The Language of Art and the BBC

One of the delights of Twitter is the way in which you can participate in live action without actually being there. Great live tweeting from Thursday night’s Northern Art Prize event was an entertaining distraction from my own live entertainment that evening dancing around in wet resin at home. I could feel the tension building up across cyberspace from down the road, and amongst the tweets I was pleased to see the Beeb was set to broadcast some news coverage. The Northern Art Prize deserves as much coverage as it can get: it is a wonderful cultural plus for Leeds, and the North as a whole.

But before I got a chance to view, it became clear through Twitter that the BBC had done something to upset a lot of Northern art world Tweeps. Thanks to lots more helpful retweets with links, I was eventually able to catch an excerpt to see what had happened to cause so much upset.

The main substance of the item was in fact a great (and surprisingly long, given I always expect this sort of thing to be cut to a matter of seconds) interview with the winner, Haroon Mirza, and Mark Lawson, arts broadcaster with the BBC and a judge of the competition. Mirza was an engaging ambassador for the contemporary art world. But before and after the interview, the regular studio presenters indulged in unoriginal quips about “modern” art, and giggled as the weatherman showed off his 5 minute assemblage “artwork” comprising shirts off his dressing room floor. In other words, the usual stuff that a lot of people outside the art world find uproariously funny, and those inside find tedious (at the least) or, as evidenced by the Tweets, seriously degrading to artists.

And some people were extremely offended; at a time when, as Mirza pointed out, funding is severely under pressure, jokingly perpetuating a myth that anyone can throw together an artwork is obviously not funny to those working extremely hard to make art with limited resource. But whether you find Look North’s jokes funny, or whether you find the antics of the presenters to be seriously offensive, the more serious question for me is why, after all this time, contemporary art is still characterized by the public at large as silly/funny/trivial. How is it possible for people not to see the serious hard work and thoughtful, intellectual rigour underpinning the best contemporary art?

As someone who has worked within and without the art world, I see where both sides are coming from. And one of the biggest issues for me is how artists explain their work to those ‘outside’. Much of the language used to present, explain or contextualize artwork is frequently impenetrable even to highly educated laymen/women. It becomes a joke to read: and once the language explaining art is a soft target for jokes, it is harder to take the underlying work very seriously. The art world is not alone in its use of obscure language; but in an era of severe spending cuts, it’s critical for people to understand art if they are to value the arts.

As it happens, the written material accompanying the Northern Art Prize is reasonably well written, although still a little unclear in some parts, and Haroon Mirza was able to succinctly and clearly explain his work to a mass TV audience. But much more is needed from all of us involved in this area if contemporary art is not to continually be the butt of bad jokes.


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