TV review: The High Art of the Low Countries, BBC4

Tomorrow's World: a Horizon Special, BBC2

Golden ages. What a lustre they give off from a distance, what a solid gleam of 24-carat achievement. Get a bit closer, though, and you usually find that the gold is adulterated with a lot of baser stuff. There's usually quite a bit of lead and steel in there too.

The point was driven home in the second of Andrew Graham-Dixon's series The High Art of the Low Countries, an episode subtitled "Boom and Bust" and devoted to the period that saw the Netherlands emerge from Spanish rule to become one of the most dynamic cultures and economies on earth. And it wasn't, Graham-Dixon was at pains to remind us, a period of unturbulent prosperity and peaceful creativity but one of violent change and jolting changes of fortune. Producing gold – in cultural terms – is rarely a placid affair.

Graham-Dixon began in what most people would take now as an epitome of tranquil contemplation – the Cathedral Church in Utrecht, a space of white perspectives and clean light that effortlessly fits into a Modernist ideal of beauty. But this is a scarred building not a perfect one, Graham-Dixon explained – the result of an iconoclastic rampage that left empty plinths and blank glass windows behind it. In a side chapel, a polychrome sculpture remained as a warning to the idolatrous, the rawness of its vandalising still shocking. It had been, as he pointed out, literally "de-faced", an abstraction that suddenly regained its sense of intimate mutilation.

I'm not convinced that Graham-Dixon was wise to add animal sound effects to his reading of Paulus Potter's The Young Bull, a genre-twisting painting of livestock. But for the most part, he's very good at ekphrasis, that verbal transcription of a painting that television art historians are required to extemporise while standing in front of it. "Have you ever seen a more vividly rendered cowpat than that!"he asked us. "In fact, have you ever seen a cowpat in art?"

There must be others, surely, but this was a very fine cowpat, crusted around the edges and defiantly down to earth in its account of what agricultural prosperity entailed. Graham-Dixon was on good form too in front of more familiar masterpieces, including a heartbreaking late Rembrandt portrait and Vermeer's View of Delft, not actually painted to supply the perfect concluding flourish to a BBC4 documentary about Dutch art, but performing that function very neatly indeed.

Liz Bonnin thinks we're living in a golden age too, as did quite a few of her contributors in Tomorrow's World: a Horizon Special, a rather odd miscellany that was half a programme about the preconditions for inventive fertility and half just a collection of cheerleading parables of technological optimism. "There has never been a better time to be alive," said Martha Lane Fox, talking of the opportunities available for those who like to shake the world up a bit with a new idea. I found it quite impossible to pin down a consistent line of argument in the thing and some of the content – the long sequence on graphene, for example – was very familiar. But there were intriguing things too.

The bottom line on invention seemed to be that there was no single bottom line. Competitions – such as the Google Lunar X Prize, which is whipping up a private-enterprise Moon race – were seen as a good thing, as were interdisciplinary teams, like the one at MIT run by Bob Langer, who has more than 800 patents to his name. But Bonnin also praised the open-source everybody-chip-in approach, exemplified here by a young man trying to develop a wind-powered skimmer to mop up oil spills. Sadly, what there's no imminent sign of in tomorrow's world is a decent replacement for the series of that name, which would have delivered all the information conveyed here in half the time.

twitter.com/tds153

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there