Tag Archives: art

Public Service Television Inquiry and the Future of Arts Broadcasting

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Over the past year the state of public service broadcasting in Britain has been something of a hot topic. Following the publication of the government’s green paper on the future of the BBC there has been much debate around the relevance of public service broadcasting in an age of fragmented audiences and digital media abundance. However, although often the centre of such discussion, the BBC is of course not the only UK broadcaster with public service commitments. In September of last year Channel 4 hit the headlines over rumours that it could be facing privatisation to much public outcry. The past decade has also seen a significant reduction in ITV’s public service obligations, particularly in terms of specialist factual provision. These developments and the discourses that surround them signal the need for a broader examination into the place and sustainability of public service broadcasting within the contemporary media landscape.

It is these concerns and others that are currently the focus of an independent inquiry launched by Lord Puttnam entitled A Future for Public Service Television: Content and Platforms in a Digital World. Based at Goldsmiths, University of London, the inquiry aims to ‘address how public service content can be most effectively nurtured taking into consideration a range of services, platforms and funding models’. The inquiry has also run a series of events across the country, including one at Cardiff University which featured on its panel Angharad Mair of BAFTA Wales, the chair of S4c, Huw Jones, Head of Nations and Regions at Channel 4, Ian MacKenzie, Head of Strategy and Digital at BBC Wales, Rhys Evans and Angela Graham of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

The inquiry has also invited submissions addressing the key issues affecting contemporary television. A number of these key issues are identified by Lord Puttnam in a statement on their website which argues:

Public service broadcasters remain at the heart of our broadcast landscape in the UK but we are seeing a worrying fall in investment in key areas such as arts, news and drama as well as the tendency for younger audiences to migrate to new digital platforms.

Indeed, the increasingly competitive media landscape that public service broadcasting finds itself in has proven to be a chilly climate for specialist factual provision, and the arts in particular. Once seen as synonymous with public service values, the narrative of arts provision in Britain over recent years has been one of relative decline. This trend is also evidenced by the media regulator Ofcom, who found that despite hours of factual programming increasing by 20% between 2009 and 2014, spending on arts and classical music content across all UK public service broadcasters fell by 24%.

In our submission to the inquiry Dr Caitriona Noonan and I outline a number of recommendations. These include:

  1. Given the likely changes to both funding and content provision (e.g. the introduction of the BBC studio system) after charter review we would recommend that greater consideration of new and existing models of funding be considered for genres ‘at risk’ such as arts.
  2. While Ofcom and its associated research have signaled issues with the provision of arts content the regulator has yet to offer any viable strategies for the future. We would like more detailed monitoring of arts by the regulator and greater consultation about future provision.
  3. Whether the BBC Trust remains or is replaced by another system, we recommend that arts remain a visible part of their agenda and that there is sufficient accountability regarding the provision both in terms of the quantity and nature of the programming.
  4. While we lament the decline of arts on Channel 4 in peak-time we also acknowledge the creative risks it has taken and its partnership with both artists and arts organisations (e.g. the short-form series Random Acts). We believe that this activity is dependent on Channel 4 being publicly owned and we see this as yet another reason to keep the ownership of channel as it is for the time being.
  5. Further investment should be made into developing innovative content 
creation and distribution strategies for engaging young people with arts and encouraging them to see the arts as a viable career aspiration thereby strengthen the sectors.
  6. We believe there is a need for greater diversity in arts broadcasting in terms of subject matter and form, and in the diversity of those working in this genre behind and in front of the camera. 
We advocate an ongoing commitment within all PSBs to diversity through paid training opportunities extending access to this professional space beyond those from more privileged backgrounds.
  7. We believe there is a strong argument for maintaining BBC Four in terms of protecting specialist factual provision (not only in the arts) and as tangible support for the wider arts ecology in Britain.
  8. Our research highlights that many arts organisations, venues and artists outside of London feel excluded from the mechanisms of broadcasting and its coverage of the arts despite their critically acclaimed and successful work. We would like to see further investment in developing on-going relationships between 
national broadcasters and arts organisations to bring audiences coverage of events from across the UK.
  9.  Our research indicates there is a dearth of specialist factual content that represents the arts and culture in Wales both on network and opt-out services. If one of the duties of PSB is to represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities, then it is crucial that there is a strong voice for Wales that reflects the contemporary cultural life of the nation. In order to address this significant weakness in the overall public service provision, we would advocate the need for a more coherent strategy for arts programming that both serves licence fee payers in Wales and promotes Welsh creativity and culture across the network.

(click here to read the full report)

In many ways the mixed fortunes of arts programming and those of public service broadcasting have run in parallel to one another over the years. It could be argued that any weakness in the arts proposition is only symptomatic of the wider challenges facing public service broadcasters as they fight for survival in a competitive, multi-channel environment. The future of public service broadcasting is also the future of arts broadcasting.

 

 

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.

BBC ARTS is Getting Creative

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Last Thursday the BBC launched its new year-long campaign ‘Get Creative’, which Director-General Tony Hall hopes will serve to “inspire everyone to make art or do something creative.”

Speaking on the BBC Radio 2 Arts Show, Director of BBC Arts Jonty Claypole explained that a fundamental part of the scheme is ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to get involved with the arts, regardless of their social background or education. In regard to the BBC’s unique role as a broadcaster in this, he stated: “Through our services we reach 96% of the population a week, so we’re really well placed to get more people than ever before practising art and doing creative things”.

The nationwide campaign launched last week with a series of events across the country arranged by the organisation Voluntary Arts and shared on social media using the hashtag #bbcgetcreative.

Over 100 organisations have signed up to take part in the campaign, including prominent cultural institutions such as Arts Council England, The Royal Shakespeare Company and the BFI, among others. The BBC has also released a promotional video for the scheme featuring celebrities and public figures such as Johnny Vegas, Kate Moss, Frank Skinner and Andrew Marr.

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BBC Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw’s ‘Cultural Selfie’

Not only is this new initiative significant in terms of scale, but also in the way that engagement with the arts is being promoted across a range of platforms, pulled together by the BBC’s Get Creative website.

The ‘Get Creative’ campaign, in line with Tony Hall’s vision of the arts and the launch of the BBC ARTS strand seems rather strategically placed as we come up to the charter review in 2016. In a multiplatform digital age, the BBC as a public service broadcaster seem keen to assert their value as a cultural institution beyond just television and radio. This emphasis on engaging audiences with the arts through interactive online and offline events draws attention to how broadcasters have adapted to technological and social change in ways that prompt us to reconsider traditional notions of public service.

Alongside this, the upcoming general election seems to be creating a climate in which we’re beginning to see a lot of discussion and debate around the value of arts and culture within society. Increasingly, it seems the arts are being used to talk about everything from education to the economy in terms of cultural policy.

Broadcasting serves a significant role in giving a voice to these debates. Most recently, The Front Row Debate on BBC Radio 4 and Free Thinking on BBC Radio 3 have discussed topics such as whether the state owes artists a living and hosted on-going discussions around the value of art, respectively. Along with its significance in regard to contributing to a wider discussion around the value of arts and culture in society, this coverage of the arts also sends out an important message about what is worth talking about and what debates are worth having.

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Countryfile and One Show presenter Matt Baker

If you would like to take part in a Get Creative event without even leaving the comfort of your living room, on 27th February at 1pm the Welsh National Opera will be leading a Twitter debate around the question ‘will austerity kill culture?’ using the hashtag #killculture. For more details please go to: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/will-austerity-kill-culture

The Great British Paint Off

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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”.

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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”.

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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.

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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.