Tag Archives: Alastair Sooke

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One line of inquiry might be to consider whether the art featured within the programme is used to illustrate the historical content or whether the historical content is used to contextualise the art.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


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.’


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.