Tuesday, 16 July 2013

On television

Will Gompertz is the BBC's Arts Editor.

I don't need a television licence because I haven't got a television. One reason I haven't got a television is that men like Gompertz make the kind of programmes they do. They tend to be in thrall to two (very moot) assumptions: that the viewer (a) knows nothing whatever about the subject and is therefore likely to be ignorant about everything else, or (b) may know something but is labouring under some misunderstanding that Gompertz or his peers can breezily correct. The latter usually involves debunking critical orthodoxies of the past (especially those assigning objective value to the work in question) and proposing the view that art is for everyone!

This is nonsense. Art, whatever form it takes, is never for for everyone, but should always, always be for anyone (see blogs passim). Likewise darts or nipple piercing or mountaineering or stamp collecting - they're not for everyone, but there should be no barriers to access for people who aim to find fulfilment in these fields. It strikes me as odd that cricket - a far more complex activity than any of the arts and subject to near-blanket coverage by all media - is never really 'popularised' by telly personalities who feel they can make it accessible to non-specialist viewers by (for instance) explaining the basic rules occasionally.

Another reason I haven't got a television is that I don't like watching television, which has become increasingly fidgety and incoherent in its form and content, and has too many unlikeable people flapping their arms around to communicate enthusiasm for whatever it is they're supposed to be presenting. Enthusiasm, rather then hard-won lightly-worn knowledge eloquently passed on is these days the only currency in circulation. Gompertz and his ilk are happy to see themselves as village explainers, convinced that simplification and popularisation are two sides of the same beneficial coin. Their approach is unflaggingly chirpy and flippant and they appear to lack any capacity for reverence. I have a particular aversion to the kind of television personalities (who may be personalities but rarely have a personality) who intrude themselves between the viewer and the subject. You know the sort of thing I mean: 'In Widdecombe's Isherwood the feisty ex-minister has just three weeks to drop a dress size and discover why leading gay writer Christopher Isherwood left England for America in 1939.' Gawd help us.

So I listen a lot to the radio, where Gompertz pops up occasionally to report on some happening in the arts. Recently, for instance, with a Today programme piece on the reopening, after a costly ten-year refurbishment, of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. 

Gompertz is not a shallow, foolish and uncultivated man but this is how, for reasons best known to himself and his producers, he chooses to present himself to BBC audiences. He is a stranger to seriousness, which he mistakenly confuses with solemnity. The arts, and coverage of the arts, needs more of the former, and none of the latter. Bring back the rostrum camera (in the able hands of the great Ken Morse) and the well-modulated voiceover artist delivering a thoughtful script - not the breathless, off-the-cuff stuff delivered by a talking head gesticulating (annoyingly) in front of whatever it is we're invited to admire. Let's rediscover stillness, the ability to contemplate. Television arts documentaries (indeed, documentaries in general) used to be slower and have more impact, as the viewer had time to think about the subject and the programme makers were aiming higher.

Gompertz recently published a book about modern art and made a short film to promote it. It's here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vR9llM03CQ


  1. Could you please make that Amsterdam's "Rijksmuseum"?
    I enjoy reading your blog!

    Rob van Dam

  2. Amended - with thanks and apologies to the good people of Amsterdam.