Can you please talk me through the phenomenon that is Matthew Collings? Is it just sneery, over-educated, élitist me, or is this self-appointed commissar of the arts and popular culture a patronising twerp? His latest project is an exhibition of contemporary British art at the Milton Keynes Gallery. Don't all turn the page now – it's just 40 minutes by Virgin train from Euston, and well worth putting a little cash into Mr Branson's pocket.
Get over the fact that the whole town, sector by sector, looks the same, and the art gallery is easy to mistake for Tesco or a cathedral. This is the city of the future: clean, sterile, functional and bland. Like one of those grim Sixties new wave French films – Fahrenheit 451. How right they were way back then, a lot more right than Ridley Scott and Blade Runner as it's turned out. Anyway I digress.
The exhibition (entitled the Art Crazy Nation Show) is the first in a public gallery curated by the thoroughly irritating Collings. Jake and Dinos Chapman have contributed a series of giant graffiti'd skulls, Sarah Lucas a neon coffin entitled New Religion and there's an inspiring Gilbert and George.
Not so successful are the series of jokes about the art critic Brian Sewell by Darren Phizacklea and Rory Macbeth. Mind you, the life-size wax figure of Mr Sewell reading a label on the wall is funny enough, but perhaps not if you don't read his column in the London Evening Standard.
Matt Collings includes in this show lesser known abstract artists from an older generation – John Maclean, Gary Wragg and Geoff Rigden, but why I can't quite work out. Is it because (as he writes in the exhibition guide) he feels guilty to be part of the movement that popularised the Young British Artists, with his first book Blimey! From Bohemia to Britpop? According to Matthew, "the nation is crazy about art now but they don't really know what it is that they are looking at." My thesis is that the popularity of artists such as Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst and the Chapman brothers is because of their brilliance as communicators of ideas and not because of Mr Collings.
Have you seen any of his TV series, in which the subject, whether it's modern art or the Romantic poets, is always a backdrop for Mr Chubbychops to waft about in front of the camera in a black suit talking about himself? OK, so This Is Modern Art won a Bafta. Well I've got one, so I think I'm entitled to comment. For a revealing exposition on contemporary art you should have watched the excellent two part Equinox (also on Channel 4) a couple of years back on the subject of American cultural imperialism. These scholarly, well-researched and revealing programmes showed how, in the years following the Second World War, the American government, aided by well-respected critics such as Clement Greenburg, heavily promoted abstract expressionism and the work of De Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Rothko via a series of foreign exhibitions which they funded. Consequently, the perceived centre of the art world switched to the States.
This isn't dreary highbrow hard-to-understand stuff, but true revelation: a mixture of politics, money and power. And the argument was expounded without the need for a host, let alone one constantly popping up in cocktail bars or painting abstracts in his studio at home. Once, we relied on posh people like Kenneth Clark (Civilisation) and Lady Pamela Wedgewood (The Secret life of Paintings) to talk us through the arts. Robert Hughes represented a fresh approach with The Shock of the New. Matthew Collings represents the nadir of the cult of the presenter, in which how you talk about something is deemed far more important than what you are actually talking about.
Take Collings' last series, Hello Culture. His flawed thesis was that all popular culture today has its roots in 18th-century Romanticism. In one episode, entitled "Badness", he spent the first 10 minutes talking about Byron before deigning to actually read a verse from one of the great man's poems. Then, whoosh!, and we've segued into William Burroughs via a chat with Will Self and a couple of clips of the man himself. It's art's equivalent of a trip to Little Chef; forget any finesse, any context, any meat. It's bite-sized – easily digested, instantly forgotten. Mr Collings is probably working on a version for kids even as we speak.
The book upon which the Milton Keynes show is based naturally has "friend of David Bowie" Collings on the cover. It's a chatty trawl through the modern art scene, a personal diary.
The leaflet that accompanies the exhibition is full of typical Collings-speak, for example; "[Art] exists to be different from Madonna. That is, not to be vacuous."
Hang on a minute. We might not rate the first lady of pop's speaking style at the Turner Prize, but vacuous she is not. A brilliant manipulator and marketer without peer in the pop industry. Triumphing at the trivial (as she has done for two decades now) takes a rare talent.
Another Collings gem: "This is not a serious cultural age, but a more comic or light one ... I can't think of any contemporary art that is profound." And so it goes on. The arrogance of someone who calls his second book The post-Blimey Art World, as if he invented the whole Brit Art scene via his Blimey take on things, is astonishing.
Now he's hard at work on a new series about the Old Masters, in which the stars won't be Franz Hals, Goya or Rubens, but Mr Collings and his vast wardrobe of black suits and rectangular dark glasses. Meanwhile, do take that trip to Milton Keynes. The art is worthwhile, if not the theorising that attempts to justify it.
Pub grub drub
Last week I walked the Thames path from Runnymede to Hampton Court, via a revolting pub lunch in Shepperton. One pub: "We don't do hot food at lunchtimes on Mondays." Second pub: "closed for refurbishment". Third (and last) pub: a microwaved shepherd's pie with two leaves of iceberg lettuce and a glass of white wine – £8.
Can I please be appointed the nation's Pub Food Tsar? If Loyd Grossman is expert enough to revamp hospital catering then surely I could reorganise pub catering in a trice.
My six-hour walk was fascinating because it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what a disaster the banks of our most precious river are when it comes to architecture. The banks of the Thames are the domain of the prefab in all its forms. From Chertsey to Teddington, Staines to Shepperton, all I walked past were, basically, single-storey dwellings built between the 1920s and 1950s and ruthlessly extended.
We are a nation of badly designed conservatories, ugly rockeries, keep-out signs and plastic urns. The few remaining Georgian architectural gems are swamped by prefabs, ugly luxury flats and fake cottages. Don't even get me started on the subject of places like Eel Pie Island. Is it too late to pray for a giant tidal wave that might wash 70 per cent of it away? Next instalment will be Hampton Court to Brentford. You have been warned.
'Art Crazy Nation Show', the Milton Keynes Gallery, to 3 March. Tue-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11-5. 'The Thames Path, a National Trail Guide', Aurum Press.Reuse content