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.

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