Staying In: New ways of seeing

In his C4 documentary series, art critic Waldemar Januszczak attacks long-held beliefs about the history of art
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Waldemar Januszczak (right) has got it in for the Germans. Not because they always beat us in penalty shoot-outs or because they invariably bag the best sun-loungers with their towels, but because in the late 18th century they dreamt up the myth of civilisation, an efficient compartmentalisation of art history into pigeon-holes marked "Renaissance", "Baroque" and "Rococo". Januszczak's response is The Truth About Art, a thought-provoking three- part documentary which traces the history of art back not 400 years, but 40,000.

"What you have with the civilisation myth is the German mind trying to tidy up something that is essentially untidy," says the man who has been art critic for both The Guardian and The Sunday Times. "These programmes are an implicit attack on the civilisation myth. After years of finding myself unable to explain what I saw in terms of the usual story of art, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't true. The art history I'd been taught didn't get me to Damien Hirst, let alone Picasso. The civilisation myth traces everything back to the Greeks, but that's such an unhelpful construct - of next to no use for 20th-century art. My first programme looks at art from cave painting to Damien Hirst. It doesn't deal with the Renaissance or the Baroque - they're irrelevant to that progression.

"If you want to understand the art of Hirst, you have to look far back into art's past, to art's traditional origins, and not compare it with new-fangled modern inventions like oil painting. Oil paints were only invented 500 years ago; in the overall story of human art, they're a passing phase, a craze, something we will grow out of. Oil painting is the hoola- hoop of art. It can't survive in a world of computer technology."

While we are stuck in this rigid view of art history, Januszczak contends, we'll never properly understand modern art, which springs not from some ostentatious desire to show how cultivated we are, but from a far more basic instinct. "It is not surprising we are so ridiculously suspicious of modern art," he argues, "when the phoney story of art we are usually told prepares us so badly for the art of today.

"It's no good looking at Hirst's shark, comparing it with the paintings of Raphael, then tut-tutting about how unskilful it is. The shark descended from a much older art tradition, from the very first art we made, from a time when the world was full of wonder, uncertainty and danger. And it is that sense of wonder - which we have lost in our daily lives - that art can still provide for us. Unfortunately, the civilisation myth has little place for wonder or uncertainty. After all, it's a German invention."

In Januszczak's opinion, the civilisation myth has had other malign effects, some of which are observable in our own museums. "The Elgin Marbles were `cleaned' in the British Museum by someone who believed in the German idea that Greek art should be made from white marble. So workmen took a millimetre off the suface. You can see what has been done in pursuit of a fantasy of gleaming white marble."

The standard view of art history has also largely neglected work from outside the cosy confines of Europe. The first episode of The Truth About Art gazes in awe at the "bushman art" in the caves of remotest Zimbabwe. When these astonishingly vivid paintings were first discovered by Europeans in the last century, they were dismissed as fakes. According to Januszczak, art experts "simply couldn't believe that so- called primitive man could have produced anything so sophisticated and so skilful. Naked hairyman-apes - which is what we assumed the first artists were - ought to have painted messy blobs and inchoate scribbles. The cave paintings simply didn't fit our fantasy of civilisation as a relentless climb towards enlightenment with us over here at the clever end.

"Bushman art is miraculous, but we never hear about it because people prefer to pop down to the Louvre rather than clamber up and down hills in Africa. But it's a crime that it's been undervalued and allowed to rot away. Because of our sense of cultural superiority and Eurocentric prejudice, this art has been worse than ignored."

You may not always agree with him (especially if you're a German art historian from the late 18th century), but there can be no doubting the passion Januszczak brings to the discussion of these weighty matters. Without vulgarising art, he aims to make it more accessible. A former commissioning editor for arts at C4, he knows more than most that television and the arts have not often enjoyed a happy marriage.

"Arts programmes have come across as unfriendly," he admits. "You'd turn on a programme about music, for instance, and you'd get a ghastly atonal plinky-plonky sound that says `arts programme, turn off'. And a programme about art would have either a nun traipsing around a gallery or wonky camerawork of some trendy bloke wandering around South London being anecdotal.

"But people love art - if they're only given a chance to see it properly. On television, it needs to entice people rather than preach to them. Francis Bacon said that art circumnavigates the brain and appeals directly to the senses. It's a visceral artform - it gets to you," he says, before adding with an ironic smile: "Art is the new rock'n'roll."

"The Truth About Art" is on C4 tomorrow at 8pm

James Rampton

Comments