Decoding in the Dark: Radio and the Visual Arts

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“It’s late on a Parisian evening in 1882. The newly opened Folies-Bergère is busy. Here up on the first floor gallery, the mirrored bars are dazzling with lights for the trapeze performers flying about the main auditorium. Make your way through the jostling crowd, some watching the show, many others chatting, drinking and being seen, and you find one of the newly permitted female bartenders is free. You think you’ve caught her eye amidst the frivolity going on around her. Or have you? She’s certainly caught your attention even though she’s not really looking at you. It’s those eyes. And those eyes belong to the girl at the bar of the Folies-Bergère here on one of the walls of the Courtauld gallery in the heart of London. And you can find it by typing the title of the painting into your internet search engine. Type in Bar at the Folies-Bergère”

And so begins the first in BBC Radio Four’s new series Decoding the Masterworks, which yesterday featured an in-depth examination of Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bèrgere’.

Presented by art historian Dr Janina Ramirez, along with various other experts, the three-part series ‘examines famous and familiar works of art in minute detail’ to ‘provide context, biographical background and artistic insight’ and ‘decode these masterworks for today’s audience’.

Recorded on location and complete with the sound of reverberating footsteps and voices echoing across the open space, on closing your eyes it isn’t too hard to imagine yourself right there at the Courtauld gallery.

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Indeed, the commentary the programme provides might put you in mind of those audio guides that are often given out at tourist traps around the country, and no doubt leave a number of disgruntled human tour guides out of work.

But of course, just like walking around a gallery with your eyes closed, you cannot see a painting through radio anymore than you can listen to an opera through a newspaper.

It would seem inherently obvious that the visual arts are a particularly tricky subject to present through the medium of sound. Often when the visual arts are featured on radio it is in the form of interviews with the artists themselves or the human-interest stories that surround the work and its creation. Rarely is the aesthetic analysis of a piece the primary focus.

But could the Internet be changing this?

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As I stated in a previous post that also briefly touched on this subject:

It seems that the Internet is the new Radio Times in terms of providing material to accompany radio broadcasts. Where once the listener would sit at home listening to football commentary while referring to their numbered pitch diagram to follow the action, we are now directed online for supplementary visual content to accompany broadcasts.

For those listening to Decoding the Masterworks online, in the text description box below the programme iPlayer radio helpfully informs you that:

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The use of the Internet as a platform for visual content in radio broadcasting may indeed be expanding radio’s coverage of the visual arts in a variety of different ways. But at what point does such additional content become necessary rather than just supplementary?

There seems to be an assumption that most listeners tuning in to Decoding the Masterworks are already quite familiar with the pieces being discussed. As Ramirez states towards the beginning of the programme:

“Even if you can’t get to your computer or tablet at the moment, you probably know this image. It’s ubiquitous; you find it on biscuit tins, t-shirts, posters…”

However, the ‘minute details’ of the paintings being examined are surely far beyond the capability of even the most photographic of memories. So is the Manet aficionado who is listening while driving to work still being left in the dark?

Indeed, when it comes to aesthetic analysis in the visual arts, it could perhaps be argued that in many ways it is not the image that supplements the radio broadcast, but in fact the radio broadcast that supplements the image.

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BBC ARTS at Hay Festival 2015

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Over the past week BBC ARTS has been providing extensive coverage of the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts through online live streams, social media, radio and television. But I felt that to really get a better sense of the BBC’s role as one of Hay’s largest media partners I would need to go along and experience the event first hand.

On arriving at the festival the first thing that I couldn’t fail to notice was that the BBC certainly has a very prominent presence, with large posters throughout the site advertising “The best of Hay on TV, radio and online” along with a URL for the BBC ARTS homepage.

As the epicentre for this coverage the BBC Tent predominantly hosted events and live broadcasts for Radio 3 and Radio 4, which were free to attend for the public. Each event began with the audience being shown a short video featuring vox pops from speakers such as Stephen Fry and Jude Law describing what Hay means to them, alongside clips of festival attendees sat reading in the sun or stood in queues for various talks.

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However, one of the most interesting BBC events I attended in regards to my own area of research around public service broadcasting was a session by Radio 4’s Sunday morning magazine programme Broadcasting House.

Hosted by Paddy O’Connell, it offered a behind the scenes look at the inner workings of Radio 4 illustrated by O’Connell’s personal anecdotes and clips of various bloopers that had made it to air over the years.

But what was perhaps most interesting was the way in which the session was primarily focused on the views and opinions of those in the audience, with O’Connell often reiterating how important feedback from licence payers is to the BBC.

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The session started with a conversational tone, inviting audience members to share their “best bits of Hay” before moving on to the slightly more provocative theme of “things you hate about BBC Radio 4”.

Along with specific programmes that prompt people to switch off, this was also met with broader concerns about the BBC being too London-centric and the recent domination of the news by the unfolding story surrounding the criminal investigations at FIFA.

In response to the last point O’Connell asked the audience which news events they would like to hear covered on future editions of Broadcasting House, going on to outline plans for features on upcoming programmes and asking for feedback on them.

There were also a few words from the editor of the programme who spoke about the difficulties of broadcasting programmes live from Hay in regard appealing to both the audience at the event and those sitting at home.

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It is perhaps interesting to consider whether this is largely due to the challenges of making a radio format somewhat visually appealing for the live audience while still engaging the distant listener. Along with this, a further factor may be the differences in expectation when we listen to the radio in a domestic setting compared to the sense of spectacle that is often emphasised in live events.

From going to this event and not really knowing what to expect beyond what the title ‘Behind the Scenes’ implies, I found the emphasis on audience feedback and participation of particular interest in regard to the BBC and its public service remit more generally.

As an institution that was founded partly on the principles of providing the public with what they need rather than what they want, this shift towards public service broadcasting being presented as more user-led than paternal seems increasingly evident and indeed vital for the organisation’s continued survival. As O’Connell stated at the beginning of the session:

 “When the BBC gets it right it remembers who the audience is. When it gets it wrong it forgets who the audience is”

Grayson Perry’s Grand Design

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Sunday night saw the return of Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry in a programme charting perhaps his most ambitious project yet.

Grayson Perry’s Dream House (Channel 4) follows the creation of Perry’s “most personal public work” as he takes on the challenge of designing a house inspired by his early life growing up in Essex.

With the scenes of half built structures set against green fields, surrounded by scaffolding and tarpaulin, it’s hard to not draw parallels with Grand Designs. There’s that familiar narrative of extravagant ideas, apprehensive architects and even the threat of winter descending upon the build before the roof is finished. But unlike the Channel 4 hit show, the overall focus is still very much on Perry’s artistic process. The aesthetics of the piece seem to always come before the practicalities of the building.

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Identity is often a very a prominent theme in Perry’s work and this proves to be no exception. The half-finished bricks and mortar are given a human element as Perry reveals his mythical tale of an Essex woman named Julie who serves as the inspiration behind the piece.

Like in his previous projects around class (All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry) and portraiture (Grayson Perry: Who Are You?) the piece is driven by a strong narrative element. Storytelling seems an intrinsic part of his art across the multiple mediums through which he expresses his creative visions.

However, as with his previous work, the house is not just telling the story of one individual. The narrative of Julie’s life presented through the artworks within the building also chart how this fictional individual identity merges and crosses paths with the perceived collective identity of “the ordinary Essex woman” taken from his own experiences growing up in the area.

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As with the previous programmes based around his work, there’s also the sense of a “big reveal” at the end to the people from whom Perry draws his inspiration. After the piece is completed, we see Perry take a selection of Essex women named Julie to see the house and get their personal reactions to his work. As he states while waiting for the women to arrive: “it’s not enough for me to like the building. I want the women it’s about to feel it too.” There’s a sense of the artwork as a collaborative process, even if some of the collaborators were previously unaware of their contribution.

Following from his 2014 series Who Are You?, Grayson Perry’s Dream House is another genre-bending contribution to pushing the boundaries in terms of what we think arts programming should be.

But I think the real strength and originality of this kind of programming lies in how the lives of ordinary people and their stories are presented as a source of artistic inspiration, creating a unique synthesis between both television and artwork as complementary narrative forms.

Where is the Line Between History and Arts Programming?

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BBC Four’s Ancient Greece season kicked off this week with the first episode of Treasures of Ancient Greece, a new three-part series presented by Alastair Sooke, and a special episode of Secret Knowledge entitled ‘The Body Beautiful – Ancient Greeks, Good Looks and Glamour’.

While watching this double bill of Greek art last Wednesday night I was again struck with a question that often comes up both when watching such programmes and the discussion that surrounds them: where do we draw the line between what is considered arts programming and history programming? The different approaches taken to the subject matters presented in Treasures of Ancient Greece and Secret Knowledge provide the perfect opportunity to examine this question in a little more detail.

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One line of inquiry might be to consider whether the art featured within the programme is used to illustrate the historical content or whether the historical content is used to contextualise the art.

Although the historical narrative is obviously very strong in Treasures of Ancient Greece, the art is still very clearly the focus. This is an approach that is emphasised right at the start of the programme as Sooke lays down the underlining thesis of the series:

“It was the ancient Greeks who shaped our ideas of what art should look like. No other civilisation has played such an important role in creating our vision of artistic perfection, of beauty, of realism.”

It is about the significance of art in Greek society, rather than just using art to illustrate the past. For instance, when discussing a wall painting which portrays the Minoan spectacle of bull-leaping, particular attention is paid to dissecting the composition of the piece rather than merely focusing on the particular cultural significance of the practice depicted. Although the social and cultural context behind the art is of course still present to a degree, it is often an aesthetic analysis that takes centre stage.

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However, if we go on to look at the programme that aired directly after Treasures of Ancient Greece, we’ll witness a slightly different approach to the presentation of art on screen. In Secret Knowledge: The Body Beautiful Natalie Haynes traces our obsession with the ‘perfect body’ back to the Ancient Greeks through their art, and their sculpture in particular. Much of the discussion that surrounds the artwork is focused on how the Greeks perceived beauty, with particular references to the philosophy of Socrates who set out to define the nature of beauty in his famous dialogue Hippias Major.

So should this programme fall within the category of arts or history programming?

Indeed, compared to Treasures of Ancient Greece there is a noticeable shift in emphasis to the social context as a basis for analysis rather than purely the aesthetics of the art itself. However, there is a strong argument that the very subject matter of how we define ‘beauty’ is among one of the primary concerns in art both from a philosophical and practical perspective. As Haynes states when introducing the purpose of the programme:

“It’s going to ask, and I hope answer, one of the most fundamental questions about all of art: What is beauty?”

As both programmes have demonstrated, the line between history and arts programming is often difficult to define. This might beg the question of whether there is actually any real value in trying to distinguish between two perhaps arbitrary categories.

Art is often hard to avoid in what might predominantly be seen as historical programming, particularly when dealing with times before high levels of literacy when ideas were more commonly communicated through images than writing. It is also important not to overlook that the visual nature of television also lends itself better to displaying art from a particular time period than the written word.

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But what about when we consider content branding strategies such as BBC ARTS? The BBC’s arts and history content each have their own dedicated separate webpages, although it is interesting to note that Treasures of Ancient Greece is present on both. If there is an overlap in the way content is organised, how does this translate in regards to matters such as funding and marketing?

The definition and categorisation of arts programming is also an ever-present concern within my own research on the subject. Indeed, I will often ask my interviewees to tell me how them themselves define arts broadcasting.

Both Treasures of Ancient Greece and Secret Knowledge were featured in the BBC ARTS email newsletter, which is to suggest that they fall within the category of arts programming. However, it does seem that the less arts coverage that is coming up in a given week, the broader the range of programming featured.

So should arts programming on the BBC be defined as any programme that features the BBC ARTS ident at the beginning, or should there be a closer examination of the content of the programmes themselves? Is it often simply a case of invoking Potter Stewart’s famous maxim: “I know it when I see it”, or should there more analysis involved?

Although the line between history and arts programming may often be blurred or even arbitrary to some, I believe there is still value in considering the ways in which a separate genre for the arts is defined within the context of production and branding.

What can Susan Sontag tell us about arts broadcasting today?

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In 1964 Susan Sontag published her seminal work Against Interpretation. The essay is fundamentally a critique of society’s obsession with interpretation, calling for a more sensual approach to understanding art and culture; a stance she summarises in her closing statement: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’.

Over fifty years later, and you could argue that the themes explored in Sontag’s work now seem more pertinent than ever. With the proliferation of online social media, whether consciously or unconsciously we seem to be constantly called upon to interpret our cultural world and everyday experiences, categorising them in the form of hashtags or building an image of our lives and who we are through the pictures we share, the places we check in at and the online connections we make.

But how might Sontag’s work inform the ways in which we think about arts broadcasting today?

In an earlier blog post I discussed the notion that broadcasting as a medium often serves to communicate ideas about the arts rather than art itself, with a few notable exceptions. In this article, I want to use Sontag’s work as a starting point to further explore how the arts are mediated using two recent high-profile programmes: The Big Painting Challenge and Grayson Perry: Who Are You?

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The underlining thesis of Sontag’s work is an opposition to the popular notion that art must always be representative of a concept or idea that requires decoding. Further to this, she argues that through interpretation we separate ourselves from experiencing the ‘sensuous surface of art’:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.” It is to turn the world into this world. (“This world”! As if there were any other.)

For Sontag, part of the issue with interpretation and art criticism is the separation of form and content that sees the former as merely an accessory of the latter. Furthermore, she argues, form is often seen as something that must in fact be transcended in order to uncover the content within the piece (a subject she would return to in more depth in her 1965 essay On Style).

In terms of broadcasting, this way of talking about art which privileges content over form is one that I’m sure we’re all very much accustomed to through a plethora of arts documentaries that take this approach. The presenter’s role is often to guide us through the symbolic meanings of each piece so that we might feel that we better understand it. This has become such an accepted modus operandi for arts programming that it is even more striking when programmes seem to break this mould.

A very recent example of this can be found in the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge. The format of an art competition in which contestants must demonstrate their skills across a variety of different mediums requires the viewer to focus much more on the style and form of the piece rather than any underlying symbolism or meaning (or ‘content’). Furthermore, our room for interpretation is also limited by being privy to the artistic process from start to finish, portraying it as one of aesthetic rather than moral judgement.

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To expand on how Sontag’s critique of interpretation is a useful discussion point for understanding contemporary arts broadcasting, I want to return to a quote by Oscar Wilde which is featured right at the beginning of her essay:

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Indeed Wilde, known for being a strong advocate of ‘art for art’s sake’, seems the perfect poster boy for the campaign to end this theoretical duality between content and form. As he writes in the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray:

All art is at once surface and symbol.

It is this quote that I feel most aptly summarises the underlining ethos behind my next example of arts programming.

In Grayson Perry: Who Are You? the Turner Prize winning artist sets out to create a series of fourteen portraits using a diverse range of individuals. Like in the case of The Big Painting Challenge, our interpretation is limited by being witness to the artistic process undertaken by Perry. There is no need for any interpretation on the viewer’s part, as it is all laid out for us as a collaborative process between the artist and sitter through a series of on screen-interviews and discussions. Further to this, Perry takes us through his reasoning behind each artistic decision at each stage so that we might understand how it contributes to the finished product.

However, what is particularly striking about the series is the ways in which the medium and style of the portraits are portrayed as a fundamental part of their ‘message’, from the fragility of the smashed pot for disgraced politician Chris Huhne, to using a hijab as the canvas on which to depict Kayleigh’s conversion to Islam. The style of the piece is the content.

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Towards the end of Against Interpretation, Sontag calls for an approach to discussing art that uses a more descriptive, rather than prescriptive vocabulary. One in which form and content are not treated as distinct categories and ‘the sensory experience of the work of art’ is not taken for granted:

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art-and, by analogy, our own experience- more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I would argue that broadcasting’s ability to display the artistic process provides us with an insight into ‘how [art] is what it is’. Through limiting the need for interpretation, we are presented with a far more aesthetic experience of art in which the distinction between form and content seems more like the ‘illusion’ that Sontag argues it is.

Although there is certainly a place for both approaches to mediating the arts, it is interesting to note how arts programming that privileges aesthetics over interpretation tend to have more popular appeal. In this respect, it might be interesting to consider whether we place more value the interpretation of art or the experience of it and whether, as Sontag argues, the two are indeed mutually exclusive.

WNO take over Twitter to discuss whether austerity will #killculture

This afternoon the Welsh National Opera took over Twitter to lead a debate around the question ‘will austerity kill culture?’ as part of the BBC’s Get Creative campaign.

WNO CEO and artistic director, David Pountney kicked off the one hour takeover with the statement “Culture is not the answer to everything, but life without culture is worth nothing”.

Throughout the discussion a number of key points were raised in regard to the challenges that face the arts as a result of reductions in funding, and the value of culture in today’s society.

A key area of debate was the effect of austerity on cultural organisations and the artists themselves:

There were also concerns about how reduced funding as a result of austerity also impacts on people’s access to the arts and culture:
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However, Pountney was keen to assert that the value of culture should not be merely reduced to debates over funding, but rather should focus on its role in enriching our lives both on an individual and societal level:

Today’s debate highlighted some of the challenges that face the arts and culture in a time of  budget cuts and austerity. However, there still seems to be an underlining optimism and belief in the strength of the arts to prevail as a positive influence in society.

WNO state on their website that they hope today’s #killculture debate ‘is just the start of an ongoing conversation dialogue between arts organisations, audiences and the general public about the value of the arts.’

The role of social media in facilitating this dialogue should not be overlooked. As demonstrated today, social media such as Twitter has opened up new opportunities for a variety of voices across academia, industry and beyond to be heard and take part in a wider conversation. Furthermore, if the value of culture is to be defined by our own experience and relationship with it as individuals within a society, then surely it is important that discussions around issues such as these are as open and accessible as possible.

David Pountney on the value of culture and WNO’s partnership with the BBC

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“Culture is not the answer to everything, but life without culture is worth nothing”

The recently published report from the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, Labour’s election pledge to give every child access to a creative education and the recommendations of the Donaldson Report in Wales to include expressive arts as one of six key areas in a revised National Curriculum demonstrate how questions about the long-term sustainability of culture and creative industries in Britain are firmly on the agenda at the moment.  Increasingly stakeholders are being encouraged to come together to ensure creativity, cultural and the arts remain accessible to all and a viable career for those pursuing that pathway.

Ahead of the #killculture Twitter debate, we talked to Welsh National Opera CEO and Artistic Director, David Pountney, about the organisation’s partnership with the BBC and the Get Creative campaign.

We asked about the WNO’s mission and the challenges it faces:

WNO’s mission is to bring the live experience of opera to audiences across the huge swathe of the British Isles that we serve – essentially everything west of a line from Liverpool to Southampton!  But the live experience, unique though it is, is only one way to experience the essential benefits of culture to our well-being.

In enabling the WNO (and other cultural organisations) to reach and benefit a wider audience David was keen to stress the importance of partnerships between institutions and highlighted the pivotal role of broadcasters, particularly the BBC through initiatives like Get Creative in getting this message out:

Our partnership with the BBC – an organisation that touches 96% of the National population, is an essential way of communicating our message and what we have to offer, as well as offering the BBC our content through broadcasts and many other formats.

David also recognised a deeper role for both organisations in communicating arts and culture to society and in projecting that national culture to the world:

Both organisations have a “National” role, as their name implies, and this underlines that alongside the private and personal engagement with culture and the arts that is an essential element of so many people’s happiness, it is a valuable and essential statement by society as a whole that the world of the imagination sits at the heart of what we are as a society and a nation. It is a badge of our civilisation that we communicate art and culture both individually and collectively, and WNO and the BBC are proud to join in doing that essential work.

Catch up on the discussion with a recap of the WNO Twitter debate: ‘Will Austerity Kill Culture?’ and take part in the ongoing conversation using the hashtag #killculture

You can also read David Pountney’s response in the Guardian to the impact of austerity measures on the arts in the run up to the 2015 general election.