Art critique

Television

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 "modern" art is almost 100 years old, Collings 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 re-materialised 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 Collings' 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." And blow me, the next thing he did was just that. So where we sought art criticism, he delivered television criticism, gazumping this reviewer's criticism, which was that, beneath the larkiness, Collings hadn't really found a new way to do an arts programme at all. There is nothing original about presenters waddling around museums waving their arms about. In fact those are his words.

The upside to his facetiousness was that it reflected the playfulness of much contemporary art itself. The downside was that it helped neither it nor him when they were serious. Collings was at his least persuasive trying to convince us that Jackson Pollock and his mates were tragic existentialists and that we should weep at Warhol's Ambulance Disaster and White Burning Car. Perhaps the best excuse for his humour - Andy Warhol's film Blow Job was about "reality and abstraction coming together, ha ha" - is to see it as punctuation in his argument, the breathing or giggling space that the big-name art historians such as Robert Hughes (for whose speedy recovery from injuries sustained in a car crash in Australia while he was filming another Oxford Films production we all hope) rarely allow.

When he stopped messing about, Collings' historical progress from Picasso through Pollock to Warhol was, in fact, surprisingly assured, as were his critical judgements, even if they boiled down to Picasso's being the real thing and knowing it, Pollock's being the real thing but not being sure whether he was or not and Warhol's knowing for sure he wasn't but deciding being famous would be more fun anyway.

Of Warhol, Collings pointed out: "It's one thing to have thought that, and the people he hung out with had those thoughts all the time because they were stoned or drunk. What Warhol was good at was showing what that thought might actually look like." Collings has a similar gift for showing us what he means, even if what he means is not so very profound. With five programmes to go, I'll be interested to see how his argument develops from Sunday's lame conclusion that modern art keeps changing just to ensure we never understand it. And if it doesn't? Then I'll be the idiot idiot for watching.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war