Sophistry of art


And lo, on Sunday night there came from out of a cave a prophet. His first name was Waldemar. His second was the highest possible score in a game of Proper Noun Scrabble. Waldemar Januszczak wished us to know the truth and, on consideration, it is amazing we have managed to struggle on so long without it. Painting pictures, hanging them, visiting art galleries, gaping at cathedral ceilings - and all along, according to The Truth about Art (Channel 4, 8pm), we haven't understood a thing.

"We have been misled by the myth of civilisation," said Waldemar, tottering between dank African stalactites to find the true path. "Our culture simply did not develop in the way we have usually been told. And, if we misunderstand art's past so fundamentally, no wonder we also misunderstand so much modern art." Art, his theory ran, began with wildebeest on cave walls and ended up, 40,000 years later, with sheep in formaldehyde. The Renaissance was an error.

His gist was that art was not a force for Civilisation - no free lunches at Pharmacy for guessing which late TV pedagogue Waldemar sees himself usurping - but an "exploration of human imagining" that originated from a "dark and scary place", not so unlike the internal labyrinths of the Motopo Hills or, say, the Serpentine. Bushman art was not idly representative. Nor did Cave Man A ever demonstrate to Cave Man B what he wanted for dinner by sketching it. It was all the work of Shaman the Cave Man, scratching away in religious ecstasy. An expert from the Rock Art Research Centre explained that the "power we call potency" was known by the bushmen of the period as (and here he puckered his lips like Kenneth Williams) numm or keh.

Leaving the caves at last, Waldemar proceeded erratically through the millennia by ignoring any animal artists we might actually respect in favour of Damien Hirst, a pleasant scientific illustrator (who perversely seemed to argue the opposite point, that far from "puncturing the surface of reality", art was there to make us see it more clearly), and an LA conceptual artist who owns the phoney Museum of Jurassic Technology. Waldemar was particularly taken with Chaim Soutine, a Parisian with personal hygiene issues who liked to paint rotting meat. "They are sacrifices, aren't they?" Waldemar demanded.

We mustn't attack Waldemar's argument too forcibly when he is only a third of the way into it, but we can criticise the rhetoric by which he prosecutes it. "These little rock hollows were, if you like, the parish churches of bushman art," he said, for instance. But if we did not like? If we did not, the next hill was still an "unmistakably spiritual place" which "must" have seemed like a "natural cathedral". This is the way Graham Hancock argues you into believing the Aztecs had access to Black & Deckers.

The one certainty about cave art is that no one can be certain about its purpose. Ernest Gombrich in The Story of Art at least admitted that his theories were guesswork, which is more than Waldemar did. But Gombrich's classic text plants a second question-mark after this programme's title. How original is this truth? Gombrich also talked of primitive rituals being performed down these caves. That sounds a bit numm and keh-ish to me. Furthermore, while as a student Waldemar may have been led astray by the glum classicism of Johann Winckelmann, as an English undergrad all I heard was that art was a creative force that burbled forth from the recesses of the Romantic imagination. So far The Truth about Art is 50 per cent received wisdom and 50 per cent showing off.

Januszczak's arrogance is only a little less funny than John Sessions' and Phil Cornwell's self-assurance in Stella Street (BBC2, Friday, 11.20pm), a delight I have cottoned on to far too late. It is described as a "spoof soap" about stars from the last 40 years who have retired to suburbia. Actually, Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Hill, Mick Jagger et al (all played by Sessions and Cornwell) are trapped in a docu-soap, a celebrity version of Neighbours from Hell. For anyone who thought Sessions was defined by the Spitting Image sketch that had him improvising his way up his own bottom, Stella Street is good news. The 15-minute format and the discipline of working with a talent the equal of his has purged him from himself. Against the evidence of so much of Rory Bremner . . . Who Else? and all of Sermon from St Albion's, Stella Street proves brilliant impersonations are not always bought at the expense of laughter.

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 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?