Last Night's Viewing: Great Artists in Their Own Words, BBC4 Parks and Recreation, BBC4


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The Independent Culture

There's a kind of catch embedded in the title of Great Artists in Their Own Words. It implicitly promises access to an authored revelation but the truth is – given the dynamics of the modern media – that what you usually get is an artist trying to escape the net of someone else's words. The process goes roughly like this.

The artist makes the work – in paint or felt or housebricks. The public misunderstands it. Journalists rush in to help explain – or to press a charge of deception. The artists, if they can be coaxed into the open, then labour to wriggle free of both the original misunderstanding and the subsequent reactions.

But the crucial point is that if they'd wanted to deal in words that's what they would have used as a medium in the first place. As Paula Rego pertinently put it in a clip that featured in last night's episode: "For me, pictures are better equivalents to feelings... there are things you cannot express obviously in words. You don't even know what they are really." In other words: don't ask me to translate, I can't.

Some go further. When Arena went to visit Louise Bourgeois (actually not a bad communicator when cornered), she appears to have tried to get them to sign a contract allowing her to "include, expunge, revise or otherwise change any statement made by her". When pressed on the fears behind this document, she clammed up and lifted up a sign saying "No Trespassing" to the camera.

Not a few artists shared her reserve. Richard Long, Lucian Freud and Gilbert and George, all of whom featured in last night's episode, either gave almost no interviews at all or mischievously gamed the system. The archive footage in this series has been full of incidental pleasures, but one of the highlights last night was a sequence from the Wogan show in which Jonathan Ross, dressed in a lilac tailored shorts suit, attempted to squeeze small talk out Britain's favourite living sculptures.

Even Damien Hirst – an artist who might be said to employ the broadcast interview as one of the media he works with – hinted at the insufficiency of words when it comes to conveying what art does for us. Describing what he wanted from viewers of Mother and Child Divided – the bisected cow and calf that was one of his more sensational works – he said this: "I don't expect them to walk in and go 'Ooh – life and death' or 'Oh my God, it's about the texture of ennui and the quality of life and our horrific society'. If they just go 'Ooh wow!' that's fantastic." It's been a fascinating series, incidentally provoking some thoughts about what's being laid down right now in television's cellars for future consumption. But, curiously, words have been the least of it.

Parks and Recreation messes with its own universe in ways that might offend comedy purists. Ron Swanson, for example, the department's curmudgeonly Tea Party sourpuss, has been increasingly showing signs of soft-heartedness. But then Parks and Recreation is so consistently funny that it hardly matters. This week, Ron won a Female Empowerment Award that Leslie had been yearning to get for years, a knife to her chest that season one Ron would have twisted without mercy. But season two Ron just teased with her for a while before doing the decent thing and handing it over.

The writing is delicious, dancing between character gags and the kind of pick-one-of-following gag strings that often result from a team of writers competing with each other. Here is Andy, the comedy's resident dummy, moaning to the besotted April about what he sees as his landlord's control-freak tendencies: "He's like 'Uh... that is not a working fireplace, Andy!' 'Stop writing phone messages on the wall, Andy!' 'Dude, seriously, I love you but stop digging that weird hole in the back yard!'" Andy isn't actually paying rent, by the way.