back, replying ‘I do apologise.’

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It is hard to ignore the strong links between high culture and wealth threaded throughout the programme. Interviews with collectors set to establish their motives for spending so much on a particular painting. Rather than aesthetic value, these motives often involve discussion around elements of the piece such as markers of its authenticity, or a particular time in the artist’s life in which it was created.

What is really noteworthy about The World’s Most Expensive Paintings is the sense in which the art consumer is portrayed. In this context art is an unobtainable luxury, predominantly inhabiting the world of the educated upper classes. Sure, we may be able to see paintings in galleries, but most of us will never own such prestigious art or be part of this exclusive art world.  Indeed, our very access to certain paintings is removed by collectors hanging them in their private homes, away from the eyes of the general public.

I would suggest that the focus on the commodification of art in programmes such as The World’s Most Expensive Paintings, Fake or Fortune, and so on, portrays the arts as exclusive and bound within class structures defined by wealth. The paintings featured within these programmes that exist in private collections and hang on the walls of extravagant mansions do little to represent how the majority of people experience and engage with art. Although I would agree that such programmes have their place within broadcasting, it is certainly worth considering why they have featured quite so prominently within the schedules of BBC One and BBC Two, and what impact this has upon the mainstream perception of the arts.

Defining Art Within Broadcasting

When trying to define what exactly constitutes arts broadcasting there is always a danger of falling into the age-old ‘What is Art?’ debate. Whilst I don’t think it necessary to engage too much in this philosophical debate for which there is no definitive answer, I do think it is useful when exploring arts broadcasting to consider how producers and audiences define art.

There is of course a cultural canon consisting of the visual arts, music, literature, architecture, and so on. It would be hard to argue that a programme about Monet or Tchaikovsky is not arts programming. The works of such artists are hung in galleries and performed in theatres. They are institutionally and culturally sanctioned.

We go to galleries with the expectation that the images we see hanging on the walls are art. When we go to the theatre to watch a ballet or opera we expect to see an artistic performance. So what happens when we sit down in our lounge to watch television? Is our definition of arts broadcasting limited to programmes that situate art within recognised cultural institutions?

To consider these questions, first let’s briefly refer back to the question of ‘What is Art?’ and establish a couple of key definitions that will help us to consider how arts are defined and presented on television.

In Culture & Society: 1780 – 1950, Raymond Williams refers to the Romantic interpretation of art, in which the artist is a seer of ‘universal Truth’ and ‘Beauty’, from which art is a product: ‘The artist perceives and represents Essential Reality, and he does so by virtue of his master faculty Imagination’ (1960: 43). The Romantics define art as the embodiment of the human experience and inherent sense of ‘being’ that connects us.

Within arts programming, we often see this concept of capturing human experience through the discussions and analysis surrounding art. There are presenters, usually with some level of expertise in the subject, talking us through how the piece should be interpreted, directing us towards the ‘Truths’ locked within the work. But what is the difference between this analysis and a review of last night’s Soap Opera? What separates the human experience captured in a Monet from an episode of Eastenders? Are the ‘great works’ of art that are considered part of our cultural canon great because they capture the quintessential elements of human experience? Does Eastenders tell us less about the human condition than the universal Truth captured in a Monet?

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‘Maia makes us watch Eastenders’ by Anita Klein

With the advent of Modern art there was a shift toward a broader definition of art that encompasses all objects produced for the purpose of aesthetic judgement and appreciation. Within the context of television, this definition prompts debate around what is perceived as worthy of aesthetic judgement. In this regard, the definition of art is also a value judgement, and that value in turn is constituted through cultural capital. As such, cultural institutions with their embodied cultural capital play a significant role in arts broadcasting. Television presents us with the familiar contexts of the galleries, the theatres, etc. on screen. Programmes are presented, or heavily feature, experts in the field, performers, and/or the artists themselves. These elements are symbolic in communicating the idea that ‘this is art’, and as such worthy of aesthetic judgment and analysis.

To conclude, I think it is important to consider how the nature of television’s prevalence within our everyday lives can shape how we perceive and engage with the arts. Our mediated view of the art world is formed around these symbolic displays of cultural capital that often serve to reinforce the dominant ideologies that made the arts inaccessible to the uninformed even before the introduction of television. It is worth considering if the approach to arts programming at present could do more to appeal to a wider audience by expanding its exposure beyond the narrow view of the established cultural canon.

Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake

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World-famous ballerina and artistic director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, invites the viewer backstage as she prepares to take on the dual lead in the iconic ballet Swan Lake.

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As part of BBC Two and BBC Four’s Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake presents a candid account of the challenges Rojo faces in terms of the performance of the two contrasting characters she will be playing.

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In contrast to Dancing in the Blitz, a previous programme from the Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan centres around interpreting the performance of the piece itself, as opposed to examining its social impact from within a wider cultural context.  Furthermore, the purpose of the programme is not to provide an introduction to Swan Lake, but to provide a deeper understanding and analysis of the main themes and symbolism within the story. Descriptions of the story within the programme provide the context for a deeper interpretation of the characters within the piece. As such, it seems apparent that the programme is aimed at an audience of those already somewhat familiar with ballet and ‘high culture’ in a general sense.

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The story of Swan Lake provides a linear narrative in which to place this analysis, starting from the moment the character of the White Swan, Odette is introduced. Between clips of the performance itself, we see Rojo in rehearsal studios and in her dressing room discussing the nature of the character and how this is represented within the performance.

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In one sequence Rojo is rehearsing a scene while talking the viewer through what each movement symbolises. Rojo is essentially teaching the viewer how to read each movement of the performance, providing them with the tools to interpret the subtle meanings of the piece.

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Although, of course, Rojo did not create Swan Lake, her interpretation of the piece is still one that carries a sense of validity and substance. As opposed to the analysis of say, an expert in the field who has seen Swan Lake numerous times and read countless books on the topic, the perspective of the performer provides a valuable insight into the process of creating the work itself. Through their performance, the work is recreated again and again.

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Good Swan, Bad Swan essentially presents a character study through the narrative of Rojo preparing to undertake the dual lead in Swan Lake. The programme is less about Rojo’s role as a performer, and more about understanding themes and symbolism surrounding the key characters within the piece.

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Programmes like Good Swan, Bad Swan demonstrate how television can compliment the arts by creating more informed audiences. However, I am hesitant to suggest that programmes such as this make the arts more accessible to a wider range of people. There is still the sense that these programmes are primarily targeted at those who are already familiar with ballet, and ‘high culture’ in general. So whilst they serve to nurture such audiences, they do little to contribute to expanding them.

Dancing in the Blitz: Telling the Story of British Ballet

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As part of the BBC’s Ballet Season, David Bintley, director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, explores how the British public came to embrace ballet during the Second World War in Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet.

As would be expected from a programme that focuses on events which happened during World War II, there is a strong focus on British national identity. The programme invokes the ‘Blitz spirit’ narrative of persevering in times of hardship and adversity to provide a social context for charting the development of British ballet.

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The programme’s focus is primarily on the ballet performers and other individuals involved in the company, rather than the art of the performance itself. This, along with historic context of the Second World War, makes the programme accessible to audiences who may not be overly familiar with ballet. The programme’s focus on the social context in which British ballet developed provides a framework of understanding that is accessible to a greater number of people than that of an artistic analysis of the movement.

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The programme uses a lot of archive footage and images to illustrate Bintley’s narration and the personal accounts of the performers. This footage is interlaced between shots of Bintley providing pieces to camera at the locations featured in the archive images.

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This juxtaposition between the past and the present is also used in studio footage in which dancers perform in front of projected images to create a sense of visually connecting the historic and the contemporary.

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This link between the historic and contemporary is most markedly represented within the opening shots of Bintley walking past what appears to be World War II re-enactment soldiers. A sequence that sets the tone for what will be a journey through history that combines the images of the past with the storytelling of the present.

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At the beginning of the programme, Bintley states that he is setting out to tell the ‘story’ of British Ballet. The process of creating the narrative for this story is represented and constructed on screen. We see Bintley go to talk to various experts and historians within the field and visit ballet performers to gather first hand accounts of their experiences. In this regard, the story being told is one that is also being actively made throughout the programme by these discoveries and recollections being put together.

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The linear nature of historical accounts is one that lends itself well to this idea of storytelling, but within stories there is also usually a sense of drama and suspense. Something to keep the reader reading, and in this case, the viewer watching.

To create this sense of drama, certain parts of the historic account are emphasised within the narrative. An account in which the Ballet Company are in Holland at the time of the Nazi invasion is given a lot of attention in particular. A member of the Ballet Company gives a personal account of the events that occurred, providing an emotive dimension to the narrative. Archive footage is also interlaced between shots of Bintley at various locations described within the accounts, providing juxtaposition between the historical images and the contemporary recollections of the events.

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Dancing in the Blitz combines archive footage and storytelling to create a historic account that is entertaining and accessible to a wide audience. Even without any previous knowledge of the artistic merits of ballet, viewers are able to feel engaged with the personal accounts presented and the familiar narrative of wartime Britain. The multitude of archive clips and images used also creates a visually appealing experience that illustrates this narrative. Despite these elements, the programme is still seemingly marketed at niche audiences with its 9pm slot on BBC Four, where it must battle for attention with other prime time programmes on the more mainstream channels.