Waldemar Januszczak: Art for the Millions

The BBC needs a David Attenborough of the arts and Waldemar Januszczak (63) may answer the call. Arguably Britain’s best loved art critic, Mr Januszczak managed to illuminate the Dark Ages without causing viewers to zap elsewhere – a considerable tour de force by any standard. Mr Januszczak is not at all best pleased that television viewers tune in by the millions to gawk at the reproductive antics of some miniscule frog in the depths of the Amazon rainforest while they could be admiring the unsurpassed grandeur of High Renaissance painters and architects. Frog or Florence shouldn’t be a contest.

Mr Januszczak equates watching BBC arts programmes to “homework”: a rather disagreeably dry and mostly uninspiring pursuit: “The Beeb has a lot to answer for. They’ve created this image that art is a kind of homework, that needs to do you good.” Mr Januszczak get quite upset over the low ratings achieved by arts programmes: “It is not that hard to spice things up just a little without detracting from overall quality.”

His Renaissance Unchained series that aired last year proved his point by arguing that its reading by established history is flawed and possibly misleading. Though an epoch of fabulous splendour, Mr Januszczak showed the Renaissance not as a rebirth of something lost to the rigours of the Dark Ages, but as an era of innovation and experimentation, bordering on madness. He also sought to correct conventional wisdom by placing its epicentre in the Low Countries and Germany rather than Italy. “As I see it, the Renaissance has nothing to do with a return to classical values. It was much more a time of over-the-top religious passions and human emotions.”

The son of a milkmaid and a janitor, Waldemar Januszczak is a passionate advocate for excellence in public services and education in particular – it allowed him to become an art historian and critic. He publicly deplored the recent decision by the AQA exam board to drop art history from it’s a-level syllabus – the last one to do so in the UK. The board justified its decision by stating it had been unable to find “sufficiently experienced” examiners. Feeling generous in his assessment, Mr Januszczak considered the explanation baloney: “Ha! There are enough experienced art historians living within a couple of miles of me in North London to mark the nation’s art history papers ten times over. I probably have enough of them on speed dial.”

Mr Januszczak suspects the real reason for axing art history from the curriculum has more to do with “a ghastly mindset” prevalent amongst educators who consider the subject a mere distraction from more worthwhile (read: lucrative) academic pursuits. “Only toffs go for art history. It is seen as a dead-end career and may not even lead to a job.”

In Mr Januszczak case, a job was secured upon graduation from the University of Manchester with The Guardian from where he moved in 1990 to Channel 4 television as head of arts. Two years later, he became an art critic for The Times, a position he holds to this day. No stranger to courting controversy – Mr Januszczak famously defended the figurative paintings of London-based artist Stella Vine when she was ruthlessly decimated by most critics – he insists on ushering art out of the rarefied atmosphere of the well-heeled and into everyday life. “Art saved my life, if you must know. Art history lifted me out of a dark immigrant’s existence. I was eight months old when my father was run over by a train in Basingstoke. I never knew him. I couldn’t speak any English till I was six. But I could look at paintings, at sculpture, at books full of pictures of beautiful things, at all the glorious art-historical evidence that survives from the story of humanity, and I could enjoy it and learn from it.”

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