As Martin Kippenberger might have said, there is no problem with art on Australian TV, we just buy their paint brushes. We have come to accept that the only things worth watching about art on the ABC are the odd documentary from the UK or perhaps a rerun of This Is Modern Art.
Over on SBS (the lowest rating TV station in the country and still falling!), their screening of Art:21 featured Steve Martin, William Wegman‘s dog and Heather Locklear (among others). SBS’s own arts programming has attempted to become more “hip” and “relevant” to younger audiences so, in place of The Movie Show after its departure to the ABC, we now have a bizarre sideshow hosted by a psychiatric nurse and two women who look like Alternative Barbie (square glasses, rectangular hairdos) and who read their pretentious scripts from autocues with grim determination.
The ABC’s panel discussion show Critical Mass, hosted by Jonathan Biggins (comedian, actor, author, TV personality), features an ever-changing line up of guests who argue with one another. Each week they talk about a movie, a book and an exhibition and then show us how erudite a man who wrote a book about Carravagio can be when it comes to reviewing a teen comedy (which is to say not at all) or how out of their depth a tedious newspaper movie reviewer can seem when discussing visual art (which is to say very out of their depth).
The ABC bears the biggest burden of responsibility when it comes to art TV – it is the national brodacster and creating art programming part of its charter. Since the 1980s the ABC repeatedly used the magazine show formula to varying degrees of success but when each show was inevitably axed, management resurrected the format in a new timeslot. State of The Arts and The Arts Show and then that Sunday morning version with that cattle dog with a neckerchief as a co-host to Robyn whatsherface and the long running rerun show called Sunday Afternoon with Peter Ross or Andrea Stretton. Whatever.
As members an audience who would like to see some good coverage of the visual arts on the ABC, we have slowly had adjust our expectations downward and now just thank our lucky stars that Friday night is given over completely to crime shows with crusty English thespians pretending to be Belgian.
Back in April, University of Technology Professor Liz Jacka released a report on the state of arts programming on the ABC and found it wanting. As was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time:
“The ABC is failing its charter to give Australians their promised cultural content by opting for populist programming over more specialised arts content, a report by a Sydney academic says.
“A desire to attract new audiences has given birth to shows such as Mondo Thingo and New Inventors, while more in-depth arts programming has been axed, says the report by Liz Jacka, professor of communications studies at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“Shows to be axed include Classic FM’s The Listening Room, Triple J’s Artery and Andrea Stretton’s TV program The Arts Show“.
And the shows were indeed axed with no replacements and no across-the-board arts policy to create a game plan for the future. Jacka’s report went further, pointing out systemic failure of the ABC:
“Commissioned by the Community and Public Sector Union, the report [ ] found that taxpayers were getting less arts content since 1992 on TV, radio and online. It also noted a decline in Australian performances and discussion of cultural issues.”
“In the last five years ABC TV has undergone a definite change of direction in relation to arts programming. The explicit strategy espoused by the director of television, Sandra Levy, is ‘arts by stealth’, seemingly sharing the view of ABC radio that the word arts scares people, although the words science, law, media, religion and health do not. So arts will be smuggled in via other timeslots,” Professor Jacka said.
As a result, the ABC was failing to live up to its charter obligations and editorial policies, she said. It needed to develop a mix of populist and in-depth programming and an ABC-wide arts policy.”
The ABC management were having none of it:
“The ABC’s managing director, Russell Balding, said it was “a palpable nonsense for the CPSU to assert that the ‘ABC is failing in its role as Australia’s premier producer of cultural programming. The ABC has a comprehensive range of arts and cultural programming across radio, television and online. In this regard, it is without peer in Australia.”
Four months later and nothing much has changed. Interestingly, the problem has turned out not to be with the ABC, but with the arts community itself. In an interview for the SMH supplement The Guide, Jacqui Taffel interviewed Sandra Levy on the eve of a conference in Melbourne designed to bring together members of the art community and the ABC to see what could be done to create exciting, vibrant and relevant arts programming. Surprisingly, Levy put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the viewers.
“Levy [ ] defends the organisation’s arts record.”What I resent is the assumption that we’re not interested in it,” she says, then points the finger in a surprising direction. Levy claims the ABC has tried to pursue many exciting arts projects that have fallen through because “the arts community are not that interested in television”.
Really? “They might be interested in getting publicity for their own art form but that not the same. We’re not here as their publicists,” she says. “We wouldn’t be having a conference to stimulate some real development if we were awash with exciting projects from the arts community.”
The invitation list for the conference was kept secret and the agenda for discussion also kept under wraps. Jacka was also not welcome:
“Among the recommendations in Jacka’s report were that ABC TV develop a prime-time arts program, continue to diversify strategies for developing new arts audiences and develop creative works designed specifically for TV [ ] but Levy dismisses Jacka’s report. “I haven’t read it and it’s not part of our brief,” she says. “Anything she says has got no relevance to what we’re doing.”
We shouldn’t be too harsh in our pre-judgment of what came out of the conference. After all, there are some very exciting new art shows coming up as Larissa Dubecki‘s article in the SMH explained under the title Aunty’s Going Monobrow:
“If you thought arts coverage on the ABC was all tweed suits, cravats and earnest panel discussions of Chaucer, think again. The popular preconception of ABC arts programming is about to receive a shake-up, with the announcement that new programs will be open to the concepts of reality television and popular culture. Future fare will include programs such as Operatunity, a British production to be aired early next year. It has been described as Pop Idol meets opera.”
Huzzah! We have been looking forward to a reality style opera show for ages!
“Ms Levy, who wants to expand arts programming and give it a prime-time slot, said the conference was driven by an awareness that the ABC could be doing better in the arts. “We need dynamic, inventive arts programming . . . The worst thing we can do is bore people away from our channel.”
Fenton Bailey, executive producer of the World of Wonder production company, told the conference that arts programming needed to make a cultural adjustment “not up, but sideways“. Programmers needed to abandon “their highbrow haunts and engage with all aspects of the world around them if they are to become relevant, engaging and revitalised”.
What the hell is Fenton Bailey talking about? As far as we can see there isn’t any programming, high brow or otherwise to react to. In truth, the whole attempt to portray art coverage as tweedy and high falutin’ is a smoke screen to cover the fact that the new programs will be short, commerical and have little time for difficult or demanding content. We are also predicting that, as far as visual arts are concerned, there will be sod all, and we may yet be right, what with the ABC’s attempt to shoe-horn this content into the left over 15 minute slots between the end of one show and the beginning of the next. With the difficutties inherent in transferring art into a different format, it would take a genius to translate difficult contemporary art into a digestible chunk of programming.
Perhaps not all is lost – Tuesday night sees the premiere episode at 8.30pm of a four part TV series called Art House: Playing The Game, which follows Christie’s head of painting David Cook and Damien Hackett from Deutscher-Menzies as they try to scare up some decent lots for their Australian painting sales. Although some Art Life readers have already seen the show and told us the show is dull and rather boring, we hold out hope that finally something good will be on the tele. Otherwise it’s back to cable and Naked News.