Tag Archives: BBC 2

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.


Ways of Seeing: How Television Changed Art


Written and presented by John Berger, Ways of Seeing was both highly influential and controversial. The four part series of thirty-minute episodes aired on BBC 2 in 1972. Being broadcast only three years after Clark’s Civilisation, Ways of Seeing could not escape being compared to BBC 2’s most popular pundit arts and culture series. However, despite the familiar style of a presenter providing pieces to camera and narration, there were a number of fundamental differences between Ways of Seeing and Civilisation in regards to both the style and ideologies of the programmes.

In contrast to Clark’s celebratory traditionalist approach to Western culture, Berger provides a far more radical critique of art, analysing the social conditions in which it was produced, reflecting his own socialist political leanings.


 Berger’s underlying focus throughout the series centres on the ways in which the very medium of television inherently alters the reception of art. In the first episode, clips taken from Dziga Vertov’s influential Man With a Movie Camera are used to illustrate this idea of a new constructed reality presented through the medium of film.

The series takeScreen Shot 2014-02-03 at 10.58.43s a self-reflexive approach, consistently making the audience aware that they are watching something constructed, rather than viewing reality through the window of a television screen. This reflexivity is most apparent during the first episode when the camera cuts to a long shot of the studio to include the other cameras, lights, crew, etc.

Fundamental to Berger’s analysis of how art is presented on film is the concept of reproduction. Berger argues that the means of reproducing art strips it of its original context and meaning, making it susceptible to multiple meanings that arise from the many different contexts in which it can be presented and displayed.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 10.29.34Berger’s mode of address is similar to Clark’s in that he speaks directly to the camera, often for long periods of time without any cuts. This again creates the sense of immediacy and a one-to-one encounter with the presenter. However, in contrast to Clarke, Berger is informally dressed and speaks with a degree of persuasive conviction.  Most notably, Berger’s pieces to camera are predominantly shot within the same studio against the same plain backdrop.

Ways of Seeing received a substantially smaller audience than Civilisation when it first aired. However, it had a long afterlife with the publication of articles and books based on the series. The series was also shown in art colleges and other educational institutions. The prevalence of the series being used within educational contexts demonstrates how Berger’s style of critique provides groundwork on which to discuss the theories presented within the programme. Whereas Civilisation brought works of art to the masses, Ways of Seeing opened up these works for critique and debate.

Civilisation (1969)


Presented by Kenneth Clark, Civilisation was the first ‘blockbuster’ pundit arts programme on British television. The broadcast of the series in 1969 aimed to show off BBC 2’s full-colour service, which had been put into effect two years prior. Although it should be noted that the majority of people in the UK did not have access to a colour television at this time, this technological advancement provided a means of transmitting images that represented art more accurately than black and white television services.

Clark uses art as a guide for exploring European culture from the fall of the Roman Empire to the age of industry. The art featured within the programme is interpreted in a way that does little to understand the social context and conditions in which it was produced. Rather, Clark favours glorifying exceptional individuals, and institutions such as the Church. Clark also fails to criticise the oppression that has paved the way for modern civilisation, favouring a positive interpretation of history that measures the morality of a civilisation by its willingness to transcend such barbarity.

ImageClark’s mode of address throughout the series is one that demands attention. His pieces to camera are often not heavily edited, leaving long periods of him addressing the audience directly. This sense of an immediate, intimate encounter with the presenter is also furthered by the lack of non-diegetic sound during these pieces. The viewer is given the impression of being spoken to on a one-to-one basis, although they are obviously unable to reply. This, along with his general demeanour, presents Clark as a voice of authority. Although the opening titles to the series state that the programme contains Clark’s personal views, there is still a sense that his viewpoint is grounded in fact.

Throughout the series there is a strong focus on religious, particularly Christian, imagery. The religious art shown on screen is often accompanied with obtrusive music reminiscent of that often heard within churches. This combination demonstrates how the audio-visual medium of television can be used to try and create a sense of seeing and experiencing art within its original context. As the entirety of the series was shot on location, Civilisation also provided viewers with a means of accessing art that may not have ordinarily been available to them. If the viewer were to see the artwork within its original context, they would experience it as something that is still and silent. However, this fundamental characteristic is altered by the medium of television itself. When presenting art on the television, the camera pans across the artwork, zooming in on certain details, making the viewer focus on certain aspects of the image. The soundtrack/narration accompanying the images also prompts the viewer to interpret the art in a certain way. Television as a medium is not just a way of allowing the viewer to access art; it also inherently changes the way art is experienced.


Civilisation’s mainstream success demonstrates how television as a means of communicating and sharing culture can popularise art. The influence of this landmark series can still be seen today in many modern day factual television series with the popularity of this pundit style mode of presenting information and on location filming.