This Is Modern Art
Gillen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
The staff of BBC2's late Late Show used to have a little joke about one of its presenters, Michael Ignatieff. Everyone knows what an idiot savant is: someone who appears to be an idiot but in fact is a wise man. Well, Ignatieff was a savant idiot. In the six-part series This Is Modern Art (Sundays, Channel 4), the Late Show's old visual art correspondent, Matthew Collings, goes back to the original formula and does all he can to make himself look an idiot.
Dressed as seventies man, although with sideburns borrowed from the fifties vision Mark Lamarr, Collings began episode one, riskily entitled "I Am a Genius", in his own East London studio, making a hash of sketching a nude woman. Then he showed us something he had made a hash of earlier, an op-art circle from his student days. More than a little in love with the paradox that "modem" art is almost 100 years old, Coilings next invited us to join him in "the big dark corridor of time" and had the FX people create a vision of the inside of his head, "a museum of the modern art of the mind".
Fifty minutes later, a touch dazed and confused, he rematerialised sipping a martini beneath a Damien Hirst dot painting in a Manhattan bar. "I'm drunk and jet-lagged from time travel and just talking rubbish now," he said. "But what these dots say is, like Andy Warhol's Silver Pillows, 'We are a form of art of almost unbelievable weightlessness, and yet we are quite good. How can that be?'"
The curious thing was that you ended just as charitably disposed toward Coilings' programme. It was quite good. How come? Taking neither himself nor his subject too seriously was part of it, for it forestalled our deepest suspicions that modern art and modern art critics may be as phoney as each other. In December Janey Walker, Channel 4's literal-minded head of arts, broadcast Waldemar Januszczak's The Truth About Art. As if conscious of that absurdity, Collings was quick to say his show was called This Is Modern Art "in a kind of ironic, doubtful way, because no one really knows".
As if to compensate for this admission of shared ignorance, he flattered us into thinking that we were at least all experts on the workings of arts programmes. He mentioned Picasso, and tasteful music struck up. "The trouble," he said, "is when you mention Picasso, tasteful music strikes up." Later, over shots of a supermarket, he told us that as a student he had enjoyed Andy Warhol's book of philosophy A to B and Back Again: "I expect I'll be coming round one of these aisles reading from it, if this ironic easy-listening soundtrack is anything to go by. …