Arts in broadcasting and television: Is controversy old hat?

Tracey Emin’s new film aroused much excitement in the papers because of scenes of rape and suicide, but not much on screen


Controversy is the theme this month, whether sought or unsought. It has become a necessary media ploy for suggesting significance and topicality. But does too much now masquerade as “controversy” for it to be meaningful? Points of contention are manufactured out of simple differences of opinion, or even, as in the case of Bruce Nauman’s installation in Tate Modern’s turbine hall, out of thin air. “There doesn’t see to be any art in the turbine hall,” Alan Yentob says introducing Bruce Nauman’s installation, “Raw materials”, in the Unilever series for BBC 1’s Imagine. Nauman’s work is not itself contentious, but suggests that there are interesting ways of being an artist, as the television programme demonstrated. The artist Tracey Emin bases her whole modus operandi on controversy, but what is there to discuss other than Emin herself? Her appearance on Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4) and fronting her first film, Top Spot (BBC 3), provided the answer.

James Dyson CBE, the practising engineer, who gave this year’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture (BBC 1), used his podium to debate the issue that caused him, controversially, to resign his chairmanship of London’s Design Museum. He argued its points brilliantly in his lecture. As Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art, said to me later when I asked him about its probable impact: the debate is “already in the ether. It should have a legacy”. The Richard Dimbleby Lecture “was established within a long tradition of public service broadcasting,” as Jonathan Dimbleby said of the series named after his father, a distinguished broadcasting figure. It is still an exemplary means of dealing with important ideas on television, and it showed up the inadequacies of recent radio and television programmes on Emin and Nauman.

Mr Dyson sees himself as a latter-day Isambard Kingdom Brunel: ironmaster, inventor, engineer, and designer. He is also the largest private manufacturer in Britain, best known for his famous Dyson vacuum cleaner. His Dimbleby lecture “Engineering the difference” was a three-pronged manifesto on behalf of engineers, stressing the crucial importance of industrial design both to manufacture, and to the economic future of the country. 1) Take engineering seriously. 2) Start with a change in educational attitudes. 3) Encourage manufacturers to think long-term by investing in research. As Jonathan Dimbleby rightly said in introducing James Dyson, he “found himself at the heart of controversy … for talking up the importance of manufacturing in this country, while exporting the production line to Malaysia.” More topically, his resignation last September from the chairmanship of London’s Design Museum sparked debate about the definition of design and the purpose of the museum, which was founded by Terence Conran specifically to promote design in manufacture.

The strength of the lecture format is its single source of authority, in this instance one whose passion, eloquence and skill in argument were gripping. Apart from a few cutaways to the audience, no distractions, not even visual aids, disrupted concentration. No wonder that, when the cameras stopped recording, Michael Grade, BBC chairman, reportedly called from the audience to offer Mr Dyson any programme he wanted. But how often would he be allowed that wonderful continuity of thoughtful argument? Certainly not in most documentaries, although there are notable exceptions, such as What we still don’t know (Channel 4) master-minded by Astronomer Royal Jonathan Rees, with comments from a trio of principal scientists, or Jonathan Miller’s The atheism tapes (BBC Four), absorbing interviews with leading thinkers salvaged from the cutting room floor in the making of his history of atheism (BBC 2). Would that such gold was hoarded more often. How many times have you heard complaints that the cameras were in for two hours, but only minutes of the interview used in the final production? And where does this quality exist in visual arts programmes? The recent appearances of Bruce Nauman and Tracey Emin are useful test cases, popular with many, found wanting by many others.

It was the Royal Academy of Arts that helped fuel the controversy propelling Tracey Emin to fame and fortune in the 1990s. In 1997 “My tent. everyone I’ve ever slept with” was shown in the Academy’s sensational “Sensation” exhibition. “My Bed” was shown in 1999 Turner Prize show, which equally thrives on controversy. As Sue Lawley, introducing Emin on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs said: “She attracts critical approval and vitriol, not always in equal measure, and takes, not unreasonably, some delight in the controversy that her art engenders.” Miss Lawley pointed out that Emin’s “beautiful watercolours” would not have won her “fame and recognition”. Emin, remarkably for her air of authority, simple logic and astounding self-importance, replied: “We don’t know, do we. I’ll explain. As an artist, to get some kind of notoriety, or some kind of credit, or fame, then you have to make a seminal piece of work. We have to change the face of what people understand as art, or as contemporary art. I’ve done that with two pieces of work. I’ve done it with “My Tent” and I’ve done it with “My bed”. Most artists, no matter how successful they are, and even if they earn a really good living, the majority of them don’t make anything seminal in their lives. I’ve done that with two things. Whether people think it’s good, or bad, or rubbish, I have done it. That’s what the difference is. Picasso did it with Cubism. That’s what the difference is.”

Emin’s debut as a film-maker with Top Spot stirred the flames even before the feature was shown to the public. A certificate 15 was changed to certificate 18 on account of a scene of suicide by an underage victim of rape. “Top Spot”, the name of the teenage disco in the seaside town of Margate where Emin grew up, deals yet again with Emin’s tortured adolescence. In order to “make sense of it” she decided to “just take moments, and then gel them together.” Six young teenage girls play different facets of Emin’s personality. Billed as “experimental” this arty documentary is no more than a rites of passage movie, a nostalgic idyll with dark moments. Long swinging legs in short socks playing on the beach one moment; torn tights in a dark alley the next. Would anyone rush to commission it if it weren’t the Tracey Emin story? In her three-minute introduction Emin assumes the role of empathetic agony mother. She wants young people out on a limb to “feel they’re not on their own. There’re tons of us out there.” Emin included, aged 41. “When you’re growing up, things can look desperate and really totally bleak. And I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be like that. You can turn everything around. … I hope the film gives people a positive outlook in the end.” The film ends with the deathless line: “When’s the funeral?” Cue music: “I’m a believer”, as the girls pass a bottle of nacreous pink nail varnish between them. Imagine … Bruce Nauman yielded less than anticipated, but for different reasons. BBC television is too cautious. Presenter Alan Yentob and his team had a unique and extraordinary opportunity in being able to fly out to Bruce Nauman’s studio in the New Mexican desert to film his first extended interview. Among the line-up of pundits were first class commentators, including Michael Craig-Martin, Robert Storr, and Douglas Gordon. The final jigsaw was well assembled, in the accepted formulaic tradition of a workaday narrative intercut with sound bites. At 39 minutes it was disappointingly short. Where was all their raw material? Nauman is an extremely difficult artist to talk about. It isn’t easy to analyse his work, or to generalise about it. He gives few clues. Yet from the seven or eight gems selected from all that filming, there was enough to know what insights we were missing.

Early in “Imagine …” we see Nauman in the turbine hall of Tate Modern, talking about his visit to the space to plan his installation. He became aware, he said, of its incessant hum. “It’s almost a meditative kind of sound and its resonates in different ways throughout the hall as you move around in the space. So my first thought was to invent or conceive of some sound or group of sounds that I would put in the space. And then it occurred to me that I had a lot of recorded texts already.” Alan Yentob did not know how to push the right buttons to explore this idea further. Tate’s accompanying catalogue to Nauman’s acoustic sculpture provides rewarding texts. The programme touched many aspects of Nauman’s work: his use of his body as art object, video, word play in neon, and his confounding architectural installations, such as “Dream Passage”.

The Richard Dimbleby Lecture. Engineering the difference, BBC 1, 8 December.

Desert Island Discs. Tracey Emin, BBC Radio 4, 10 November. Tracey Emin’s Top Spot, Top Spot Films, 18 December. Imagine … 3/5 Bruce Nauman: the Godfather of Modern Art, BBC 1, 8 December.