TV UK, 15 April

The Impressionists make today's enfants terribles of art look like dullards.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Matthew Collings’ history of impressionism was also in part a polemic against contemporary British art, or at least some of its posturing. In The Revenge of the Nice (Channel 4 last Saturday night), Collings argued that for all its niceness and current popularity with the wrong sorts of people, impressionism paved the way for modern art by challenging traditional forms and putting the artist’s subjectivity at the heart of the work, while also daring to be judged by formal, aesthetic standards.

Monet and Manet are now associated with mugs and mousemats rather than the avant garde, and consequently they are not considered very cool. But Collings made a convincing case that the impressionists were more radical and even political than the enfants terribles of today. Most damning perhaps was his observation that while they now attract blockbuster crowds, for much of their own time the impressionists were ignored or reviled by the art establishment and unable to make any money from their art. Compare that with the institutionalisation of the contemporary cutting edge, and ask what exactly it’s cutting.

Collings’ whimsical style is sometimes disarming, as he drops without warning from straight art history to facetious comic observation, combining TV art expert with the man on the sofa. This self-consciousness echoes the disposition of contemporary British art, that much maligned irony, but as in the better examples of that genre, there was more to Collings’ two-hour film than that. The substantial point was indeed about form rather than content. Collings showed how the impressionists variously valued colour and movement and structure rather than concerning themselves with their subject matter. (Water lillies are so not interesting anyway.) And this was the real challenge to twenty-first century art.

What was radical about impressionism was its visual language, something contemporary art seems to lack. While the posture in ‘Turner Prize art’ is of a direct aesthetic impact unmediated by formal conventions, such art depends instead on cultural references and knowingness on the part of the viewer. In that sense, it is more conventional – politically – than art based on a formal language the viewer has to work at, which is then free from cultural baggage. Using this language, the impressionists were able to capture a new social sensibility at the end of the nineteenth century, whereas contemporary artists seem trapped in an old one, albeit one they dissect and parody in sometimes diverting ways.

All this perhaps has some bearing on the current bizarre and entirely made-up controversy over whether Newsnight should drop its stockmarket updates in favour of weather forecasts. Doing ‘the markets’ rather than the weather has always been a sign of Newsnight’s status as a more serious and highbrow news programme. Certainly, though, this information means nothing to the majority of viewers, and it seems unlikely that those who do take an interest in these things are dependent on a cursory graph at the end of the night.

But does it make any more sense to do the weather? Here is another bizarre language that means little to most viewers. Farmers and sailors may have a special interest here, but for most of us the weather is only of passing interest, and the complicated play of fronts and semi-circles and triangles is little more than a self-conscious reminder from meteorologists that their forecasts really are based on science, honest. In this case, a more direct and unmediated rough idea would do. Impression: Sunrise. Scorchio!

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Topics Culture


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