Andrew Graham-Dixon, one of the BBC’s best known art critics and BBC 2’s The Culture Show presenter surprises me when I meet him in his North London home: the stories he tells me about his experiences as an English student at Christ Church in the early 1980s seem somewhat at odds with his laid-back, sociable manner. ‘I was enjoying the reading so much that I tragically neglected other aspects of university life, to the extent that when I went for a drink in the Buttery at the end of finals, they wouldn’t serve me because they wouldn’t believe I was at the college.’ He concedes that he did party at Bristol where his girlfriend studied and as a postgraduate at the Coutauld Institute in London he spent the majority of his time playing snooker.
He makes his rise to the summit of journalism sound like the sheer result of chance encounters: ‘I started doing journalism because I thought I had to do something’. He explains how the first job he got in journalism came about through writing a letter to completely the wrong person, Lynne Truss, who at that point was editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement – ‘She gave me a job reviewing exhibitions.’ But is this apparent insouciance belied by the fact he had managed to become the main art critic for The Independent by the tender age of 25?
Since then, his career has prospered. He became a Sunday Telegraph columnist and won several journalism awards before coming to the attention of the BBC. I wonder if prospects are less bright for today’s graduates considering a similar career. ‘You have to be determined,’ he says. ‘These are interesting times and there is economic pressure on things like television production companies. What that means is that people are more open to the idea of employing younger, therefore cheaper, people than five years ago. So in some ways it is easier for someone from university to get experience.’
Graham-Dixon’s own determination resulted in his promotion to the position of main presenter of The Culture Show, for which he has interviewed personalities such as John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols, whom he describes admiringly as a ‘sacred monster’, adding ‘there is something just extraordinary about him.’
Much of Graham-Dixon’s energy, however, goes into his own art programmes. Planned for 2011 is a series entitled The Art of America (following on from his series The Art of Germany and The Art of Russia) as well as a ‘cultural and culinary’ history of Sicily, co-presented with the chef Giorgio Locatelli.
I ask if condensing hundreds of years of a nation’s artistic history, into – at most – 3 hour-long programmes is a daunting challenge and he replies ‘I think of them as essays not histories. Film can be poetic, elusive and suggestive.’ He cites John Ruskin in support of his view that ‘through a nation’s art you understand its history.’
What can we expect from The Art of America? ‘If you’re looking at America outside the ethnographic realm, you are essentially looking at it as a post 17th-century culture, starting with the Puritan movement. I personally would prefer to deal with that in one programme. I think the 20th century stories are so interesting. One could quite easily create a whole TV series about what is happening in American art now.’
The topic of art ‘now’ is a thorny one, as it must inevitably deal with the questioning of the very concept of ‘art’ itself. Graham-Dixon co-curated the first public gallery exhibition of Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and their generation, ‘Broken English’ at the Serpentine Gallery in 1991, and he has a clear view on the matter: ‘Anything can be art. It’s just a question of whether it is good art or bad art.’
So I could legitimately put my shoe in Tate Modern as an exhibit? ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘it’s just not very good art. I don’t have a problem a video of a man picking his nose being put in Tate Modern. What I do have a problem with is what tradition it claims to belong to.’ He suggests that we are being misled into believing that this form of ‘modern art’ is in some sense a mutation of the specific artistic tradition that began with Giotto and Michelangelo. To look for a truly ‘modern’ work that loosely occupies a place in the same tradition as, say, a Caravaggio painting, one might do better to watch a Tarantino film: ‘It’s lit, it shows characters, it tells a story.’
Finally, he leaves me with a question: if visitors at Tate Modern can be shown a 24-hour video by Christian Marclay, why would the gallery never consider showing a two hour Hitchcock film?