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?
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.