Terence Blacker: When art slides into smug mockery

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The Independent Online

There are plenty of opportunities right now to wonder at the futility of contemporary life through the medium of a television screen. On one channel, you can watch a group of men discussing the state of a sportsman's foot. On another, the masochistically inclined can discoverwhat happens when a group of dull exhibitionists are locked away in a room together for several weeks. But it was a rare, serious-minded BBC arts documentary that provoked in me the most fundamental question to confront a TV viewer: why on earth am I watching this?

The great British artist Sir Howard Hodgkin has a retrospective being shown at Tate Britain. Alan Yentob wished to mark this event with a lengthy profile of the man and his work. The snag was that Hodgkin is famously reluctant to talk about his work or even to be photographed at his easel. When interviewed by Simon Schama at the recent Hay Festival, his responses were so monosyllabic and unhelpful ("Where does the creative process start, can you tell me that?" "No") that several members of the audience gave up and walked out.

The BBC took Hodgkin to India in the hope, not entirely unjustified, that he might relax enough to murmur a few brief answers. The rest of the programme would consist of archive footage, shots of the great man staring significantly into space, and Julian Barnes standing beside his Hodgkin picture explaining at some length how he had no idea what it all meant.

There is something entirely praiseworthy about the artist who has decided only to communicate though the work: the literary reputations of Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee have been harmed not one jot by their refusal to play the publicity game. But this case was rather different: Hodgkin agreed to go to Hay and be filmed by the BBC, but then was too shy or grand to perform.

Watching the rictus of panic descend upon Yentob's features as yet another question hit the floor like a cowpat was only amusing for a while, and I was reading a book by the time the programme reached its exciting climax. "Then something extraordinary happened," Yentob apparently said. Hodgkin had agreed to be filmed at work. He delivered a small, red brushstroke to a canvas which he then solemnly took down and placed on the ground, face to the wall.

The possibility that the great man might have been having a wonderful private joke at our expense occurred to me the next day when reading the words of another less well-known artist. A sculptor called David Hensel had a piece called One Day Closer to Paradise accepted for a Royal Academy exhibition but some berk forgot to put the carved jesmonite head on its plinth. Nobody except the artist noticed and the plinth won golden opinions.

It was Hansel's response that was so bizarre. Far from being annoyed, he expressed the view that, since he contemplated the meaning of art every day, this non-exposition of his work was terribly interesting. Indeed, in a very real sense, the empty plinth was still a valid exploration of a man's journey to paradise in that the very lack of a sculpture represented the nothingness and invisibility of the afterlife.

Doubtless to those in the know, this in-built mockery of the pretentiousness that surrounds art may have a point, or is just funny, but to the poor old punter who is trying to take it seriously, it smacks of a smug form of mockery. On the whole, satire is best left to the satirists.

Cleese's comic timing

John Cleese's announcement that he is to give up comedy is poignant, but not perhaps in the way that he intends. For the rest of the world, it has been clear that he gave up comedy - or rather it gave him up - many years ago, as a cruel punishment for having written and starred in the funniest sitcom of all time.

Since then a terrible, semi-comic self-importance has settled on him. He solemnly supported the SDP.

He co-wrote sincere self-help books about work and the family. He appeared in increasingly embarrassing TV ads. He wrote a self-adoring role for himself as the romantic lead in A Fish Called Wanda.

Recently, he released "Don't Mention the World" as a single with a friendly, pro-German slant, managing to be simultaneously exploitative and goody-goody.

He is now to be a teacher of comedy - an excellent career move at last.

* Fathers' Day is almost upon us and the occasion has been marked by a spate of articles, most of them by women, about the crisis in masculinity. A very helpful government publication has also been released.

Called "The Dad Pack", it has been prepared by Jack O'Sullivan for the Department for Education and Skills and contains various fatherhood-related tips and a poster for the lavatory wall about how best to praise a child.

Fathers who are considering having an affair while their wife is pregnant or has just had a baby are given this useful advice: it is a really bad idea. If you feel frustrated, "sort yourself out" or "take yourself in hand".

We've reached an odd moment in history when the government gives masturbation lessons. Frankly, if the nation's young fathers need advice on this particular matter, their crisis is far more serious than we thought.

terblacker@aol.com

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