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.

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