THE CRITICS TELEVISION: Watch the historians paint themselves into a corner

Those who can, paint. Those who can't paint, look at paintings. Those who can neither paint nor look at paintings, become art historians. I don't believe dry scholarship and the accumulation of facts can tell us anything we really want to know about art. What's worth knowing about a painting is in the painting. But people cling to the notion that history, biography, philosophy, combined with the occasional sweeping generalisation, will somehow illuminate an artist's work. They treat art as a cipher in need of translation.

In the South Bank Show's Vermeer - Light, Love and Silence (ITV), Arthur Wheelock Jr of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, declared, "We can see a woman pouring milk, a woman reading a letter, we can see a little street, and yet it's surprising how little we do know of Vermeer. He didn't explain what he meant in his paintings, what his themes were, what his ideas were, what his underlying philosophical concepts were ..." But he did! He did all of this, in the paintings, and they're completely open to scrutiny.

As for his influences, his constraints, his technical know-how, his Catholicism, his wife and children, his friend who discovered spermatozoa through a microscope - why should any of this concern us? These are side-issues, padding. Irrelevant distractions. Even worse, Melvyn Bragg sometimes felt it necessary to offer inanities like: "The Dutch remain immensely curious about their neighbours" (shot of a Dutchwoman looking out of a window), and: "The Dutch have been pioneering seamen and tough adversaries in war." This is like saying, in a programme about Francis Bacon, that the English are a tea-drinking nation!

In an age of heavy sym-bolism in painting, the non-judgmental nature of Vermeer's work was its triumph, but Bragg tried to turn it all back into moralistic diktats about unladylike behaviour - this a symbol of sampled pleasures, that a sign that monogamy is best. None of this remotely explains the lasting power of these little paintings. Even a gentle objective description of the play of light on the face of Girl With a Pearl Earring was ruined by the jarring flash of a glamour photo of Marlene Dietrich - totally valueless as a comparison to this terribly subtle painting.

At the same time, the pundits refuse to acknowledge that the artist actually knew what he was doing. It was absurd of Jonathan Miller to doubt that Vermeer was aware of the abstract qualities of paint, when these are exactly what he used to bind his pictures together. Miller was better when he stuck to his own understanding of the work - Vermeer's representations of "the quiet flow of undirected thought".

The crowning discourtesy came in the form of AA Gill, demonstrating Durer's perspective window device. An opportunity to show a real naked woman here, with Gill drawing her. Oh, for Vermeer to have appeared at this moment - like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall - to say, "AA Gill's drawing of a naked lady has absolutely nothing to do with my work." But it was not to be.

Omnibus's Degas: the Old Man Mad About Art (BBC1) was a vast improvement on the genre. Richard Kendall, who set up the current exhibition at the National Gallery, concentrated less on random factual titbits and more on what Degas means to other artists, himself included. Perhaps there were a few too many re-enactments of painful poses a la Degas, and some unnecessary wandering through a replica of his studio, but the programme did manage to show a lot of pictures, with music filling the void left by the art historians' absence.

There was an element of Natural History instead, with Degas's women frequently being compared to animals. There's an animal quality to the artist's view of them too - from behind, as if he wanted to mount them. On Late Review (BBC2) Tom Paulin railed against Degas's misogyny, which he considers linked to his anti-semitism. But great art and great morality aren't always comfortingly interwined. Such issues are as relevant to Degas's artistic achievements as the Eighty Years' War was to Vermeer's. What Degas has left us is a superbly obsessional late outpouring from an artist who'd spent a lifetime "trying to find out what art is all about".

Only Howard Hodgkin is really worth hearing on the subject. Looking at a strange picture of an elongated woman's back he said, "Unfortunately in this country we tend to approach almost any work of figurative art first of all as a record ... [We] look to see how real it is. This is not real - it is a picture. It comes from life, but it is something extra. He was an artist who made works of art ... I don't think he cared a damn about nature, whereas he cared completely about the nature of art." Hodgkin could have been describing his own paintings, his miraculous objets d'art. And he said it all.

I didn't know that being big-hearted was a correctable deformity, but according to Brazilian surgeon Randas Batista (a handsome fellow on a horse), an over-sized heart is the cause of heart failure, and what one must do is slice off a chunk of left ventricle (still pulsating), sew the heart back up, and everything will be hunkydory (QED: Brave Heart, BBC1). We saw the operation so many times I'm sure I could do it myself if I had the right scissors. But I still don't see the point (I'm not sure the three - out of four - British patients who died after it would see the point any more either).

They never explained why these hearts got so big - surely there was some reason for it. Simply shrinking them seems a crude remedy. Batista keeps all the bits of ventricle in a variety of little jars on a shelf at his hospital, just like candy.

"Exterior stop police car comma pre hyphen dawn London streets stop." To the tune of "Playwrights from Heaven", a drink-sodden insomniac TV reviewer taps out a TV review. But as she types, she begins to realise she is just the sub-plot within someone else's self-referential TV review. She keeps seeing words she has just written appearing on pages the real TV reviewer has just crumpled up and thrown in the dustbin. At any moment someone may need to be murdered in cold blood for no apparent reason. In other words, what we have here is a multi-layered plot with nothing really going for it, but let's carry on for another three episodes to see if it improves at all.

Monday. The sodden but highly attractive TV reviewer, suffering from a terminal disease (life!) and wearing a baby-doll nightie to show off her excessively long legs, looks wanly over at the TV set, on which Karaoke (C4, BBC1 et al) has just broken for the ads. She checks the TV guide within the TV guide, and finds to her dismay that this final episode lasts an hour and 20 minutes (the length of many a good film!). She reminds herself that only a few weeks ago she devoted several column inches, days of thought, and much consultation of the actual screenplay, to this self-same Karaoke in her eagerness to give the late Dennis Potter the benefit of the doubt. She had even thought rather well of Albert Finney, who now seems to her to giggle too much. She doesn't care whether Richard E Grant ever re-edits Karaoke properly, or reunites with his rich wife, she is heartily sick of Ben Baglin's meaningless speech impediment and all the caricatures of low-life, none of whom can act, or at least they act as if they can't act. And wonders if it would be unkind to remark, in her newspaper within a newspaper, that Karaoke bears all the hallmarks of a first draft and should never have reached the screen. But, dramatically, she dies of boredom before she has typed the words.

Suggested Topics
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Development Manager (District Heating)

    £55000 Per Annum plus company car and bonus scheme: The Green Recruitment Comp...

    Lead Hand - QC

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

    Chemical Engineer/Project Coordinator

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Chemical Eng...

    Sustainability Manager

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn