“State of the Art”

Channel Four Television

Television series that offer an extended view of art and culture are rare. Over the past twenty years there have been three: Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization,” John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” and Robert Hughes’ “Shock of the New.” Now we have “State of the Art,” six hour-long programs commissioned by Channel Four from writer Sandy Naime, producer/director Geoff Dunlop, and series producer John Wyver. It is inevitable that comparisons would be made between old and new, and it is evident that the series was, from the outset, conceived in opposition to the authorial style of its predecessors. Here, instead of seeing a single individual speaking directly to the cameras, one hears the script, which consists of a mixture of fact and quotation rather than opinion, in a voice-over recorded by a quartet of actors. Where talking heads do occur, they belong to artists, dealers, critics, and other luminaries, the interviewer’s contribution almost invariably being edited out so that they come across as making statements rather than as providing the answers to questions.

“State of the Art” is, in essence, a less than critical embrace of the idea of post-Modernism, and of the related themes of pluralism and the impossibility of forming a coherent and unified picture from such multiplicity. Unfortunately, this describes the series’ approach as well as its message. Trying to hear the main text buried within a densely layered soundtrack of incidental noise, and being subjected to innumerable slow pans made with the camera in close-up, this viewer experienced a sense of claustrophobia and feelings of anxiety as to where he was and why. The entire project turned out to be, as the series’ subtitle suggests, a collection of heterogeneous “ideas and images in the ’80s,” of which we must make what we can—and that, it must be said, is not very much at all.

The difficulty is that if we refuse to vocalize critical opinion, the television will do the job for us, and it is the makers’ blindness, willful or otherwise, as to how it does this that constitutes the series’ major weakness. In short, we are presented with a rhetorical structure that banalizes an amalgamation of Jean Baudrillard’s media proliferation, Jean-François Lyotard’s information explosion, and Fredric Jameson’s model of schizophrenia as the paradigmatic structure of contemporary consciousness. Contrary to any supposed complexity that might have been intended by the persistent technique of collage, the series offers a disturbingly simplified picture. Each of the six programs has a theme—“History, Value, Imagination, Sexuality, Politics, and Identity”—and each of the 30 or so artists featured has his or her work discussed only in relation to one of these headings. Outside those pigeonholes they appear, if at all, only as infrequent contributors to periods of general thematic exegesis, and the distortions that this causes are innumerable. To give a few examples, Cindy Sherman’s work appears in the program on sexuality and not, as might be equally appropriate, in the one on identity; all of the artists seen in the program on sexuality, except one (Eric Fischl), are female; all of the artists viewed as political, except one (Loraine Leeson), are male; and all the black artists—no exceptions here—are corralled together in search of identity. Old stereotypes die hard, it seems, even when you would like to think you are helping them on their way.

Far from being cavils, these objections—and the many others one could voice—are appropriate criticisms of a series that is, by and large, misguided as to its intentions and restrictive in its effect.

Michael Archer