Civil­i­sa­tions in pur­suit of the body beau­ti­ful

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Stephen Matchett

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

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