Andrew Billen - The art of protest

Television - A documentary on a postwar revolution does not disappoint. By Andrew Billen

Time Shif

BBC4's Saturday-night treat Time Shift is a radio version of Radio 4's Saturday-night treat The Archive Hour, a comforting suck on the teat of the almost recent past. A fortnight ago, it even had the same subject as the radio programme had last year: Malcolm Muggeridge. Half the fun of the old contrarian was listening to him elongate his vowels into what he imagined were the highest reaches of the upper class, but the other half was watching his features respond in kind. So the television programme, I thought, had it over the radio documentary.

Art School (19 June, repeated 26 June, 12.40am), was even more fascinating, because while Mugg's progress from satirist to saint is a parable well known, the role of art schools in the postwar cultural revolution has barely been touched on by television. The claims Sebastian Barfield's film made for it - "the unsung link between pop art and Carnaby Street, the sonic revolutions of The Who and the rebellions of May 1968" - were large but, on the whole, convincing. This, after all, was a generation that not only revolutionised the arts but created new ones: pop, graphic art, youth fashion. They must have conspired together somewhere.

And at art school, talent cross-fertilised like crazy. Working-class boys, embittered by national service, met the daughters of well-to-do parents who had mistakenly regarded a year or so of watercolouring as a safe alternative to finishing school. Middle-class girls such as Mary Quant met upper-class bohemians such as Alexander Plunkett Greene and, with a little help from his inheritance, set up shops in the King's Road. The classes were not as alien to one another as they thought - or, rather, the generation gap between them and their parents was wider than any class divide.

So students from different backgrounds and different disciplines met, danced, shagged and ripped off each other's ideas. A geometric design that came out of a commercial art department would find itself first on the side of a fly-spray canister, then on wallpaper, and finally on the front of a dress. One night your mate in the art theory department was telling you about Gustav Metzger and auto-destructionism; the next day you were smashing up a piano for the cameras of 24 Hours. Your parents thought The Who made a racket; you knew all that feedback was a homage to Roy Ascott's theory of cybernetics.

The programme explained to me for the first time why Britain so quickly surpassed the US as the intellectual home of pop music. Our musicians - from Ray Davies to Eric Clapton - having been to art school, emerged with more interesting minds than the Beach Boys did from the surf. "Imagine," the art critic John Walker invited us, "Elvis Presley marrying Yoko Ono."

Such precocity was not going to go unresented. Nor was it likely to keep a level head. The art school's heyday ended in tragicomedy. While in Paris students took to the streets to bring down the republic, at Hornsey College of Art in London a sit-in began over cuts to the student union grant and vague dissatisfaction with some of the courses. It fizzled out in the long vac when the students went home. The firebrand student leader, one Kim Howells, said he saw the principal march up the steps to reclaim his college and realised this was to be the greatest defeat of his life.

In fact, the progression of clips revealed that Howells and co had long since won the revolution. In a 1957 Eye to Eye (one of the joys of the series is noting the programme names TV has got through), straight students confronted some art school bohemians for their "ridiculous clothes" (jumpers and jeans). By 1962, no one was interested in what such people thought. Ken Russell's Pop Goes the Easel documentary was an early propaganda victory and, as the decade wore on, the titles of the TV arts programmes actively collaborated with their subjects: 1966 brought A Whole Scene Going On; 1970 gave us the portentously named The Hornsey Film.

Time Shift, like The Archive Hour, is only as good as its source material, but it did not disappoint. The Hornsey Film found Howells in full rant: "The artist man must titillate the bourgeoisie. He must titillate the boss class. He pleasures the parasites who live off the workers' sweat and blood. He licks the boots of the establishment in a most disgusting, servile manner."

Thirty-four years on, our transport minister still insists that art college provided "the perfect education". Time Shift was more dispassionate. Christopher Frayling, now rector of the Royal College of Art, pointed out that the art school generation was really the me generation: "It was glitz, glitz, glitz." Brian Rice, who was at Goldsmiths in the late Fifties, admitted: "We thought we were changing the world. In fact, all we were doing was changing the look of the world."

When Howells, as minister of culture, visited the 2002 Turner Prize show at the Tate, he condemned what he saw as "cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit". But once his generation had let self-expression out of the bag, there was no way it could be kept on-message. His be-jerseyed successors decided they preferred to be rich rather than political. The artist man once more licks Charles Saatchi's boots. As Muggeridge said, only dead fish swim with the stream. Plenty of them call themselves artists.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times