Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"THERE ARE few things in the entire history of human art that I find less inherently exciting than Roman sarcophagi," sniped Waldemar Januszczak, before demonstrating that the opposite was the case. Halfway through The Truth about Art: Gods (C4), we saw him peering at one finely sculpted example, indicating a sweet-faced little man with a footballer's barnet, surrounded by similarly avuncular mates.

This was Jesus, before His PR people had plumped for the hollow-cheeked Robert Powell model which now informs all representations of the Son of God. This was a "wimpish" Jesus, sneered Januszczak, one whose godhead was expressed in a mystical combination of male and female characteristics. This was a Jesus with (distinct note of disgust) "adolescent swelling breasts". And this is why, Januszczak revealed, Jesus came to be depicted with long hair - which was considered grossly effeminate in Late Antiquity. He even pulled some quote out of St Paul to the effect that anyone who had curls over their collar was a grade-A jessie. And before you had a chance to complain about the presenter's ill-considered remark about the tedium with which he regarded the period's funerary ornaments, up flashed an extraordinary mosaic of Christ as a kind of hermaphrodite drag queen. A flabbergasting image: Jesus with a smooth, voluptuous body and rouged, pouty lips, emerging from the baptismal waters like a Byzantine version of Ursula Andress.

Television and fine art have never quite figured out what to do with each other. Beyond their superficial common interest in rectangular-shaped images, the two have never had a comfortable relationship. Which is probably why producers feel that art always has to be part of some larky package which includes a goofy nun or - God help us - George Melly. Januszczak is thinner than Melly and more level-headed than Sister Wendy. His approach is an engaging combination of well-chosen did-you-knows and that ICA bar- room drawl that made his contributions to The Late Show appear so magnificently pretentious. He zipped between expensive locations with the supernatural freedom granted only to those who combine that holy trinity of offices: writer, presenter and executive producer. And lo, Januszczak went to Japan to gaze upon the face of the Buddha. To the Arizona desert, where a conceptual artist in a cowboy hat rolled him inside an installation disguised as a brain-scanner. To an obscure valley in India, where he goggled at mucky murals and pronounced them "rather sexy". To New York, where he got a shock in a Spanish Inquisition-style restraining chair created by artist Bill Viola. And to the Provencal town of Arles - where Van Gogh cut off his ear, and Januszczak dissed Roman sarcophagi.

The subject - artistic representations of the divine - was well-served by the omnipresence of its presenter. How much truth about art was actually unearthed, I'm not sure, but there were certainly enough nuggets of knowledge of the sort that you can easily pass off as your own at a dinner party. And that, I think, is one of the primary functions of the art documentary.

Art of a more earthly sort was aired in Tx: Fishtank (BBC2), the photographer Richard Billingham's home-movie about his family - a gang of monsters previously dissected in his book, Ray's a Laugh, and in his contributions to the "Sensation" exhibition. Billingham's work fixes his family with the detached eye of the ethnographer, anatomising their frowsty council flat and their raddled physical surfaces. There were numerous shots of peeling paint, hideous knick-knacks, bad skin and lardy bodies. Billingham's film is full of details which provide the same yucky frisson as his now- familiar photographs. Where "Sensation"-goers shivered at an image of his mum's TV dinner - an oleaginous mix of boil-in-the-bag beef and boil- in-the-bag cod in parsley sauce - BBC2 viewers got to see his dad getting drunk in front of Blue Peter, his brother swatting flies on the living- room wall, and his mother letting the family's pet snake roam over her rolls of cleavage.

And this time, the images moved. But in the context of its consumption - this BBC2 late-night slot, that huge wall of images at the Royal Academy, those big newspaper photo-spreads - there's a certain unease generated. It might be art. But it might also be a pornography of poverty for middle- class onlookers.