Civilisations in pursuit of the body beautiful
BEFORE the internet made instant expertise available to us all, the media would have made a fuss about this series. It certainly is in the great tradition of epic- ideas television as practised by Alistair Cooke, Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark. Given today’s vastly superior technology ( nobody knew about computergenerated imagery when those three made their series), if anything How Art Made the World is probably more polished than its predecessors.
Host Nigel Spivey certainly knows his stuff. If this opening episode is any indication, he is a scholar of sweeping imagination capable of assembling engrossing arguments from initially unconnected sources. Tonight he discusses the way humans have represented themselves in art, starting with the first figurine of an individual, made 25,000 years ago in what is now Austria, and ending with the changing styles of statutory favoured by the ancient Greeks.
And fascinating it is too. According to Spivey, human preferences for body shapes in art are genetically wired, except when cultural or religious requirements dictate the way we paint or sculpt people. The contradictions in his case do not bother him, he is not looking for grand unifying arguments and his discursive style demonstrates he rarely meets a tangent he does not want to go off on.
In this episode he features a neuroscientist who bases his theories of what styles of art appeal and why, on research into baby seagulls.
But the core message of the show is that while styles change, in almost all ages and cultures people do not want to see themselves as they really look. At the very point when the ancient Greeks worked out how to represent the human form accurately they started sculpting impossibly perfect, god- like individuals. As the learned Spivey puts it, ‘‘ The reality is humans don’t like reality.’’
The implications for our age are obvious. In everything from high art to gossip mags, we prefer to gaze at people who look better than the rest of us because they symbolise all sorts of things, from fertility to the cult of the body beautiful. This is bad news for people who say women are misrepresented in the media by sexist editors manipulating audience anxiety. In fact it appears impossibly beautiful bodies are what our ancestors always adored.
But Spivey does not labour the point. His style is to inform, not to hector, which makes him all the more convincing. Spivey is a quality presenter and his producers put together some excellent images to support him ( an enormous travel budget appears to have helped).
This series demonstrates that documentary TV can be art in its own right. It should shame the docu hacks over at the National Geographic, Discovery and History channels.
Quest for perfection: A Greek statue