Last Night's Television - Gracie! BBC4; School of Saatchi, BBC2
Frame and fortune
Tuesday 24 November 2009
Modern art is supposed to shock, but what was especially shocking about
School of Saatchi wasn't so much the clever imaginings of the wannabe artists featured in the show so much as the revelation that life drawing is no longer taught at art schools in this country. So it was that the dozen young men and women vying in this four-part series for an opportunity to be patronised by Charles Saatchi and, thus, at once be transformed into global artistic stars, couldn't draw for toffee. As one of the judging panel, the Barbican's head of galleries, Kate Bush (no, not the "Wuthering Heights" one), inevitably commented: "I could do better than that." I thought that was the sort of remark that pub sages like me are supposed to make, not arts professionals, but she was evidently right.
Actually, my drawing is even worse than the wannabes' – well, most of them – but now I know you don't need to draw to go to art school I might have give it a go myself. For now, you'll just have to accept this article as an art installation, this piece of prose a work of performance art, and can use, if you wish, this newspaper as a "found object". Turn it upside down if you like, or put it on a turntable and let it run round and round for ever. Or pulp it. Whatever you like; I'm an artist, you see.
So School of Saatchi seems fatally flawed by a lack of talent. It is also badly compromised by the absence from screen of Saatchi himself – or "the Reclusive Charles Saatchi", as he seems to have been renamed. Apparently, he has "balls of steel", which I initially thought was a piece of installation art that had gone a bit too far, but in any case his balls, and the rest of him, was kept well away from the cameras. This was a big problem in a show that obviously sought to emulate the success of The Apprentice, but without its own Alan Sugar. Instead, we got a judging panel (advisory only) comprised of the entertaining and charming Tracey Emin; Matthew Collings, a great critic, but ever the critic; Frank Cohen, a non-reclusive collector; plus Ms Bush. These four, and a Saatchi sidekick who turned up at the end to communicate with the unseen Wizard of Art tried manfully to fill the charisma deficit and they had their moments. I was taken by Tracey Emin's defiance over her famous "unmade bed" installation, as "calculated, considered and directed", rather than the dumb-ass random collection of detritus that some newspapers and critics caricatured it as.
In fact, much of Tracey Emin's art is very affecting, especially her video work, and, of all those on the show, she is the one who has been through the searing pain of becoming a public intellectual in the acridly anti-intellectual British climate, and thus commands awe. I'm not so sure about all the others. While the young artists themselves seemed (relatively) unpretentious, Collings in particular spent far too much time asking himself, the artists and his fellow panel members, "What is art?" For heaven's sake, man. Apart from talking about football and, in the olden days, discussing the future of socialism, there has been no greater waste of time devised by humans than discussing the meaning of art, and all that. These episodes made the show drag a bit, which was a shame. I might have felt more charitable towards him if Collings had managed to offer his own definition of art, but he didn't. Still, that's critics for you.
Gracie Fields's career never aspired to "art". She might have dismissed such nonsense, in a high-pitched Rochdale accent, as "daft", but it was certainly one that, like great art, inspired controversy, love and hate in equal measure. Jane Horrocks, in Gracie!, made a magnificent job of conjuring up the no-nonsense-two-up-two-down-by-gum-you-daft-ha'poth-Northerness of Our Gracie, which was evidently as genuine as her patriotism. And that, as well as belting out "Sally" and "Wish Me Luck (as You Wave Me Goodbye)", was the point of this biopic. As the film noted, Fields's reputation never quite recovered from her absence from these shores during the Blitz. Whether she did this out of misplaced loyalty to her film-directing Italian husband (threatened with internment without trial), illness or cowardice, the British public turned on her, and never quite forgave her. The film made a pretty good job of presenting the case for the defence, explaining Fields's war time absence in Capri and elsewhere as a series of misadventures, but it left a sliver of doubt, as when she asked what it would "look like" if she went on a tour of Canada rather than waiting for the bombs to fall on a music hall in Coventry. While Vera Lynn, the Forces' Sweetheart, is now topping the charts on a wave of wartime nostalgia, Our Gracie, a far bigger star in her day, is near forgotten. Gracie's art has not stood the test of time.
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