Andrew Graham-Dixon: Bridging the gap between high culture and mass media

Art history documentary maker Andrew Graham-Dixon talks contemporary art and BBC spending to Altair Brandon-Salmon

IMAGE: Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon is one of the most famous art historians working today. Thanks to his television series for BBC Four, he has brought to the general public probing accounts of the art of France, Australia, America, and a host of other cultures. Graham-Dixon sees his mission, he explains to me, “[as] doing Civilisation again.” Instead of tackling world art in one concentrated bout, like Kenneth Clarke did in his 1969 series, Graham-Dixon has been surveying the globe’s cultures over a period of three decades.

It is the paucity of art history on television since the nineteen-sixties that motivates Graham-Dixon. Apart from the brief highlights of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) and Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980), the area has been largely ignored by public service broadcasting.

“The range of subjects was so small in the past—even compared to Clarke—there was no mention of the art of Spain [in Civilisation]. Try finding out about Spanish art in English, or even in Spanish.” His programs are proudly didactic, not in a condescending, top-down way, but driven by the desire to educate an enthused audience starved of high quality television.

Educated at Westminster, he went to Christ Church, reading English Literature before graduating in 1981 and moving onto the Courtauld Institute, the art history research institution par excellence, where he gained an MA. On his Oxford days, Graham-Dixon recalls that he was not involved in student newspapers or magazines like Cherwell or The Isis, saying ruefully that “I just sat in a dark room and read fourteen books a week.” Indeed, he relates, “when I finished, they wouldn’t serve me in [Christ Church’s] Buttery as they said I wasn’t a student there!” Instead, he travelled frequently to Bristol University to visit his then girlfriend, and watch Two-Tone bands like The Specials.

After university, Graham-Dixon entered journalism, writing for Vogue and the recently-founded Independent, describing his drive as borne out of his twin pleasures: “All I knew was that I was going to be a writer. I was always interested in art, so one thing lead to another really.”

Becoming The Independent‘s Chief Art Critic in 1986, he looks back fondly at a moment in the late eighties when The Independent seemed to challenge the Fleet Street status quo. “At the Indy, before I came, it was a quarter of a page for an art review. We started doing two whole pages, three thousand words on Rembrandt. Lots of papers at the time never even had regular art critics. They had reviewers for theatre and classical concerts, but not for art. All of that has really changed. Now The Sunday Times has double page spreads on exhibitions.”

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He considers that “All of that has made a big difference. It has changed things. That’s good, I wanted to change it.” Here, I begin to see beneath the even, urbane manner of Graham-Dixon, to the steely determination which has propelled his desire to bring art down from the pedestal.

Graham-Dixon was on the Turner Prize panel in 1991, the year Anish Kapoor won, and just as the Young British Artists were emerging into the public consciousness.
“Norman Rosenthal and I were on the Turner Prize committee. We wanted Michael Landy, but he wasn’t even on the shortlist. But Nicholas Serota was on the committee and his was the deciding vote, and he had bought a large collection of Anish Kapoor, so I said this looks like he’d won it from the start. As a sop to us, they changed the age rule, so that only artists under 40 could win.”

“When the Turner Prize began there was a massive prejudice against contemporary art in the media—this false outrage over art being shit, was alleviated by the Turner, it became such an annual bore for the press to attack the Turner that they became sick of their own outrage. So it worked, in a way.”

Yet he sees this as part of a wider issue within contemporary art. “The problem is saying art must be avant garde, which is bullshit—if art is only powerful if it shocks you.”

“[Karlheinz] Stockhausen called 9/11 the ultimate visual spectacle, committed on TV [‘the biggest work of art there has ever been’]. Isis speak the language of shock, the language of the avant garde. How can an artist compete? Art has lost the power the provoke.”

When I ask him about the state of contemporary British art, he points to Gillian Wearing.

“The problem now is knowing who the good ones are. What’s astonishing is how every museum collection is so uniform—if one gets an Anish Kapoor, everyone has to have one. In the past, such works went to the basement quicker, but who wants to put £200m in the basement? Who would be brave enough to do that?”

In a way, it is not surprising that Graham-Dixon has spent the last decade focusing instead on the art of the past. It seems certain that his television work will be his lasting contribution to art history, despite his impressive 2010 book Caravaggio—A Life Sacred and Profane (and he is working on a biography of Vermeer). Keeping to a similar format with each of his BBC4 documentaries, Graham-Dixon’s The Art of… has notched up eleven distinct series, each tackling a different nation.

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“The objective over twenty years,” he explains, “has been to choose as many different cultures as possible over three episodes.” From Germany to China and back to Scandinavia, he has always refused to tell the easy stories about humanity’s artistic past.

Indeed, when it came to making this year’s The Art of France, he laments that “it was delayed because BBC4 thought it would be too familiar.”

Graham-Dixon is certainly unsparing when it comes to the national broadcaster’s failings. “The BBC is rich as hell,” stressing “it’s not about funding cuts but funding choices. One episode of Match of the Day has the same budget as ten of my series.” He admits to finding the BBC having “lost its way”, too dedicated to spending on large-budget costume dramas than educating and informing the British public.

Graham-Dixon is keen to point out that it is hardly a problem with audiences –“The Art of Spain was on BBC World and sixty-eight million people watched it!” he says with justifiable pride – but with the BBC’s priorities. “At the moment for the BBC it is about the big audiences, which I don’t think is what public service broadcasting should be about.”

Yet this pessimism has not infected his work – he is keen to tackle the art of India and Latin America next, bringing fresh art historical narratives to the screen. Graham-Dixon ruminates that “part of the subtext of my programmes is that nationality is a powerful fiction,” pointing to the crossover in European cultures shown by his programmes on Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries. “Nations have been constructed. By doing the whole world, the overall message is anti-nationalistic despite paradoxically being a history of nations,” threading an internationalist undertone to his work, leaving it there for an audience to find.

I ask him how he closes the gap between art and an audience wary of museums and galleries. “I don’t know, [I try] bridging the gap between art history and museum, to tell people it’s alright to be interested in art. I don’t want to sound condescending, but I’m trying to set an example about it being okay to like art, to be enthusiastic about art.” With that deceptively humble mission, Andrew Graham-Dixon hurtles towards another corner of the world, to bring it to us.

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