Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 11 July, episode 1

Dear Dr Fox

After watching the first instalment of “British Masters” I felt I really must thank you for guiding me through the nightmare tangle of early modernism. Let me see if I’ve got it right:

Gertler = good chap; Sickert = bit trad but good chap; Lewis = incredibly evil; Bomberg = good chap + working class hero; Marinetti = great big charlatan; Nevinson = teeny tiny charlatan; Nash = bit wet at first but also good chap; Spencer = another good chap.

I think that’s about it. It all makes so much more sense put like that. Audaciously truncated biog’s, easy-to-grasp ad hominem judgements, and no fuzzy theory or context to make things unnecessarily complicated – I really admired how you saw off Marinetti without once using the word “Futurist”, which left plenty of time for your own mildly spirited rendition of “Zang Tumb Tumb”. (You need to work on that a bit, but full marks for being brave and having a go!) In the end, some cloudy background notions of general-modernity or loss-of-empire are all we really need, aren’t they? I shall be recommending this approach to my A Level History of Art students; it will save them much time and trouble.

My students will also find particularly helpful your ground-breaking “light bulb moment” theory of artistic development – Gertler staring at roundabout; Lewis staring at tall building; Bomberg staring at swimming pool; Nash staring at holes in the ground; Sickert staring at body of (allegedly) murdered prostitute etc etc.

Admittedly, no single statement of yours about Lewis (fascist, misogynist, jew-hater, biographer of Hitler, machine age dystopian) was actually quite on target. But why let facts spoil a great soundbite? And what a televisual clincher to thrust his pickled brain at the camera as evidence – and “scientific” evidence, at that – of his dreadful “poisonous mind”!

Whoever commissioned this is to be commended for their judicious use of license payers’ money.  Will there be a book on the back of the series? Or maybe even a board game? I can’t wait.

Yours etc
Richard Warren

Dear Richard,

I’m very sad to hear you didn’t enjoy the programme last night. It was intended to appeal to all kinds of viewers, from those who had no interest in art to those, like you, who clearly do. I obviously failed to convince you! I can make excuses (an allocation of c. 10 minutes for a whole artist does not allow for much detail — how I would have loved to do a whole series on each of them!), but  I will not try to change your mind on that front. I do, however, hope that you will accept that what I was doing was not art history in the scholarly sense. Nor was an academic methodology being proposed. This was a television programme, and my goal was simply to celebrate the lives and work of a group of artists I love in as entertaining and memorable way as possible.

Yours,
James

Dear James

Thanks for your measured reply – appreciated, given that I put the boot in. I don’t wish to drag this out into a prolonged exchange, you’ll be pleased to know. But quickly –

You say “not art history in the scholarly sense”. But that’s just it. Too much of it wasn’t art history in any sense. Is it not possible to be entertaining and memorable for a non-specialist audience without snipping and distorting the facts of the matter into shapes well beyond caricature – i.e. into actual untruths? And how does doing that honour or respect the artists you say you “love”?

I’ll leave it at that.

Yours,
Richard

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