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The BBC’s Big Painting Challenge is not the publicity British art needs

12 March 2015

As a painter, learning that the BBC has selected my medium for its latest Bake Off-style light entertainment programme felt a bit like finding out that your favourite musician has decided to stop touring and now performs six shows a week at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas – it’s nice to know they have popular appeal, but artistically it doesn’t bode well.

But maybe I should have seen this coming. Painting has been declared ‘dead’ over and over again in the past, suggesting that the medium lives on some sort of artistic death row, forever pleading its case in different ways.

Hosted by actress and dancer Una Stubbs (shown on the programme’s website in a jaunty beret) and presenter/collector Richard Bacon, The Big Painting Challenge begins with 10 amateur artists of varying ages selected from across Britain. Over six episodes the competitors will be pared down to a single winner whose work will, remarkably, be shown at Tate Britain. It’s quite a prize, and one that I don’t hesitate to admit fills me with envy.

This prize also lends some insight into the programme’s more altruistic goals. If Tate Britain is willing to exhibit the winning work of a televised competition for amateur artists, then Tate Britain must believe that such a competition can serve as a champion for visual art in the UK, or at least a promotional tool to get more people through the door. The participation of respected figurative artists Daphne Todd and Lachlan Goudie supports this idea.

Encouraging a deeper appreciation of painting is laudable, but is this the way to do it? In my experience, there is no shortage of appreciation for technical skill in the medium. The more complex uses of the visual language, though, are where the dialogue between the art world and the general public seems to fall apart. So will The Big Painting Challenge challenge the audience, as well as the competitors?

The inclusion of an art appreciation segment is encouraging, but I winced to hear Stubbs address the assembled competitors as ‘artists.’ Am I a snob? Probably, but I was taught to be very cautious before describing myself as an artist. In defense of my pretensions, consider Bake Off, which routinely addresses its competitors as ‘bakers’ but would never call them ‘patissiers’. None of this is Una Stubbs’ fault, but it rankles that in the age of Instagram and Etsy, everyone’s an artist.

Many of the participants are clearly skilled, and bring a refreshingly uncensored enthusiasm. But considered in our present socio-economic context though, the show begins to look more darkly symptomatic of our times. Here is a lineup of ‘strivers’ – they all have other jobs, for in Cameron’s Britain studying the arts is folly and anyway, who can afford the cost of tuition for something that comes with no guaranteed career path? It is telling that nowadays many people might find it better simply to throw their lot in with dozens of other enthusiastic Sunday painters and see if they get a show at Tate out of it, than to go to art school. Museums will participate because they, too, must be seen to be striving. They must bolster their wider popularity and constantly prove their worth.

Listening to assessments of some of the competitors’ less successful works I feel anxious and protective. I have vivid memories of some of my own more difficult critiques, and shudder with horror to imagine those moments being televised. Unlike the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, also famously open to amateur artists, selection exposes these artists to the risk of being lambasted by experts during prime-time. If the prize is big, so are the risks. This may be the programme’s more subtle lesson: in austerity Britain everything is possible for those willing to entertain us with their struggle.

A display of work by the winner of the BBC One’s The Big Painting Challenge is at Tate Britain, London, from 30 March 12 April.

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