Monthly Archives: April 2014

Mozart in Prague: Reconstructing Past Experience

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Mozart in Prague follows acclaimed tenor Rolando Villazon as he attempts to recreate the first performance of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. Villazon travels to Prague to gain an insight into the music of the opera and the original social context in which it was first performed. The final product of which is a performance of the opera’s finale as it would have looked and sounded on its premiere night.

At the beginning of the programme, Villazon excitedly tells the audience: “We are going to restage Don Giovanni’s finale to understand the challenges Mozart faced, so we can all see and hear it as the first audience did.” The aim of the programme creates a sense that by being able to recreate the look and sound of something, you recreate the experience of being in that time and place. This is a concept that television as a medium inherently perpetuates. We are used to the weird unreality of being able to bend the rules of time and space with television. We no longer duck when the train comes charging towards us on the cinema screen because we know what we are witnessing is not real in the sense that it is happening in this moment and in this space. We are instead being offered glimpses of events that happened in the past and in another place. The fact that we see and hear events as they unfold prompts us to believe they are real, but the discrepancy in time and space reminds us that they are constructed images.

So through the medium of television it is quite easy to immerse ourselves in the illusion that we are watching and therefore experiencing an opera taking place in the past. It’s why costume dramas on television and cinema are popular: the nature of television as a medium that transcends how we usually experience linear time and space in our everyday lives lends itself well to presenting the past in a way that is believable. Not believable in the sense that we are under the delusion that these programmes were actually made in 1787, but rather that we are able to immerse ourselves and therefore become emotionally engaged in the narrative.

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When the finished product is presented on screen we watch the opera’s finale with little interruption or narration from Villazon. Although we do hear him at one point offer a few words on a character’s performance it is not too intrusive, as if he is sitting beside us in the theatre whispering in our ear as we watch. But we do not experience the opera as the audience would have experienced it in a true sense. We only see the finale, isolated from the scenes that came before it. We do not see the entire stage but a range of shots and close-ups. We are given subtitles to translate what the performers are singing. What we appreciate while watching the performance is the care and effort put into creating it. That is really what we have experienced during the course of this programme. The outcome is less significant than the process that led to it.

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In his conclusion, Villazon frames the documentary as a journey that has helped him understand more about Mozart. This fulfils slightly different aims than those set out at the beginning of this documentary, with its emphasis on the viewer experiencing the opera as it was originally performed. But, of course, a reproduction will never truly allow us to experience an opera as it was on opening night. However, it does offer a valuable insight into the creative process of the artists themselves through the task of imitating their work. More than being a witness to past events, we are a witness to their construction on screen and the creative process that made them possible.

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Mindless Lectures and Mindful Discoveries

I recently read a journal article by Erin Bell and Ann Gray (2007) that discusses the concept of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘mindlessness’ in the context of television documentary audiences. They describe a mindful viewing position as one in which the audience is provided with a multiplicity of voices and perspectives from which to interpret information, whereas a ‘mindless’ approach presents a single perspective in a linear fashion that leaves no room for alternative readings.

They conclude the article by outlining a key contrast in two presenter styles that influence whether a programme will prompt ‘mindful’ or ‘mindless’ viewing. They describe these styles as ‘he who knows’ and ‘he who wants to know’. In the former, ‘knowledge is the property of the expert and can be imparted to the lay person (the viewer).’ And in the latter, ‘knowledge is being constructed by putting together a series of clues, the provenance of which includes non-experts offering experiential accounts which are valued as knowledge’ (2007: 130).

When we picture this authoritative ‘he who knows’ presenter type in the world of arts programming, we see figures such as Kenneth Clark, in their suit and tie, stood facing the camera, addressing the audience as they would a lecture hall. Although Civilisation is branded as Clark’s personal view, there is still a strong sense that his view is the correct view of history, creating a blinkered approach to knowledge that restricts audience interpretation.

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So what about examples of what might be considered ‘mindful’ arts programmes? In my initial research exploring the history of arts programming I have noticed a trend toward more programmes that use elements of investigative journalism. Although programmes such as The World’s Most Expensive Paintings (2013) and The Poet Who Loved the War (2014) are still led by presenters who carry authority within the worlds of art and academia, the key narrative within the programmes is that of discovery. The presenter travels to key locations and talks to a number of representatives from various fields. This ‘journey of discovery’ narrative creates the impression that knowledge is being constructed on screen, rather that just relayed by the presenter. Knowledge is presented as a process, rather than a fixed linear narrative. These programmes invite the viewer to engage in this discovery process, rather than just accept relayed information as truth.

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But that’s not to say that the distinction between the ‘mindless’ lecture and the ‘mindful’ journey of discovery is always so clear-cut. Another interesting trend within contemporary arts programming is the use of provocative ‘you may think X to be true, but I’m going to prove Y’ narratives. Recent examples include A Very British Renaissance (2014), in which Dr James Fox sets out to prove that, despite popular belief, the Renaissance did not only happen in continental Europe and the Britain had its own Renaissance. Another example is Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness (2014), in which Waldemar Januszczak rejects the popular aesthetic interpretation of Rococo art in favour of examining its ‘wider achievements’ beyond the ‘pink frilliness’ that has come to define the era.

Both programmes use similar techniques to create a narrative based around journey and discovery. They are shot entirely on location. The presenter and camera are hardly ever still, moving around the environment as they address the viewer creating a sense of constant movement and flow. We also see the presenter examining the artworks being discussed, creating the impression of encountering the piece for the first time.

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Although both presenters use the journey of discovery narrative to reinforce their argument, it is still just that: their argument. Although the themes of journey and discovery are still threaded throughout the programmes, it is still the presenter’s voice that is dominant and we are still ultimately drawn to agree with their conclusions because there are few alternatives.

These programmes may limit viewer interpretation, but they still appeal to audiences through their promise of offering a fresh perspective. However, it should not be overlooked that the dominant ideologies that are being deconstructed, to a degree, partly owe their existence to the authoritarian representation of knowledge that is presented within such programmes themselves.

From Civilisation to The Culture Show: 50 Years of Arts Programming on BBC Two

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This Sunday BBC Two will enter its Fiftieth year of broadcasting. Launched on the 20th of April 1964, the channel was established to provide more special interest programming than its BBC One counterpart. From its inception, BBC Two’s remit was for more educational, ‘serious’ programming with a focus on the arts, culture and drama. The Reithian values instilled within the channel by its content led to BBC Two developing a reputation for providing ‘highbrow’ entertainment.

The Visual Arts in Colour

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In 1967 BBC Two became the first European channel to transmit programmes in colour. To mark this landmark in television history, the BBC commissioned its first blockbuster arts documentary, Civilisation. Presented by Kenneth Clark, the 13-part series that aired in 1969 took viewers on a journey through the history of Western art.

It seems rather fitting that a programme about the visual arts should be chosen to mark the transition to colour television. The use of colour signified a more accurate depiction of reality. Art was no longer just represented on screen; it was reproduced. The great works of Western culture that Clark and his team travelled hundreds of miles to see were now available in the living room of any home in Britain (providing you could afford a colour TV set!) in vivid colour.

Civilisation proved to be immensely popular with audiences in Britain and abroad. Its legacy and influence is still evident in the array of pundit documentaries that populate our television schedules today. There are even plans for the series to be remade for contemporary audiences in line with Director-General Tony hall’s plans to expand arts coverage on the BBC.

Another ambitious project examining the visual arts was the aptly named One Hundred Great Paintings (1980), which comprised of one hundred ten minute episodes, each devoted to a particular painting and broadcast five nights a week. Each episode comprised of what could be described as ‘mini essays’, analysing the paintings in surprising depth for a programme so short in length.

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Reviewing and Critiquing Art

BBC Two has broadcast a whole host of arts and cultural programming over the last fifty years, including such thought provoking programmes as Ways of Seeing (1972) and Shock of the New (1980), both of which have been revered for their more critical approach to art and culture. These programmes exemplify BBC Two’s experimental nature in the sense that they push boundaries in terms of deconstructing dominant ideologies within the art world and British culture in general. Rather than just providing an authoritative account of historical ‘fact’, as in the case of Civilisation, Ways of Seeing and Shock of the New provide a basis for critical thought and analysis through their episodic illustrated essays.

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Over the last fifty years, BBC Two has also featured a number of arts magazine series including the very first arts programme to be broadcast on the channel in 1964 – New Release. More contemporary series include The Review Show (1994), which started life on BBC Two before moving to BBC Four in 2013 and ultimately being cancelled in 2014, and also The Culture Show, which after its launch in 2004 became BBC Two’s flagship arts strand, encompassing both weekly magazine programmes and thematic one-off specials. These topical weekly programmes have covered a wide variety of subjects from the world of arts and culture. Their short features and coverage of current developments and events have enabled viewers to feel engaged with the contemporary art world without even having to set foot in a gallery.

BBC Two Today

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Fifty years on, the BBC Two of today is one that must continually carve out its identity within an increasingly media saturated world. Although the strength of the channel still lies in its output of educational and special-interest programming, the introduction of BBC Four and an ever more competitive digital broadcasting environment has led to these programmes becoming increasingly more mainstream in their approach. Once synonymous with arts and culture, arts programming is increasingly vacating BBC Two to occupy a sort of ‘cultural ghetto’ in the form of BBC Four. The move of high profile series such as The Review Show has led to concern that the BBC are neglecting the arts in favour of attracting more mainstream audiences. Whereas the arts once had a place amongst a rich and diverse range of programming, they are now being grouped and packaged to even smaller audiences.

In the advent of digital television it would seem that new, specialist channels such as BBC Four have occupied the place once held by niche channels like BBC Two. However, with Tony Hall planning to expand the coverage of arts on the BBC, there is still hope that BBC Two will once again showcase innovative and informative arts programming. But in order to engage audiences with the arts within today’s increasingly competitive television environment, arts programming must evolve to avoid being confined to late night slots or specialist channels. Adapting arts programming to appeal to a wider audience is not inherently a bad thing. The elitism that surrounds the arts has led to their segregation from BBC Two as it evolves to accommodate a broader audience. But as the success of landmark series such as Civilisation has demonstrated, arts programming can have popular appeal without sacrificing quality. BBC Two could play a crucial role in Hall’s plan to engage more mainstream audiences with the arts, while re-establishing its identity as a provider of high quality cultural programming.

The People’s Portrait: Capturing Human Experience on Television and Canvas

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The People’s Portrait follows the story of Falklands War veteran Simon Weston as he becomes the first person voted for by the public to be painted for the National Portrait Gallery. Chosen by viewers of The One Show, Weston is painted by esteemed artist Nicky Philipps, who is perhaps best known for her portraits of the royal family.

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The main focus of the programme is Weston’s recovery from the serious injuries he suffered during the Falklands War. His story captures popular narratives that resonate both on a societal and individual level: overcoming adversity, courage, loss and triumph. As such, Weston is portrayed as the archetypal war hero. This image is brought to life by clips taken from a documentary Weston was involved in at the time of his injuries and rehabilitation. The audience is not just being told the story; they are witnessing the unfolding of events on screen in scenes that are often distressing and emotional.

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The finished portrait is a representation of this narrative. Throughout the programme it is clear that Philipps’ task is to capture this human experience on canvas. However, in contrast to Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year, which follows a relatively unknown artist as he paints author Hilary Mantel, Philipps is already an established artist who is respected within the art world. The ‘reveal’ of the painting at the end of the programme is not to the audience. We see the finished piece before it is unveiled at the gallery. Our anticipation is on Weston’s reaction to the piece, which he does not see prior to the unveiling. We are not being placed in a position to critique Philipps’ piece, but rather witness Weston’s reaction as the figure of ‘the war hero’ that has been built up throughout the programme is reflected back at him.

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The outcome of both the portrait itself and the documentary surrounding it serve similar ends. Both represent Weston’s story, capturing the narrative in a form that aims to provoke a strong emotional reaction from those who see it. However, whereas one piece moves through time and space; telling as well as showing, the other captures a single moment in time; static and silent. The process of painting the piece is portrayed as an emotional journey of understanding the subject, resulting in the nature of art being represented in the romantic sense of capturing human experience and universal truth.

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Although there’s a sense that some would write The People’s Portrait off as more of a human-interest piece than an arts programme, I would argue that the two categories are in no way mutually exclusive. At their core, the arts engage us in shared human experience, expressing our very nature of being. I would suggest that perhaps there should be more arts programming that engages with the audience in this highly emotive way, provoking us to feel the art being presented on screen, rather than just witness it. Encouraging us to engage with it on an individual level, as opposed to just understanding it within a wider cultural and economic context.

Is There a Future for Arts Magazine Programmes?

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The recent axing of The Review Show highlights a long running discrepancy between arts programming and the magazine format.

A common trend throughout the history of arts broadcasting is the change in programme format from magazine to a more documentary/thematic approach. Both Monitor and The South Bank Show, for example, started out as magazine programmes, gradually shifting to focus on single subjects per episode.

The Culture Show’s increase in thematic ‘special’ episodes is a useful contemporary example of how long-running series must adapt to survive (although I don’t want to jump the gun too much in regards to the longevity of the programme, even in its current state). Like The Review Show, The Culture Show has been rescheduled numerous times, erratically darting around the television schedule from 7pm weekly slots to 10pm one-off specials. What started out as BBC Two’s flagship arts magazine programme has over the past year noticeably switched to producing more thematic programmes under the branding of ‘Culture Show Specials’.

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The rationale for switching to a thematic approach is often cited as audiences wanting more depth and analysis beyond the limitations of short ten-minute features. In relation to this, it is also important to note that the ‘arts’, and ‘culture’ especially, are very broad categories. Providing an already niche audience with short segments centred around very specific areas of a vast art world is unlikely to attract as much attention as an hour long documentary which provides an in depth understanding of a particular topic.

However, with the demise of the magazine format coverage of arts is once again narrowed. Choices must be made about which topic to focus on each week, meaning that programmes are often catering to the imagined mainstream audience within the art world, which is usually constructed as very middle class, very white, and often London-centric.

With the daily topical programme The One Show set to feature the arts more prominently in future, it is interesting to consider if the apparent failure of arts magazine formats can in fact provide a strategy for making the arts more accessible to mainstream audiences. The ability to provide audiences with general information on a particular topic in a short space of time, as opposed to more in depth critical analysis, lends itself well to attracting the attention of viewers who would not usually engage with the arts due to alienation with the elitist image that often surrounds it.

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However, with its eclectic mishmash of features, one of the underlying issues with programmes like The One Show that cover a wide range of topics for an even wider audience is that of tone. If the viewer is being shown the hazardous driving conditions as a result of heavy snowfall, then is being asked to send in humorous pictures of snowmen they’ve built in their back garden, the audience is placed in a bizarre no man’s land between The Six O’clock News and Blue Peter. The programme doesn’t seem to attempt to engage the viewer to any substantial degree, as it never seems sure whom exactly it is trying to engage with. As opposed to ‘mainstream’, it may be more accurate to say that The One Show represents itself as aimed at a ‘mass’ audience, with all the negative connotations that entails.

The very presence of the arts within mainstream programming should contribute to altering wider societal views in terms of the issues surrounding elitism and class associated with ‘high culture’. However, whether placing the arts within populist magazine programmes actually leads to viewer engagement and the creation of new audiences for the arts remains unseen.