Tom Sutcliffe: Art with the Midas touch

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Did you know?" boasts ENO in a bulletin about Turandot, "English National Opera bought all the gold silk of its type available in the UK... for use on the set". It's a slightly odd Come Dancing approach to the marketing of an opera, but it isn't hard to see what they're trying to suggest. Rupert Goold's production is going to glitter, they're saying. No expense has been spared, and the storerooms of the realm ransacked for every last bolt.

I'm hopelessly susceptible to a bit of theatrical razzle-dazzle so I'm looking forward to the spectacle – which will mingle in my mind with a number of other gilded cultural events just recently. Last week there was Damien Hirst's gold-painted butterflies in Tate Modern's Pop Life exhibition (not to mention False Idol, a pickled calf with immaculately gilded toenails) and this week there was Richard Wright's wall-painting at Tate Britain – a great symmetrical swirl of gold leaf across one wall of the Turner Prize shortlist exhibition. And all of them, in their way, exploited the oddly ambiguous status that gold now has in high art.

The bling element is straightforward, I guess. Gold is expensive and opulent and has immaculate historical pedigree when it comes to desirability. It isn't just heavy because of its atomic weight but because it's freighted with close to 3,000 years of layered metaphor, densely compacted. And it shimmers not just because of its physical properties but because the light that comes off it is simultaneously attractive and repellent.

Gold is incorruptible but proverbially corrupting – a substance that, in Biblical terms, can both represent the highest good and the basest worldly folly. And not just in the Bible either. Hirst's painting The Kiss of Midas, part of the Pop Life exhibition, coats real butterflies in gold paint embedded with diamonds – a queasy work in which classical myth, Hollywood movies, art-world opportunism and cynical glitz all play a part.

There is a bit of art history in there too, though, because no artist can use gold paint – whether it's Hirst or Klimt or Warhol – without alluding to a tradition in which gilding is the finishing touch. Medieval art uses gold all the time, and does so in ways which are disturbing to a post-Renaissance view of how depiction works. Gold both is a pigment and isn't, occupying some part of the picture plane that has nothing to do with the human space it depicts. Gold is reserved for the numinous light of the sacred – and it has a status that sits somewhere between tribute (the most costly materials being reserved for the most elevated elements of the picture) and a trick of the light.

Gold doesn't represent a gleam of light – as a white highlight might on a painted dish. It simply gleams, as if a fragment of the thing itself has been stuck to the surface of the painting. And when gilding disappears from representational art, swept away by the zeals of the Renaissance and the Reformation, it leaves behind it a legacy of faint distrust.

Something of that glints off Richard Wright's Turner showpiece, gilded with a technique that would have been familiar to medieval artist but illuminating nothing but the blank wall of the gallery. Is it precious in the good sense, or merely precious as in empty ornamentalism? What's really rich about gold, these days, is that it could be either or both at the same time.

Cleanliness is next to...

I've been gripped this week by Peter Moffat's terrific series Criminal Justice , starring Maxine Peake (below), and intrigued to see that it further cements the popular association between minimalism and mental cruelty. Essentially, there are two routes that directors and writers follow when letting a domestic interior speak for a disturbed mind. Either they go with Stalker's Collage – in which a murky light reveals a Schwitters-like clutter of cuttings and notes and fetish objects – or they opt for Psycho Moderne, which gives bright light and glacially-pristine surfaces. Like the 1991 film Sleeping With the Enemy, in which Patrick Bergin terrorised Julia Roberts, Criminal Justice began in arctic perfection, kitchen surfaces clinically free of bric-a-brac. Such spaces almost come with an on-screen caption ("Too Good To Be True") and work, I guess, because they are actually a pretty effective projection of a disciplined (or over-disciplining) mind. As soon as you see a minimalist interior in a thriller you feel nervous, because you recognise that it makes an excellent blank canvas for the display of human error and the telltale stain. In Criminal Justice's first episode, a single drop of water on shower-glass provided one trigger in the action – not easily detectable if the whole thing had been covered with limescale. It's too effective a metaphor to overturn, but the vast majority of wife-beaters live in houses that don't advertise their pitiless nature quite so obligingly.

One of Germany's biggest-circulation women's magazines, Brigitte, has announced that it will henceforth use only "real women" in its pages, paying them the same rate as professional models. What exactly is a "real woman", after all? As the editor says, models are real women too, but their highly specialised reality is now to be spurned in favour of another kind... not ordinary, exactly, but women validated as authentic because they do something else than strut down catwalks. It will be very interesting, though, to see how real "real" turns out to be. There isn't, after all, a benchmark of reality that you can burrow down to, since the "real" women of 2009 looks completely different to the "real" woman of 1959, a difference that is partly created by shifting attitudes to body-shape and fashion, but also by all kinds of social change. And the women themselves may want to appear a bit less "real" in the pages of a mass-circulation magazine then they do when they're just back from a day in the office. The result will be that Brigitte will eventually construct a competing notion of "real" – socially preferable because it is a bit more generous in its admission criteria than high fashion magazines – but less artificial than the one it's replacing. And tall, skinny, girls with fine bone structure may feel that it's only fair they're represented too.

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