TV Review: The Turner Prize Discussion
I still can't decide whether The Turner Prize Discussion (Channel Four) was a satire on contemporary art or a satire on arts television. That it was a comedy of some kind - and of quite a high order - isn't in doubt, but the feelings it aroused were curiously mixed; at one moment incredulous giggles (take a bow Norman Rosenthal, blazoned on both cheeks with lipstick kisses), at the next sympathy for individuals who found themselves trapped in a purgatory of artificial controversy. . But in the end it proved impossible - as Roger Scruton tried to clarify exactly what it was he did think (as opposed to the diagrammatic opinion he had been cast to represent) he was overwhelmed by a voice slurring "you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong". "It's true that my understanding doesn't extend to the areas you currently inhabit," he replied, but Emin didn't register the professorial rebuke. "You people have lost me..." she said resignedly, "you've lost me now." "Do you think that's a generational thing, Tracey?" the presenter asked desperately, with a sobriety that he must have been praying would prove infectious. But by now Tracey was plucking at her clothing - "I wanna be free," she moaned as she tried to untangle her microphone, "I wanna be free."
Several of those she left behind looked as if they longed to follow her example, but though everyone stayed in their seats there were other defections of a more intellectual nature. Having pocketed the cheque to help set up the programme's adversarial structure (a pro and anti debate about the status of painting) Waldemar Januszczak then cheekily washed his hands of the whole affair: "I think it's a phoney argument," he declared, insisting that he didn't think painting was dead at all. He merely wanted to raise his voice against the oppressive contemporary dogma that painting was the only way to make art - a monster that proved quite easy to slay, since it existed nowhere but in his own imagination. He was a bit fed up, he went on, of having his views caricatured. "You are your own caricature, aren't you," observed Roger Scruton loftily and then (I think it was him, but the words were spoken offscreen) someone added a weary addendum: "Indeed all of us."
Whoever said it was right - but it wasn't really the participants' faults, nor that of the embattled presenter (Tim Marlow), who struggled on pluckily against insuperable odds (they should have been playing "Abide With Me" through his earpiece, so valiant were his efforts to keep the ship afloat). The icebergs that sank this vessel were the two long-established vices of television debate - the dread that rational agreement might break out unless antagonisms are carefully nurtured and the habitual overmanning, which makes any kind of sustained dialogue all but impossible. There were 10 guests here (until Emin's departure), each of whom felt obliged to disentangle themselves from the wreckage of the discussion so far before they could add their own points. In the end it was a case of every man for himself and, like all shipwrecks, it proved dreadfully compelling.
My dictionary defines an arch as "a curved structure of firm material, either bearing weight or merely ornamental". Modern Times' (BBC2) film about the occupants of some of London's railway arches would meet the second of those descriptions, I think. It was most artfully ornamental at times - marked by sudden shifts in tempo from the contemplative to the urgent, from deference to its subjects to an impertinent indifference to them. It was also full of curiosities, from subterranean fetish clubs to Dickensian manufactories, and of intriguing inventions too - like the sequences in which a policeman's interview was chopped into a long string of unconnected buzzwords - "rats", "hypothermia", "slaughter", "quite audacious". But could it bear any weight besides its own elegant form? I wouldn't risk it myself.
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