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.

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