This recent, superb eight-part series – Art That Made Us
– a collaboration between the Open University and BBC 4, is not what you think it is going to be. While there has been some criticism that the artist-makers and historians put forward their own reactions and opinions, in fact, that is its strength. It is absolutely chock-full of the enthusiasm, thoughts, ideas and personalities that come from research, proving its point: British creativity is diverse, lively and critical to who we are as people, as a country, and how we need to draw on much more than what we are told by politicians about what makes us British. As if they knew. Art itself is a form of truth-telling.
If you are put off by it being about 'art', don't be. There are no judgements here, nothing to make you feel you don't understand art. It isn't that kind of series. What has been arranged in these eight hour-long episodes is an overview of eight turning points in the history of the nation, which can be assessed through the arts that were created at those times, and this includes pottery, poetry, drama and music, as well as jewellery, illustrated books, architecture and gardens. Plus paintings and sculpture.
It covers 1,500 years, from after the end of the Roman Empire, around AD 400, to modern times. Each episode focuses on several critical aspects of one particular turning point, and somehow the OU and the BBC have found a wide and wonderful range of people who exude a love of their subjects and clearly want to draw in the television audience.
These commentators, whether visual artist, musician, curator or writer, sit alone on a chair, just talking to you – and this is a very interesting structure to the series – and they speak for perhaps one or two minutes at most. Then the camera cuts to the object they are discussing, or to a performance that illustrates their point, or to the archives of a museum or gallery where another enthusiast continues with the story. Or, a commentator with a contrary view has a say. You have to keep up, but it flows along nicely. Having David Threlfall as a narrator gives it continuity.
It is like a magical mystery tour. Just a few examples. In Episode One
, Michael Sheen recites Welsh poetry from the 7th century, and the artist Cornelia Parker, whose own work is often fragmented, is juxtaposed with the astonishingly skilled work in fragments of the Staffordshire Hoard.
The age of Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales
feature in the next episode, when Anna Morris, an actress known for her stand-up, brings to life the story of The Wife of Bath
, in modern dress, standing in a kitchen with a glass of red wine. Though it is the late Middle Ages, this is sometimes called a forerunner of the modern liberated woman.
Each episode draws on both the past and the present, highlighting the themes that link them. Later, in Episode Four
, Anton Lesser recites movingly from Milton's Paradise Lost
, to illustrate the crisis the country was in at the time: politics and religion.
Speaking of politics and religion, it is a project, a collaboration, such as this that exemplifies what is creative and critical about Britain. We have, this week – and doubtless in those to come – a situation where politics has come up against religious leaders of the country: the Prime Minister has been criticised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It would fit right into this series were it to be taken up to date. Has the country reached one of those 'turning points' on which the series is based? If art is about finding ways to examine, explore and speak a critical truth, what would that look like now?
A brief digression, but an important one... The Open University was set up in 1969 with a brief to widen access to higher education to those who might otherwise never have the opportunity. The Minister of State for Education at the time, Jennie Lee, overcame all obstacles to see it funded and established. This was what levelling up really looked like. Television and radio were used to broadcast the teaching programmes – with in-person meetings as well – and it went on, of course, to make use of the internet.
In 2018-19, the OU had a £2.77bn impact on the UK economy. It is, by student numbers, the largest university in the UK. One of its great strengths is in the arts curriculum. Reduced funding from the government has meant that fees have had to increase, cuts have had to be made. The OU has a long history of collaborating with independent television, and threatened privatisation of television could disturb such fruitful partnerships.
What the series Art that Made Us
illustrates vividly is that Britain is itself a collaboration of a vast array of ordinary people, quite often in conflict of interest with a privileged few. If one is looking for 'what makes us British', a sense of identity, then it is the arts that are all around us.
is a study of the 18th century, a revolutionary age with the beginnings of a social conscience. In 1707, there was the Act of Union between England and Scotland. It was the time of the Scottish Enlightenment, of reason and science. Yes, it was also a time of exploitation, slavery in the New World, and its financial benefits. The episode does not shy away from this. The sculptor, Thomas J Price, visits Harewood House, where he comments that there is 'beauty tinged with something else', knowing that the wealth came from the sugar trade. In 2015, he had an exhibition there, his powerful black heads silent but articulate.
The Scottish academic and author Tom Devine – one of the commentators sitting comfortably – shares his depth of knowledge with the viewer. It feels so personal.
And then we have the Turner-Prize-Winner Douglas Gordon's commissioned sculpture of Robert Burns, Black Burns
, in which Burns is cut into separate pieces, suggestive of the man's contradictions. Burns was in touch with the people, he held the governing classes in contempt, yet he had other aspects, and this is what the sculpture is about; it is what art is able to express. It is not simply admiration, which the 19th-century white marble statue of Burns by John Flaxman exemplifies. However, it does show how deeply the Scots identify with Burns, and how he is part of their national character, their pride, part of themselves, and a recognition of how complex is a sense of identity.
This issue of art and identity is very much a part of our current news, when the art and artefacts from one country are looted by another. It has been reported in The Guardian
that a specialist gang is smuggling valuable artefacts out of Ukraine and into Russia. It suggests that this is a strategy to diminish the identity of Ukraine, removing historical artworks with which Ukrainians identify. Peoples of all countries have a pride in what creativity has gone before them; it is a part of living history, a continuum of the story of their existence. The discussion over the Parthenon marbles is part of that dialogue as well.
Why, then, do we see the degradation and diminishment of the study of the arts and the failure to understand that not only is it art that made us, but that the rejection of art will be our undoing. Perhaps too many people have accepted this put-down, and believe that the sciences can flourish without their counterpart. Sciences, after all, can be quantified: production, sales, trade.
What Art That Made Us
achieves is to break through a barrier that many people have, thinking they will not 'appreciate' art, and illustrate that arts are everywhere. This is where British identity lies. Arts are us