RADIO / Low-down on high art: Robert Hanks on endoscopes in Tuesday Lives and Howard Jacobson at the Tate

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHAT USE could a journalist find for an endoscope, wondered Joanna Buchan on Tuesday Lives (Radio 4) - an endoscope being one of those long flexible tubes with a light on the end that surgeons use for peering around the gut and, it turns out, violin makers use for snooping around the bowels of a violin. Nobody came up with a satisfactory answer - one of Buchan's guests suggested that there was nothing legal a journalist could do with an endoscope at all.

This was taking a rather narrow view. Radio 3's assertively intellectual arts magazine Nightwaves - journalism, even though of a rather ethereal kind - quite regularly sounds as though it's trying to peer up its own gut; an endoscope would at least help it to avoid a crick in the neck.

Wednesday's edition, shifting its point of view sharply enough to risk severe whiplash, was given over to an abridged recording of the third Peter Fuller Memorial Lecture, delivered by Howard Jacobson at the Tate Gallery earlier the same evening. This was a headily polemical thrust at contemporary art - aimed specifically at 'the capitulation of the contemporary visual arts to language'. In Jacobson's account of art history, Modernism made it its business to purify art, making it non-representational, non- figurative, non-imagist, non-expressionist: non-visual art was a natural consequence. Works of art are appreciated in terms of how they can be explained, rather than how they are seen. Jacobson quoted one young artist scoffing at the idea of actually making anything: 'I'm an artist. I have ideas.'

There was a great deal of pleasure to be had from this parade of sturdy common sense, more from Jacobson's characteristically hyperbolic language and delivery - grinding sarcasm, cunningly iterated tropes ('Words, words, words'), variously sniping at and bludgeoning critics and artists he disapproved of, all lent a nice dramatic weight by Jacobson's rather actorly manner. You would guess that a reading by Dickens sounded something like this: certainly Jacobson gave the impression that his main villain, 'The Catalogue Essayist', could have slid into the staffroom at Dotheboys Hall fairly unobtrusively.

There were points where he seemed to drift towards a more wholeheartedly Victorian point of view - greeting warmly the fact that there is no English equivalent for phrases like 'epater les bourgeois' or 'avant-garde', and reading into this a confirmation of British social cohesion - a slightly surprising lurch into high-cultural Podsnappery.

But this notion was, perhaps, a consequence of his idea of 'High Art'. With a rather touching idealism, he defined its ultimate ambition as being: 'to save the masses from the idea of mass, to rescue the individual from the general, to reclaim the detail from the blur.'

That's also the ambition of a lot of middle-brow radio: Tuesday Lives, for instance, with its weekly cast of 'ordinary people leading extraordinary lives'. This is a rather superior example of vox pop radio - largely because it is readier to believe in the intelligence of its listeners than some of its competitors (did somebody say Punters?).

But it does sometimes offer proof that if you reclaim too many details from the mass, you're in danger of making your own blur. Last week opened with a sweet but familiar- sounding 'bats are not really scary' feature that could have been dropped anywhere in Radio 4's schedules without raising a ripple.

More impressive was a leisurely, unselfconscious interview with Sam Reed, a Dorset gravedigger with firm views on the protocol of his profession. 'Does it make you think about life, being around death so much?' the interviewer asked. 'Nope,' he answered with decision: 'Nope.' In its unhurried way, this was getting close to high art.