Art of persuasion

Matthew Collings has put down his brush to present a new TV series in which he shares his love for modern art
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The Independent Culture
Matthew Collings, the presenter of a new series about modern art, has little time for many of the people in that milieu. "The art world is full of people who aren't very intelligent," he sighs. "In conceptual art galleries, from the receptionist to the curator, there's not a brain- cell between them - which is ironic, as conceptual art is supposed to be about the brain. I have most battles with those zombies who think that they must believe everything about art. They're the equivalents of the Eleanor Bron character in Women in Love, that rather too arty person. The art world is full of people like that, and they're unbearable. They make you hate art."

Those feelings have not put Collings off art all together, though. He has just made This is Modern Art, a thought-provoking new six-hour series for Channel 4. It demonstrates his enthusiasm rather than his contempt for modern art.

With the explosion of interest in artists such as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, the Chapman Brothers and Tracy Emin, this is a timely series. "Modern art has become something people want to hear about," says Collings, himself an artist with a studio in Bethnal Green who has specialised in "target" paintings. "There has, for instance, recently been an amazing shortage of articles saying that Jackson Pollock is rubbish. In the 1970s, critics would have said that anyone could do Pollock's work and that it was all run by the CIA. There were various degrees of cynicism about it. Now it's swung in the opposite direction, and there are various degrees of advocacy."

Collings sees his role as giving people the tools to debate the subject. "Suddenly people want to express an opinion about modern art, but find themselves unable to do so. When they go to the Turner Prize and look at an exhibit of a few grains of burnt cocaine, they don't want some disembodied voice telling them it's important. They want to make up their own minds. I'm just laying out arguments for them - 'Here are some things about modern art. You can go along with them if you like.'"

The first episode of This is Modern Art homes in on the lasting influence of three giants of the 20th century: Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. "All stand for radical breaks with the past, ugliness instead of beauty, America instead of Europe, irony instead of anguish," Collings says. "We like modern art because we don't know what it is. The reason it keeps changing is to make sure we never do."

But Collings has no desire to be seen as prescriptive. "I never feel I've got a duty to tell people what's what. I don't have any interest in saying what modern art is or in preaching its history. It's a question of telling a story which isn't definitive. Art is about having faith in your own mind. I'm not the Vicar of Art, or Mr Urbane, or Mr Mellifluous Phrase, or Mr Clever."

Nevertheless, Collings does a pretty good impersonation of a wised-up presenter. His skill is deconstructing the cliches of television programmes about art. After an introductory whirl about his studio in the first episode, the voiceover playfully announces: "Now it's going to be me talking. I wonder what I'm going to say?"

Later, he praises the Pop Art book, Andy Warhol's Philosophy from A to B and Back Again. As the camera prowls around the aisles of an American supermarket to the accompaniment of bland musak, Collings's wry voiceover intones: "I expect I'll be coming round one of these aisles and reading extracts from it at any moment - if this ironic, easy-listening soundtrack is anything to go by." Cue shot of Collings coming round an aisle reading extracts. He has made an artform out of the act of TV presenting.

The funny thing is that painters aren't normally this articulate. Collings admits that he is that rarity: an eloquent artist. "Painters tend to be inarticulate because they don't spend their time braying and trying to impress people at dinner parties," he says. "They just sit alone in their studios thinking about red."

'This is Modern Art' starts on C4 tomorrow at 9pm

James Rampton