Two exceptional programmes about art in as many days: Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature (BBC Four), available on iPlayer here, and Grayson Perry: All Man (Channel 4), available on All 4 here. I know quite a lot about art, and I know what I like, so programmes about art have me at hello.
Dr James Fox is an art historian, and a young one, too. When I first wrote about him in a Top Trumps-style article comparing TV art buffs for Word magazine in 2011, I wasn’t sure if he or equally youthful small-screen boffin the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke was the youngest, so I got in touch with Dr Fox via his email address at Cambridge University, where he is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College (I couldn’t verify his date of birth anywhere and the BBC Press Office were rudely ignoring me). I didn’t expect a reply from the man himself but got a very cheery one that same afternoon. Professing himself a fan of Telly Addict, he confirmed that he was an embryonic 29 but born a few months after Alastair, so officially the youngest art critic on television! He added, self-deprecatingly, “He’s an art critic while I’m an art historian; he’s a glamorous journalist while I’m a dowdy academic.” (I liked them both on telly, but preferred dowdy.) Dr Fox and I have corresponded often in the years since, as I’ve reviewed his regular series on BBC Four and BBC Two – British Masters, A History of Art in Three Colours, A Very British Renaissance, Bright Lights Brilliant Minds – but never quite managed to buy each other the coffee at the British Library we continually threaten to do.
I find him a bright, sincere and witty TV guide, a boyish expert with the look of the young Bob Dylan about him (something I suspect he plays up to – I recall a sequence in, I think, Three Colours which seemed deliberately to be lit and framed like the cover of Freewheelin’ – minus Suze Rotolo). His catchphrase is, “But I think …”, which comes after a preamble stating the received wisdom about a painting, or a sculpture, or an era, at which he presents his own thesis. “But I think …”
His latest excursion is very different. It’s still authored, and it’s still him, in his skinny jeans, and with his hair pointing skywards, but Forest, Field and Sky is first of all a one-off, not a series of three (Fox’s usual metier), and secondly, it features artists who, by and large, I’d never even heard of. I am an enthusiastic if not Mastermind-ready weekend art historian so can usually find a number of points of entry with even the more arcane artistic dig; not here. This was all new to me, and refreshing for that. Dr Fox wandered in search of art hewn from nature itself, beginning by forming a small pebble circle on a beach and accurately defining it as a primal “cultural act.”
With this primordial beginning as a starting point, he stood in geo-agricultural awe of Andy Goldsworthy’s stone sculptures (and watched him attempt a Sisyphean dry stone wall up a tree that collapsed like a Jenga tower, twice), sat for hours in one of James Turrell’s extraordinary sky-bunkers (see: view above), found David Nash’s 1978-conceived “forever” sculpture Ash Dome in a genuinely secret corner of North Wales, lost himself in landscape architect Charles Jencks’ extraordinary Garden Of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, and witnessed Julie Brook building a beacon bonfire in the middle of an outer Hebrides sea loch, designed to snuff itself out with the tide, gone forever. (A London art dealer must have looked at this show and wondered, “How the hell do I make any money out of art that falls down, burns itself out or exists in secret?”)
My only touchstone in this documentary, often about touching stones, was Richard Long, whose work I discovered through Bill Drummond (the only living artist with whom I’ve personally performed an improvised art lecture). The good Doctor walks ten miles in a straight line across Exmoor as per one of Long’s most famous pieces, which ought to come with a free pedometer. Our host’s awestruck joy at these living artworks was infectious, and in HD, you really got a sense of it. I also really felt like a good walk in North Wales or the outer Hebrides or through the Yorkshire Sculpture Park after watching it. It’s roughage enough in and of itself. But I think … a good art series will always make you want to see art.
Grayson Perry is an artist and more; just about as popular and recognisable in his field as Andy Goldsworthy and the others aren’t, even in an actual field. He’s a natural showman, or show-woman, depending on the day or the occasion, but ought on paper to be a difficult sell to a mass audience, thanks to his deal-with-it transvestism – which even in this incrementally progressive era of gender fluidity and same-sex acceptance might still be a turn-off to, say, readers of the foxhunting broadsheet paper Alastair Sooke writes for. And while our most visible and famous modern artists – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst – make a big noise with installations and provocations, and fellow populist (but shyer human being) Antony Gormley scores through scale, Grayson is more of a humble artisan, making pots and tapestries in the mediaeval style, and his manner of drawing is that of a cartoonist, or a children’s illustrator. And even in these techniques, he dares to draft not with a pencil or a brush but an electronic pen on a CAD screen. He is a folk artist for a digital age. With a massively infectious guffaw.
In brief, he refuses to conform to any of the stereotypes of what he is, including, in a previous TV adventure, an Essex man. And yet, look how comprehensively he has insinuated himself into the lives of people who might without thinking say they knew nothing about art, or cared less for cross-dressing. Perry is a sort of messiah figure – potentially divisive but actually unifying. He couldn’t be without also being a TV natural. While Hirst is boorish, and Emin fidgety and self-conscious, Perry loves the camera, and it loves him back, and this symbiosis rewards him with a vast constituency.
It seems pertinent, or at least irresistible, at this juncture to reprint the photo of me and Grayson (or, technically, Claire) at the 2014 Radio Times Covers Party, taken by choirmaster Gareth Malone, and [right] the photo of me and choirmaster Gareth Malone, taken by Claire. (I’m calling the latter an actual Grayson Perry artwork.)
He/she is as charming and down to earth as we’ve now all come to expect having seen so much of him interacting with ordinary people on TV. In All Man, he’s exploring masculinity, and in part one of three (art programmes do seem to come as triptychs), he’s in the northeast, interacting with cage fighters, ex-miners and beer drinkers mourning the loss of a friend who, with statistical inevitability and without sharing his woes, committed suicide. Whether investigating class, identity, fame or socio-geographical roots, his shtick is to meet the general public (or, in the case of Who Are You?, Rylan Clark and Chris Huhne, who are still ordinary people but made famous by extraordinary circumstances), and to turn their true stories into artworks, generally in clay or textile. All Man already cleaves to that winning formula, but once again, he takes people he’s just met into his confidence, earns their lifelong trust by giving just enough of himself, and wins them over, before exploiting their insecurities and strengths through customised earthenware.
Even if, like me, you’re a Perry completist – I’ve seen every one of his shows for Channel 4, and gazed in Dr Fox-like awe at his artworks at the National Gallery in London and the Turner Contemporary in Margate – the magic is never dulled by repetition. When he memorialised the lad who took his own life in the first episode of All Man, his mother was moved, and so were his tough mates, and so, visibly, was the artist. Some may dismiss all this as post-Diana mawkishness, but I believe it is art therapy, nothing less. And it makes us better, not worse, people.
Both James Fox’s sensibly-shod art odysseys and Grayson Perry’s more interactive and democratic art hugs are vital things to be on our tellies. It’s key that both the BBC and Channel 4, who sponsor and curate these shows, are in line to be “eviscerated” in the words of Peter Kosminsky at the Baftas. Sky Arts, funded from the private purse, has proven itself a key player, too, but without public subsidy, art withers and dies and, like a sculpture made of ash trees in the forest, can it really be said to have existed at all?