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Has the BBC made art boring?

17 February 2016

Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s altarpiece for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, as well as being one of the most valuable masterpieces of Western art, has had a lively history. It has been stolen more than any other work of art – six or seven times in all, depending on how you define theft, including during the French Revolution, the First World War and by the Nazis. Now it is surrounded by bulletproof glass in the cathedral basement while a replica stands in the chapel.

This, Waldemar Januszczak tells us in the first hour of his new BBC Four show, is one of the first masterworks of the Renaissance, which began, he argues, not in Italy, but in the supposedly ‘barbarian’ north. He wants to take us not only beyond the bulletproof glass, but beyond the jingoistic Italian bias of art history’s most influential writer, Giorgio Vasari. ‘This isn’t any old art programme,’ says Januszczak. ‘This is The Renaissance Unchained on the BBC.’

Just a few days before this show aired, the presenter didn’t seem nearly so upbeat about the BBC’s arts programming. In an interview with the Radio Times he lamented the fact that mainstream audiences tune in in their millions to watch nature programmes, but see art shows as comparatively boring. ‘People would rather see frogs shagging in the Amazon than a great Raphael. Why is that?’ Januszczak said. ‘The BBC has a lot to answer for. They’ve helped create this image that art is a kind of homework, that needs to do you good. I hate that art isn’t really popular on television, it really annoys me.’

We ought to view Januszczak’s statement as a challenge to its own theory. After all, it made the news – and art seems less boring, less irrelevant to the modern world, if it’s in the headlines. It’s hardly a Kanye West Twitter meltdown, but hopefully it meant that more people tuned in for this show about Van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch and Hans Memling than might have otherwise.

But if we take his comment at face value, can we really lay art programming’s ‘boringness’ at the BBC’s door? If anything, the BBC ought to be taken to task for desperately chasing the chimera of accessibility. And I wonder whether Januszczak counts his own show, with its quaint harpsichord jingle for a theme tune and unashamedly learned bent, as an answer to his own cry for more exciting art programming. One might have assumed he was pitching his own series to the Radio Times as somehow cooler and more hip than the rest. Thank God it isn’t. But elsewhere a new style of BBC show is coming to the fore and edging out Januszczak’s approach: one that is trying hard not to look like homework; that is antsy about not being watched; that is noticeably worried about its own supposed irrelevance. And it often exists uneasily side by side with the older model.

During BBC Four’s Pop Art season last summer, two polar opposite shows – Soup Cans and Superstars: How Pop Art Changed the World and A Day in the Life of Andy Warhol – aired in as many weeks. One was a bold, slick and sexy retelling of what we already knew about the movement, playing up its dangerous, death-obsessed side. The other was gentle, probing and showed Warhol – so often made tedious by the self-image he cultivated – to be full of interesting postmodern ideas. One featured the telegenic Alastair Sooke blaring Rock n Roll out of an open-topped American sports car and having his made-for-TV interpretations of artworks, by turns unsubtle and lightweight, shot down by their grouchy, living creators. One featured Stephen Smith of the Januszczak mold – charmingly and reassuringly frumpy, a bit curmudgeonly and strangely reminiscent in his delivery of Jeremy Clarkson – taking cabs to corner shops where Warhol bought his Brillo pads. One was beautifully advertisable on the flagship channels; one was actually worth watching.

The Renaissance Unchained makes good viewing because it achieves one of art TV’s most desirable qualities – it leaves you bumbling and gurgling in appreciation of the works, with the presenter helping to frame and expose what is already there rather than trying to impose an extra sexiness on it. But it would no doubt be classed as ‘boring’ if it were held to the standards of many documentaries that aim to be ‘popular on television’. It doesn’t show members of the public posing for selfies in front of the Arnolfini Marriage, as Andrew Graham-Dixon’s recent programme about the Mona Lisa did with its own focal point; it doesn’t show tourists walking around Innsbruck wearing Dürer t-shirts.

As if to highlight this The Renaissance Unchained was immediately followed on BBC Four by Botticelli’s Venus: The Making of an Icon, a show about how modern audiences with no interest in art might feel about one of the world’s most famous paintings. Presented by Sam Roddick, founder of erotic emporium and fashion shop Coco de Mer, it told us the story of how Botticelli’s silvery, translucent goddess ended up in Andy Warhol prints, in the opening animation of Monty Python, and on coffee mugs, helped along by clips of Lady Gaga, Ursula Andress coming out of the sea and Madonna’s Vogue. It looks quite nice, and, at half an hour, makes for easy viewing. But I can’t see why this ought to be less boring than shows packed to the hilt with interesting observations.

Anyone looking for a BBC art show that is as watchable as a David Attenborough programme should catch up on old episodes of Fake or Fortune, hosted by Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould. While putting in the ‘homework’ of learning how a master might have achieved this or that effect, the viewer gets to watch live as a family finds out not only whether their prize possession – their father’s precious Chagall, for instance – is a forgery or not, but whether it will to be confiscated, then incinerated. It’s as close to reality TV, courtroom drama, or indeed slow-motion footage of a leopard bursting towards a bemused, dreamy-eyed antelope, as art TV has yet come.

The first episode of The Renaissance Unchained aired on BBC Four on 15 February, 9pm.