School of Saatchi, BBC2
The Age of Stupid, BBC4
Take six aspiring artists, tart judges, and an absent patron – and the result is surprisingly engaging
Sunday 20 December 2009
By the end of School of Saatchi, you could imagine its producers hopping with glee: the "winner" of the series, a sort of X Factor for the art set, turned out to be pretty Eugenie, the infuriatingly unreadable 20-year- old.
Even better, the work she clinched it with was a tree trunk impaled on a set of railings that she'd spotted on an errand. All she did was plonk it, railings and all, in a corner of the Saatchi Gallery, and, Charlie's your uncle – she's off to the Hermitage to exhibit it. Serendipity, opportunism, gall – her victory seemed almost too good a metaphor for the crapshoot that is a career in contemporary art. But there it was.
In fact, everyone involved in this gem of a series seemed to connive with their stereotypes. The six young artists competing for the honour of exhibiting in the Hermitage and a studio in London for three years, each courtesy of Saatchi, ranged from the so-ambitious-it-hurts (you'll go far, Saad) to the I-thought-this-was-the-metalwork-class? (sweet Samuel was many things, but not an artist).
The judges, too, did their bit. Tracey Emin wafted in and out, handing out verbal kickings where she saw fit, but with an unerring eye for talent. The art collector Frank Cohen, paragon of taste though he may be, peered out from his Oscar Wilde fringe like a puppy looking for its lead, happy to be led. Best of all, as ever, was Matthew Collings, stealing most scenes and, in that faux-earnest sing-song, handing out devastating critiques: "I feel insulted to have to look at this," he said of one of Eugenie's works, calling her a "bit of a bullshitter". You felt that qualifier had only been added for form's sake.
Saatchi, too, played his role as the arch-mage of the contemporary art scene. He never actually appeared and was represented on screen by a helicopter landing occasionally, and, more often, by a female factotum with a gaze to make a basilisk blink. You didn't screw around with Rebecca; as she said, over and over, there was not much point trying to be subtle with your art if you wanted to impress her boss.
Over the series the artists were asked to create public works for Sudeley Castle, the Saatchi Gallery itself and, in possibly the most revealing passage, Hastings shoreline. At a funny little pond on the promenade, the judges took to pedalos, the better to view Eugenie and Matt's work: a climbing frame on one island and a fake rock on another, the idea being that each looked like a zoo enclosure abandoned by its inhabitant.
It was, on balance, a load of crap, a fact which Matt acknowledged as the deadline neared. The look on his face on being told that both the judges and Charles loved the piece's ironic commentary on British seaside mundanity endeared you to him all the more.
Matt, in truth, was the most accomplished artist of the six, which Saatchi acknowledged by awarding him a consolation prize of a spot in his gallery in 2010. He represented the hard work, determination and intelligence necessary for his art career; Eugenie represented, well, everything else.
I had planned to make this column more in keeping with this week's big news, the climate-change conference in Copenhagen. But it's a measure of the all-encompassing scale of the fast-approaching environmental apocalypse that no one has a clue how to dramatise it on telly. There was that awful ITV drama, The Flood, which was inundated by its own tide of cliché. And, last week, The Age of Stupid, which was listed as a drama-documentary, but which proved to be beneath even that iffy sub-genre. It was a cuttings job, the conceit being that Pete Postlethwaite was the last man on Earth, reviewing newsreels from the Noughties. Each passage told a real story, such as that of the Indian playboy launching a low-cost airline, a wind-farm entrepreneur battling Nimbys, a French mountain guide mourning the death of his local glacier. It then cut to Postlethwaite, who can do rueful like Stephen Hawking can do maths.
It was like trying to get a 40-a-day smoker to pack in his habit by sitting him down in front of a 90-minute film of a cancerous lung. Chilling, in its way, but not nearly as chilling as watching on the news 45,000 delegates trying to get into a Danish conference barn meant for a third that number. Let's hope the guy who handed out the accreditation won't be doling out the carbon credits.
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