Last night saw the first episode of BBC One’s new arts competition The Big Painting Challenge hosted by Richard Bacon and Una Stubbs, and judged by acclaimed artists Daphne Todd and and Lachlan Goudie. This is the first of the BBC’s series of special programming designed to “encourage people to discover a new passion or master a talent they already have” as part of the year-long Get Creative campaign which was launched last week.
The series involves ten amateur artists demonstrating their skills across a range of mediums by completing three challenges each week. Each episode has a particular theme, such as landscapes or portraiture, culminating in the judges deciding which contestant is leaving the competition that week.
Whilst Stubbs herself is a keen amateur artist whose watercolour portraits of her Sherlock co-stars Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have been displayed as part of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, Bacon seems a more unusual choice of host, although he asserts quite early on in the programme that he is a “keen art collector”.
The contestants featured represent quite a wide cross-section of society, from a young Cambridge University student, to a British Army sergeant, to a single mother from Swansea. Throughout the programme we are given a brief background on each contestant and their relationship to art, which seems to emphasise that you don’t necessarily need to go to art school in order to consider yourself an artist.
Portraying everyday people creating art also serves to reduce the somewhat authoritative nature present within a lot of arts programming. As a viewer, we are perhaps more inclined to make aesthetic judgements on their work because they’re not part of an established cultural canon. We won’t be branded a philistine for thinking one of their paintings might be “a bit crap”.
Along with appealing to a broader audience, the competition format also gives us an insight into art that we don’t often see. We are usually just exposed to the finish product, rather than the practical process of creating the piece, whether this is in arts programming or hanging in a gallery. This is of course because commonly the artists that make up the majority our cultural canon are long dead, leaving us to interpret their work retrospectively from the finished product. By reversing this narrative, the finished artwork is not symbolic of years, perhaps even centuries, of interpretation and study. The viewer is free to judge the piece on a purely aesthetic level that is accessible to everyone as a subjective opinion. The work doesn’t have a history around it that needs to be known in order to feel like you understand the work and can therefore pass judgement.
It is no surprise that the series has received criticism for being too similar to Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year in its format. However, there are some notable differences, the most striking of which is that there seems to be a little less emphasis on the competitive element. The focus on the personal stories of the participants and their creative process while undertaking the challenges often leaves you forgetting that the end goal is to win a competition. In a lot of ways it often feels like you are sitting in on an art class field trip in which it’s hard to tell whether the real subject is in front of the easel or behind it.