Old masters and old mistresses: the BBC’S ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

The HIS-tory of art, as a discipline, adheres to a strict theoretical canon based on a process of constant innovation, progress and avant-garde advancement. Movement follows movement, -isms spiral into –isms. As time unfolds, so does the reduction of the canvas- style is unpicked, colour is unleashed, linear perspective and historical narrative deconstructed and transformed into an explosion of subjectivity that peaks with the onset of modernity.

This canon thrives on the romantic notion of genius as a singular individual overwhelmed with radical raw talent. This individual is often posed as depressed or neglected, misunderstood in their own time frame, only to be rediscovered after their death. Excavated like a golden nugget. But this concept of genius is not neutral. Genius follows a pattern in the history of art- white, heterosexual and masculine. Tick these three attributes off your list and you’ve got yourself a modern master. This is the history of art we’ve all been taught at school: Manet led to Cezanne who led to Picasso who led to Matisse who let to … you get the point.

The BBC often has interesting art historical programmes based (loosely) outside the parameters of this model, like Andrew Graham-Dixon’s focus on the art of Russia, that new preppy young chap (James Fox, I think his name is? I typed ‘preppy young art historian’ into Google but I realized this made me sound about 100 years old and did not surface any answers) who looked at the history of art thematically in three colours. That was interesting. Not radical, but interesting enough as a one-time formula. However, on Iplayer this week the Beeb have a brand spanking new art program called ‘Great Artists in Their Own Words- The Future is Now’ (1907-1939.) The program “unlocks” the BBC archives in order to “tell the story of the birth of modern art, in the words of the artists who created a cultural revolution” which all sounds very impressive and dramatic, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The notion of documentation and archiving is interesting just in itself. When you look at documentation in the light of say, 1970s feminist performance art, it becomes clear how dominant myths of modernism are perpetuated in the acts of interviewing or recording. The 1970s performance works were not well documented, and they were not supposed to be. This is because the emphasis was placed upon the ephemeral and transitive experience of the performance, as something that took place in front of an audience and then disappeared. Photographs or videos would always stand in place as a substitute for the corporeal act, becoming a tangible object that could be placed within the art institutional system of production, consumption and capital. The downside of this is that feminist artworks often remain unexplored underground, their complex meanings never to be debated within mainstream discourse. Interviewing is based on a decision; somebody has actively decided that the artist has something to say that needs to be recorded and validated. They often do. But, what about the artistic voices that were not always given (or refused) a platform for discussion? What does the history of art omit in its inclusion?

So, this program was set in the hub of late 1920s/early 30s Paris and started with a charming biography of Picasso, the man who “set the standard of what it was to be an artist” due to the fact he “shattered conventions” through the creation of cubism in a “fever of creativity” (get ready for a lot of speech marks.) Rivalry! Picasso was supposedly jealous of another artist named Matisse, who also possessed “dazzling gifts” and a “revolutionary vision.” Then along came Duchamp, who was equally as transgressive, who “completely changed human art expression” through one “simple gesture” of the ready-made. Just like that, startling really. This one man bought about a revolution! He “swept away” old art and replaced it immediately with “his idea that anyone could be an artist.” So along came Max Ernst, the lonely solider fighting on the front of WW1, he offered a “startling new direction” to the mix “like nothing anyone had seen before” which “lay the foundation for Surrealism” and “unlocked a new visual world.” Jump to photography and to Man Ray, his innovations and “incredible versatility dazzled his contemporaries.” What’s this? Leonora Carington, A WOMAN!? Have you never heard of her? That OK though because she’s a weird anomaly  “strong enough” to mix with masculine Surrealist circles. She also had a personal love affair with Max Ernst, of a sexual nature- ooh la la. Oh, and she’s also apparently a witch as it was said she “didn’t paint her pictures but brewed them up in a cauldron at night.” Nice. Then Magritte. Usurped by Dali, who eventually sold out and did loads of bizarre Alka Seltzer adverts. The end.

Apart from brief mentions of the world wars, this documentary completed omitted any references to the social, cultural or political circumstances of that time period. It relied solely on biography and personal antidotes. There was no mention of scientific discoveries, the urbanization of new modern spaces of leisure and entertainment or the rapid development of industries and production based upon capitalism. No discussion of the circulation of new forms of accessible media such as magazines and newspapers, the fact that women gained the right to vote in 1928, no mention of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, Remedio Varo, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim, Louise Brooks, Josephine Baker or Dorothea Tanning. Not even a hint at the emerging deconstructions of binaries of sexuality and gender or the discussion of lesbian identities in Radyclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness. No psychoanalysis, which actively began questioning the formation of the self in symbolic structures of language and the murky realm of the unconscious. I get that the program is supposed to be a brief introduction, a quick summary of the Western art of this period, and so maybe there simply wasn’t enough time to critically converse with those issues. But, then again, I don’t really buy that. The discussion of the work itself, the actual art, was so minimal. The paintings appeared on the screen for a few seconds, and then disappeared without any real analysis or interrogation.

The amount of hyperbole used was excessive, and quite frankly, ridiculous. Not to mention boring. Art history, when studied as a practice invested in the meaning of works placed within a sociological, cultural and political framework, can be so rich and complex on both philosophical and psychological levels. Biography after biography like some kind of gossip-y  Chinese whispers is embarrassing, and it’s why art history often has a bad name. It does a disservice to the artists mentioned, reducing their work to two-dimensional conceptions of revolution and change, propping them up as some other-worldly god-like masters with innovative powers beyond the realms of human understanding. But, even more so, it falls back upon the same-old canon of artistic progression; completely negating and undermining the deconstructive practices of so many incredible feminist, post-structuralist and post-modernist thinkers.  Art history is better than that, you’ll just have to believe me.

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