Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALL ART IS autobiography. And this is just as well for television, since it copes far better with life than it does with art.

This has less to do with the inherent limitations of the medium than with sheer patience, I think. One thing demonstrated by last night's Close Up (BBC2) on Jackson Pollock was that television can show you things about a painting that a photograph never can. Everybody says that you can't appreciate Pollock's work through reproductions; you need to be confronted by the scale and the physical mass of the paint to grasp what it is that makes him such a heroic figure. Television may not be able to offer that sense of weight; but, scudding across Pollock's barbed- wire entanglements, the screen can hint at a sense of movement and energy that paper misses, and can add another dimension, as solid form appears to loom out of the chaos.

But these sequences were distressingly brief. For the most part, what the programme offered was flash-cards of Pollock's work, a quick burst of Lavender Mist, a fragment of Blue Poles, as if to say "You're not really going to sit around for this, are you? Let's get on with the story."

To be fair, the division between the art and the life is rarely clear cut, and that's especially true for Pollock. Partly that's because of the kind of art he did: his professed ambition was to express his feelings, not illustrate them, but that resulted, perversely, in paintings that seemed to embody a characteristic narrative. One friend, talking of his reputation among his fellow artists, said: "Jackson wasn't particularly admired at all, as a matter of fact. He was the one who made the biggest mess." As in art, so in life. There was a suggestion that his drinking and his perpetual angst was resolved in the paintings; but most of the paintings look like resolutions only in the same sense that a bomb going off is a resolution. What Pollock found was a way of transferring his inner demons directly on to canvas, a process that didn't seem to leave much room for catharsis.

But in another way, what we think of the art has become peculiarly mixed up with what we think of the life. His reputation as the "Great American Artist" had less to do with his achievement - de Kooning and Gorky were the acknowledged leaders of the pack - than with the fact that he was about the only artist of his generation whose Americanness was beyond dispute: he came from Cody, Wyoming, and had once been photographed in a cowboy hat. His life reads like some kind of manual for aspiring Bohemians: "Drunkenness, violent death, sex and art," said one friend. "All of that is attractive to the public, with the exception of art." One of his biographers summed him up as "Not only America's first celebrity artist, but America's first celebrity artist casualty." The way he was photographed (jeans and T-shirt, moody expression) and the way he died (car crash with gorgeous young mistress in the passenger seat) meant that the figure he most resembles in American iconography is James Dean.

This film's title, "Love and Death on Long Island", reflected the Hollywood side of his reputation; and its great flaw was that it didn't try hard enough to blot that image out, to decide whether it is Pollock the myth or Pollock the painter that matters more. From the few seconds of close-up on the canvases here, you would guess the painter; but it would be a guess.

Another rebel without a cause in The Outlaw, Channel 4's contribution to National No Smoking Day. Michael Heath's cartoon strip, first published in that haven of sweet reasonableness, The Spectator, makes a brilliant foundation for animation, his deformed, unnaturally curvy figures taking on a faintly weird, jerky life. But the plot, about the last smoker in a health-fascist Britain, is silly. Monday night's opening episode included a news story about a man being shot by his friends when he asked if it was all right for him to smoke - the police decided this was self-defence. This is at odds with the real world, where as often as not smokers ask if you mind them smoking, and, if you say you do, will sulk, argue or just light up anyway. Heath intends his picture of a world where the smoker is a pariah to look like satire; to me, it looks like paradise.