Daytime TV: Who wants reality?

We search for truth in nature, on canvas and online, but Gary Day finds that illusion is usually preferred

July 2, 2009

History tells us two things: that we pursue truth but prefer illusion. No doubt it tells us far more, but I don't want to spoil the symmetry of my little thesis.

The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Revolutionaries (BBC Four, Tuesday 23 June, 8.30pm) illustrates the first proposition. The movement was founded in 1848, "the year of revolutions", by several young men including John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They wanted to paint nature as they saw it, not as the academic tradition told them they should see it. In this, they were helped by John Ruskin, who told them to "go to nature; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing".

Was this the same Ruskin who turned pale at the sight of his wife's pubic hair? It was one thing to preach about nature, quite another to practise it. The solution the Victorians found to that fault-line in our make-up was hypocrisy, the homage that vice pays to virtue.

Millais' Ophelia was seen as the perfect illustration of this new fidelity to nature. The scenery was painted outside, an innovation in landscape art, and then finished in the studio with Elizabeth Siddall, the model for Shakespeare's heroine, freezing in the bath.

Alison Smith, curator of Tate Britain, pointed to the purple loosestrife in the painting to show how realistically Millais rendered the rose, the poppy and the forget-me-not. And if you look more closely, she burbled, you can see the flowers engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival. With her brain clearly overheating, Alison advanced the idea that Ophelia drowns because she is weak and cannot adapt to her environment.

Carol Jacobi of the National Portrait Gallery did her best to see if she could top that, but her view that Hunt's Our English Coasts was a metaphor of Britain's fear of the rise of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was just too sensible, at least compared with Alison's delightfully nutty ramblings. More convincing was art historian Tim Barringer's argument that at least some Pre-Raphaelite paintings, such as Ford Madox Brown's An English Autumn Afternoon, were intended to demonstrate art's superiority to the camera.

The brotherhood, as they were known, may have wanted to show things as they are, but in putting brush to canvas they transfigured them. Their figures are drenched in sensuousness, and the light flooding their paintings is not of this world.

Those who spend a lot of time in online worlds demonstrate the truth of T.S. Eliot's observation that "humankind cannot bear very much reality". In South Korea, young men and women spend up to ten hours a day immersed in a virtual environment. There are even TV channels where you can watch them watching the screen, their fingers approaching the speed of light as they battle in cyberspace. True Stories: Another Perfect World (More 4, Tuesday 23 June, 10pm) set out to examine this brave new world.

Ford Madox Ford wrote that criticism often comes down to saying no more than that a picture of an elephant, no matter how good, is not a warthog. Fair enough. But what about works that really are about a warthog but neither render a good likeness nor improve our understanding of the creature? So it was here. What should have been a fascinating exploration of the pointillism of pixels was dead dull.

As was the dinner time of a couple addicted to Lineage, an online medieval role-playing game. "We barely talk when eating," said the woman. She chewed another mouthful of bean sprouts then said, "Let's put on the television." That could have been the starting point for an investigation of how virtual reality may impact on our interactions and our institutions. Instead, we got a man called Kevin in what looked like a wetsuit performing moves to be used in digital sex. Which, come to think of it, does tell us something about how the computer is going to impact on our lives.

For a start, the borderline between fantasy and reality is going to become ever more blurred. Demonstrating how fuzzy it already is, the philosopher Peter Ludlow discoursed about being a ghost in Second Life while a little distance away a computerised cat rolled and rubbed itself along the ground.

The pursuit of truth leads to illusion and the perfection of illusion leads us back to truth. It's like a game of tennis that goes on for ever, which is how Wimbledon can seem. But the death of Michael Jackson has diverted attention from the progress of Andy Murray. On a special Newsnight Review (BBC Two, Friday 25 June, 11pm), Kwame Kwei-Armah said that "before Tiger Woods, before Barack Obama, Jackson had broken open the door of international relations". Had the man not heard of Louis Armstrong? So, yes, there is a lot more to history than I said.

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