Close up: three union jacks wave vigorously in the blustery British winds. Traditional classical music chimes, staccato beat travelling across the air as your brain tries to align the rhythm of the music to the images of the flags. A voice rings out in an urgent tone, primed with dramatic pause and rhetorical flourishes.
The originality of approach in the BBC series on British modernism, British Masters, is obvious from the opening scene. If television documentaries are sometimes criticised for refusing to risk alienating their audiences by taking a controversial stance, British Masters staunchly refuses to play to the crowd. Because impressionism, cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism are now conventionally popular and often featured on television, they are either sidelined or dismissed in favour of a very British tradition.
Indeed, if you watched the series, you would know we Brits have a lot to wave our union jacks about in terms of our national artistic legacy – ‘one of the greatest artistic movements in all of western culture,’ according to presenter Dr James Fox. Almost every painting the series looks at is ‘the work of a genius’, or ‘probably one of the greatest ever’. Excitingly, this very British art is not only of the finest aesthetic quality but also has a profound social value. Before the second world war it prophesised what was to come; afterwards it demonstrated what it was to be ‘British’.
Miraculously, Fox sees no disjunction between his revisionist mission to reclaim British modernism from its undeserving omission from our museums, television programmes and art history books on the one hand and the power of the claims he makes about it on the other. British modernist art was always undervalued, yet simultaneously influential enough to ‘define for a nation what Britishness was’ (the concept of what British identity and nationality is or was or means is never problematised in the programme itself).
Some of the artists in the programme – Sickert, Hamilton, and Hockney for example – are extremely famous in Britain today, but not as part of a very British lineage. Fox’s refusal to acknowledge David Blomberg’s debt to cubism, Sickert’s debt to Degas, or Hamilton and Hockney’s debt to Warhol and US pop art is symptomatic of the presenter’s unfortunate predilection for following his own agenda with, at times, little regard for the facts.
As John Preston from the Telegraph aptly points out, when Fox discusses Mark Gertler’s ‘The Merry-Go-Round’: ‘[He] gave the clear impression that this was painted in 1914 and was “a dark and brutal vision of the future, a premonition of Britain trapped in the insanity of a never-ending war”. But “The Merry-Go-Round”, as Fox must – or should – have been aware, was actually painted in 1916.’
Good visual analysis is marred by Fox’s compulsive exaggeration. In a scene showing shots of Stanley Spencer’s incredible Sandham memorial paintings, painted hands become a ‘handshake between the past and the future’.
The striking subjectivity of these analyses is accounted for by Fox’s own motivations for making the programme: ‘A few years ago I was at a conference on 20th century painting. As I queued up for a coffee in the canteen I overheard a French historian describe Britain as “the land without modern art”. His friends all laughed in agreement. I was livid. And ever since I’ve been determined to prove them wrong.’
Personal vendetta is supplemented by cliché and stereotypes. Brits love an underdog, which is why we also love British modernism. British art is tasteful and ‘understated’ – like us Brits. It’s figurative and painterly too: well-made and dependable, like a good piece of British manufacturing. Like the ‘golden age’ of the British empire, for Fox modernism was a unique chapter in British art, after which standards have seriously slipped.
Contemporary art is narrowly defined as the populist stuff of the YBAs (Young British Artists) Hirst and Emin, and dismissed for valuing celebrity and concepts above craftsmanship. Foreigners are inferior, women artists non-existent and all mediums bar painting obsolete. The internationality of the art world and the great work in photography, video and net art, much of which is highly valued outside the realms of the cynical art market, are invisible to Fox.
Dramatic in tone, music and visually (in one scene Fox presents the programme clad only in a towel!), British Masters is the opposite of the qualities he claims to admire so much. It’s brash, overstated, undignified and its argument in bad taste. Rather than genuinely championing a repressed branch of history, the series is the epitome of television as populist medium par excellence.
Popular opinion is attacked in a hyperbolically personal style instead of well-considered argument and evidence. The central thesis of British Masters becomes a populist argument against populism – and if you believe in the power of television to form as well as reflect popular opinion, it is one based on worryingly reactionary and conservative principles.
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram
Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope