Art For Art's Sake

God bless PBS America. It has informed me about jazz, enlightened me on Prohibition and told me more than anyone needs to know about the construction of Mount Rushmore. But God bless it most of all for introducing me to the wonders of Bob Ross, paint whisperer.

I was sitting on the settee a while ago and, while flicking through the electronic programme guide, I came across The Joy of Painting on PBS America. This sounds a bit risqué for 3 of the clock in the afternoon, I thought, so in the spirit of inquiry that has taken me there and back again to see how far it is, I pressed the down arrow, highlighted the programme in question and hit the OK button.

I’m almost ashamed to say that I had fallen for the televisual equivalent of click bait but, after a few minutes of watching Bob Ross demonstrate the Joy of Painting, I was so enthralled that I’d forgotten all about the thumb screws. 

I was a late convert to this zen-like artist and now I never miss an opportunity to see him in action. I call him Whispering Bob and I like to think of him as a more easy-going version of Nancy Kominsky, star of the Paint Along with Nancy series of the 1970s. I liked Nancy but I always sensed that she would give you a rap across the knuckles if you didn’t pay attention or were using too much toilet roll to clean your palette knife. Nancy also gave the impression that she could teach you a few things, and not all of them necessarily to do with art. 

Bob Ross - Joy of Painting

Bob is touchy-feely too, but in a good way. His soft tones soothe the viewer. Hey, it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake, baby. It’s all good. We’re all one. It’s your painting, your world, and you can do whatever you want in it. 
He is a mellow hippy in denims and sandals, wielding a wide palette of colours, huge brushes and even huger artistic talent. Before the cameras started to roll, I think Whispering Bob had probably helped himself to a large handful of whispering grass (Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Don Estelle and Windsor Davies. Yes, that’s right, both of them).

Bob nailed the lie, once and for all, that white men can’t rock a ‘fro. My twenty-year-old son advised me to use that phrase. Who knows where the time goes? One minute my son’s a little baby and talking gibberish, the next he’s all grown up and talking gibberish. Bob is too much of a laid-back gentleman to ever point to his hair and utter the words ‘This is how to play it, Leo Sayer’ but he doesn’t have to because he knows every viewer is thinking it for him. 

He always paints the same type of scene. If it doesn’t have a mountain, some trees and a stream then Bob doesn’t want to know. He nonchalantly applies dabs of paint and, a few seconds later, a beautiful, symmetrical tree will appear. I tried this technique myself and the symmetrical blobs ended up looking like Rorschach tests. I’ll never be much of a painter but at least I now know that I have deep-seated personal issues that I will never be able to resolve. Well, as the poet said, useful to get that learnt.

Bob makes it look so easy but it isn’t, of course. Despite his gentle encouragement, I decided to abandon my paint set and just sit and watch. Somewhere out there is a clip of Sammy Davis Jr doing impressive things with a six-gun. He would twirl the revolver like a gunfighter, put it in the holster, take it out and twirl it again, all in one fluid movement. He would then turn to the camera and say the no doubt well-used line ‘Hell, I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t good at it’. 

There’s a frustrating gap between what I would like to do with my hands and what I can actually do with them. A few years ago, I tried to learn to play the guitar. As Chef would have said, I had the heart and I had the soul but I didn’t have the talent. 

My brain always took a few minutes to plot each movement of my sausage roll fingers on the fret board and, as any good musician knows, music should be instinctive or not at all. By the time I had worked out where my pudgy digits should go for a rollicking tune like Folsom Prison Blues, the prisoner had had time to serve his sentence, leave jail, re-offend and return for another stretch of porridge. And that’s only on a six-string. I have nothing but admiration for those who can elicit an air from a twelve-stringed implement.

The beauty of watching Bob Ross is that you can tune in, ignore the artwork, and still be enthralled by his calming presence. Like all good showmen, Bob  saves the best till last, bestowing a lovely little wave on the viewer accompanied by the benediction of ‘God bless, my friend’ as we part company. 

You could have knocked me down with one of Bob’s brushes when I found out that I was being waved at by a man who has been dead since 1995. Rest in peace Whispering Bob or, as you might have said, stay beautiful, baby. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars, one of those happy brothers and sisters who make TV worth watching.

The world has changed since Bob created his gentle TV masterpieces. It has been decided that what television needs is a huge gust of audience participation to blow away the cobwebs. I don’t know who decided this but I suspect it was the result of a lot of chin stroking by deep thinkers sitting in an entertainment hub. Everything seems to revolve around a hub nowadays doesn’t it? In this instance, it would be nothing more than an abbreviation for hubris.

So, after the bake off, the sewing bee, the thrown down and, for those heartily sick of such formats, the throw up, we now have a surfeit of competitive art shows on television - Watercolour Challenge, The Big Painting Challenge, Portrait Artist of the Year, and the confusingly titled Portrait Artist in Landscape Format of the Year.

Whatever happened to art for art’s sake? Whatever happened to just sitting and watching the telly without being urged to ‘join in the conversation’? Temperamentally, I am more suited to sitting and watching. It’s not for voyeuristic reasons at all.  Anyway, everyone knows the score. You don’t get on telly by being a shrinking violet. If they didn’t want to be seen they wouldn’t be there. True, I don’t have to watch the TV through binoculars while hiding behind a pair of curtains, but that’s my choice and I’m happy with the choices I make.

I’m not a complete stick-in-the-mud, though. I do try and get involved every now and then. I decided to help the Beeb out by exit-polling myself one morning as I left the house to go to work. A staggering 93% of me opined that programmes like The Big Painting Challenge are a shocking waste of the licence fee but that I would be willing to pay more for it if the BBC spent it on original drama and comedy. My other 7% was wondering if I was going to make it to the bus stop in time to catch the bus to work.

The Big Painting Challenge

Odd couple Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon hosted the first series of The Big Painting Challenge. Ms Stubbs seems to have shrunk since the last time she appeared on TV. I can’t have been the only one to think that she never looked as short as that when miming away on Give Us a Clue or being nasty to Worzel Gummidge down on Scatterbrook Farm. 

When viewed side by side, Stubbs and Bacon resemble a painting executed by an enthusiastic amateur who, despite making a gallant effort, has not quite managed to convey the correct perspective. 

They have since been replaced by the more satisfying, perspectively-speaking, pairing of Mariella Frostrup and the Reverend Richard Coles. As one half of The Communards, Mr Coles was responsible for some of the finest sounds to come out of the 1980s but, after this and his inclusion in a recent series of Strictly Come Dancing, seems to have reinvented himself as a talent show gun for hire. 

The Big Painting Challenge

What the viewer wants from the Beeb is some creative thinking, some out of left field decisiveness to make them feel the hundred and sixty quid a year is well spent. I assumed the Beeb agreed with this lofty sentiment when I spotted who I thought was Jim McDonald, the volatile Irish car mechanic from Corrie, as one of the mentors to some of the would-be artists. 

It wasn’t Jim at all but maverick artist Pascal Anson, complete with moustache and overalls. If ever Mr Anson’s artistic career does a runner he could always find work as a lookie-likie. He even has his overalls pulled down to his waist. Jim used to arrange his overalls this way as a prelude to one of his countless rucks with any male whose gaze hovered for a split second too long over his wife Liz. 
Adopting Bob Ross’s mantra, this is my TV, my world, and I can make it do whatever I want it to. I find the Painting Challenge so much more fun to watch if Pascal Anson really does morph into Jim McDonald.  

It is obvious that Jim is just spoiling for a fight because Jim is always just spoiling for a fight. In the episode I saw, his method of motivating his students was to threaten them that they have ten minutes left and if they haven’t produced a painting of the Giant’s Causeway when the time is up, so help him, he will beat them black and blue with his own bare fists, so he will.

The poor artistic souls were on a bloody good hiding to nothing because, as they had been plonked in the middle of the Cheddar Gorge, they had not unreasonably been working all day on a painting of the Cheddar Gorge. 

Crafty old Jim had nicely wrong footed them. He threatened to beat them up, so he did. So he did. All his students ended up in the next episode of Casualty, but not before the judges complimented them on the blacks, blues and purples on their canvases which complemented the blacks, blues and purples on their faces.

It may seem, to the untrained eye, that Jim’s time away from the TV limelight has not mellowed him one bit. To dedicated Jim McDonald watchers, the fact that he threatened to beat his students black and blue with his own bare fists shows that he has found a restraint that is almost saint-like. It should not be forgotten that this is the man who once beat Martin Platt black and blue with Betty Turpin’s own bare fists. He used poor Betty like one of those boxing puppet toys the better off kids used to bring to school on the last day of term, where you put your hand up the boxer’s backside and pulled levers to make him punch. And all poor Martin had done was to suggest to Jim that he was interested in an old banger.

In art programmes of this type my money is always on the abstract artist to scoop the prize. You can’t say that such an artist faithfully reproduces the subject on display but, more to the point, you can’t say that he-stroke-she doesn’t either.

Being voted off doesn’t sit well with some contestants. One feisty Irish woman complained that she was so unhappy with the verdict that she was going all the way. Before anyone could start sniggering she clarified that she was not happy with being rejected, the rejection breached her human rights and she was taking her case all the way to the relevant European Court in Strasbourg. And all the po-faced seriousness that implies. This is still my TV, my world, so Richard Coles has morphed into Dick Emery’s Vicar. Standing to one side, he sucked on his teeth and thought of all the double entendres going to waste in these thoroughly correct, ho hum, wouldn’t say boo to a goose times. 

Whether it’s the bake off, the throw down or the art show, they all follow the same format. 

There’s always a contestant who cries, there’s always one who’s a favourite of at least one of the judges and there’s always one who tries to elicit sympathy by proclaiming how badly they’re doing. One sensitive artist was so distraught at the criticism meted out by judges Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd that his already high-pitched voice became so high that it was audible only by dogs and children under the age of ten. I rewound and switched on the subtitles in the hope that they would be able to decipher his utterances. Unfortunately, the subtitler was no wiser and could only type out the following exasperated words: 

‘I am sorry but I have no clue what this person is saying. I don’t know what he’s crying for anyway because, in my opinion, the criticism is perfectly justified. I have no artistic talent whatsoever and I could do a better job than him with my eyes closed.’

Although they are the words of the subtitler, they reveal a sentiment with which I would not disagree too strongly. 

The biggest innovation in these programmes is The Pause, that interminable interlude between the words ‘And leaving us this week is’ and the actual reveal. It is designed to wring the last ounce of anxiety out of the contestants but, more importantly, to create televisual tension so that the viewer will keep coming back for more. My doctor tried this technique with me once. He uttered the words ‘And the results of your blood test are’ before taking a loudly ticking clock out of his drawer, placing it on his desk and looking me squarely in the eye for a full two minutes. He then told me to ‘relax, they’re fine’ before collapsing into a fit of the giggles. 

I was relieved at this. It wasn’t so much that I would live to fight another day but I didn’t fancy being hugged by all of my doctor’s other patients while they smarmily tell me that the waiting room won’t be the same without my mischievous presence and that I deserved to live to see a telegram from the Queen. It is much easier to be magnanimous when someone else is on the receiving end of bad news.

When I watch Bob Ross I become mild-mannered and good-natured, ready to go out to the world and bestow God’s benison on everyone I meet. When I watch The Big Painting Challenge I become churned up, a howling, malevolent whirlwind sucking up all in my path and exhaling them from on high to take their chances with gravity.

Despite my lack of artistic talent, I am thinking of applying for next year’s Challenge in the hope of manufacturing a mass brawl. I would take on all-comers – would-be artists, judges, mentors alike. I have even memorised my own cri de guerre, a variant of which can be heard most Friday nights in public houses up and down the land: ‘Ow, mate, you’ve just spilled my paint.’

Oh dear, I really should stop trying to take on the whole world. I think I need to sit down and watch some Bob, and quick.

Published on April 7th, 2019. Written by Andrew Cobby (2019) for Television Heaven.

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