Oil paintings on the radio

Oil paintings on the radio might sound an odd idea, but BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting shows about the visual arts for years now. You can listen to art critics discussing pictures, not apparently bothered that the audience can’t actually see what they’re talking about. They do a Film programme too, where at least we can hear snippets from the soundtracks of the films. And it works, somehow: these shows are informative and entertaining, and they make good radio. But it’s still odd. Wouldn’t a visual medium suit this visual material more naturally? Wouldn’t it work better on the TV, or on a website?

But “the pictures are better on the radio”, I hear you say. And yes, often that’s the case. The TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was predictably disappointing, because on the original radio show, the pictures were all in the listener’s imagination, and the sets they built in the TV studio could never match up to them. But a show about the visual arts is a totally different scenario. When you’re talking about oil painting, or photography, or film, then the pictures aren’t just backgrounds or settings or illustrations. They’re the actual subject. They existed before the programme was made and they’re what the programme is actually about.

So, why make these radio programmes? The answer seems to be something to do with the nature of language, or to do with some of the common assumptions we tend to make about language. It’s often assumed that talking is the basis of human communication, the basis of thought, the basis of meaning. This is why people talk, and write, about the visual arts, or about music for that matter. It’s as if it’s not really possible to fully understand a painting, or a piece of music, just by looking at it or listening to it: you have to talk about it too, or read what critics have to say about it. In fact the language just on its own will do: you don’t actually need the original. You can just listen to art critics talking on the radio about a picture you can’t see. For that matter, I’ve often enjoyed reading descriptions of music that I haven’t heard, too.

A computer engineer once told me that before long computers won’t need keyboards or a mouse or a touch-screen, or even a camera or a microphone: we’ll just wear some sort of headband, through which the computer will read our thoughts directly. Thoughts are just electrical impulses in the brain, he explained. So, I wondered, will I be able to just visualise where I was last week, and a photo of that place will appear on the screen? No, he said, it won’t work with pictures, because images have to be scanned. Music then, I wondered? Can I imagine a symphony in my head and make it come out of the speakers? Again, he thought not, though he wasn’t able to quite explain why. But we will be able to open a particular app just by thinking about opening it. And we’ll be able to make words appear on screen just by thinking them.

So visual thinking doesn’t count as thinking, then. Or at least it’s not recognised as thinking by computers, or by computer engineers. It seems that when he said thinking, what he meant was language. In fact it seems that he was assuming that language and thought are the same thing. But they’re not. There are plenty of theories, and plenty of debate, about the relationship between thought and language, and the extent to which either of them may depend upon the other. The ancient Greek philosophers used to argue about this, and so do modern linguists, psychologists, and educational theorists, but nobody quite knows the answer. People generally tend to assume that thought comes before language, rather than the other way round, but that language follows thought pretty directly. So, language isn’t quite the same thing as thought, but it’s seen as a pretty close approximation to it. Much closer, apparently, than any other semiotic system, or medium of communication: such as photography, or oil painting, or music.

But although language is often seen as closely bound up with thought, and with people’s own inner essence, skills in language are also often seen as being all bound up with education – and skills in literacy particularly so. And not by coincidence, education is also seen as something somehow totally different from, and more fundamental than, any other area of achievement. Think of how universities, for instance, hand out “honorary degrees” to people who’ve achieved something that doesn’t involve any academic study. What’s that all about? Judo clubs, for instance, don’t award honorary black belts to people who’ve done well at something that’s nothing to do with the martial arts. The Olympics people don’t hand out honorary gold medals to top chefs, or poets (though the original ancient Greek ones did, apparently). Or think of how people who didn’t go to University say “I went to the University of Life.” People who haven’t been in the Navy don’t say they were in the Navy of Life. People who haven’t been to prison don’t say they did time in the Prison of Life.

Education gets seen as a sort of metaphor for achievement in the abstract – and language gets seen as a sort of metaphor for meaning in the abstract. Many religions for instance have a Holy Book, often considered to be the Word of God, a revelation of ultimate truth. But none of the world’s major religions, as far as I know, have a Holy Video, or a Holy MP3. The idea might even seem hard to take seriously. And that’s probably because, even if we can’t properly understand or explain the technology, we can all see that a video or an MP3 is a piece of technology, created by people using a computer or some similar digital device. What’s less obvious is that writing is also a form of technology: it’s just one that’s been around for a lot longer. It’s not just a direct embodiment or reflection of thought, or meaning, or truth: it’s a set of structures, with their own cultural history, that shape thought and meaning in particular ways.

For some, it’s not only the words of the text that are holy, but the physical book itself. Muslims, or some of them anyway, have strict rules about how the Koran should be shelved: how far up from the floor it should be, and so on. And you’re supposed to ritually wash your hands before you touch it. But these rules don’t apply to the Kindle or online versions. For some Muslims, they don’t apply to translations either: the holiness is inscribed only within the original 7th-century Arabic. This is in contrast with the Bible, for instance, which is still considered the Word of God whatever language it’s translated into, and presumably through whatever medium it’s transmitted: the holiness is within the disembodied meaning, rather than in the actual words. In our age of multiple electronic platforms, somebody somewhere will be reading the Bible on their mobile phone, and believing they're being texted by God.


But then often, people don’t distinguish between the meaning and the words. I once got into a conversation in a college staff room about the fashion for “campus novels”, if you remember them. I remember mentioning The History Man and then someone else making a comment about Educating Rita. No, I pedantically pointed out, Educating Rita wasn’t a novel, it was a play. A stage play. I got some blank stares from this group of teachers of assorted subjects. It turned out that none of them had read any of these books, or seen the play in a theatre; they were talking about TV versions. It made no difference to them whether the texts had started off as novels or plays or whatever: books are just raw materials for TV. And I’ve met plenty of English A-level students, and even English degree students, who think they can write an essay on a book they haven’t read because they’ve seen a film version of it, and assume that’s equivalent.

But it’s not. Books are different from films. I’m not going to say they’re better, because that might be snobbish, or because it would be to mistake a personal preference for some sort of objective scale of values. But reading a book is a different experience from watching a film. It involves different mental and imaginative processes: it uses different parts of the brain. Film is sensory, multi-sensory, drowning us in big visuals and recorded sounds, so your imagination doesn’t have to do so much work. That’s why you can still watch telly when you’re too drunk to pick up a book. When you’re reading, you’re engaging with patterns and structures of language, imagery, syntax, etymology, connotations and collocations, working their way through your mind, refreshing parts of your brain that other media can’t reach.

Poetry is what gets lost in translation, Robert Frost said. The bigger bones of the basic meaning might still come through, but all the subtleties are lost, the wordplay, the rhythms, the sound patterns, the rich ambiguities of language. The Koran gets lost in translation too, but not the Bible, traditionally. All books get lost when they’re translated into film. They turn into something else. The film version might be better, sometimes: the Harry Potter movies entertain me although the books don’t. But most of the time, they’re just not as rich. I’d rather listen to oil paintings on the radio.

***                                                                              June 2013


The banner image at the top of this page is taken from "In The Shadow Of Art Mountain / from the Prospector and the Picador series" - oil in progress by David Newton. Used by permission.


Other articles by Mick Bruce:


On FCUK  tee-shirts - droopy drawers & the Norman Conquest

On crap

On postmodern art

On used cars

On fitted kitchens - and your chance to win a £1,000 voucher

On the Colne Blues Festival

On songwriting

On buying and selling wine


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