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Can VR help to sell art to kids?

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

(Hi)story of a Painting: What’s the Point?

South by Southwest Festival

Some pictures are now so mediated that their actual physicality has long been dwarfed by a million reproductions. The ‘Mona Lisa’, obviously. ‘The Haywain’ is the subject of countless cushion covers and trays. ‘The Birth of Venus’ has marketed trainers, hair dye and the New Yorker. Now, Georges Seurat’s ‘Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte’, possibly the most famous painting to have inspired an entire musical and which has, along the way, inspired umbrellas, duvet covers, dresses, socks and face masks, is the subject of an ‘immersive’ creative experience.

This does not mean paintballing outside the Art Institute of Chicago, where the actual art work resides. It means donning a virtual reality headset and riding through What’s the Point?, a 12-minute wacky world where tubes of paint float through the air and Seurat’s great canvas is perched, with you, on a rickety bridge over a fast-flowing River Seine, while the British rapper Speech Debelle reads a script.

This combination of technology and street is not done for commercial gain, but is the latest endeavour to make history of art more accessible. Of course, the only way to immerse oneself properly in ‘La Grande Jatte’ is to go to Chicago and stand in front of it. The scale is breathtaking; the atomised, silent nature of the disparate community, strangely heartrending. But it is a privilege to do such a thing, just as it is a privilege to sit at the theatre witnessing Sunday in the Park with George, especially at that monumental point just before the interval when the whole company assumes the famous promenade arrangement.


That was a theatrical treat. As such, it is unavailable, as is the pleasure of going to museums. This is not the point of this production, however. What’s The Point? is not about alleviating the privations of arty people suffering from cultural famine induced by lockdown. It is an engagement project funded by Arts Council England and this, the first in a series of five, debuted last month at the South by Southwest Festival. The idea behind each is to use virtual reality and pair ‘iconic artists with contemporary creatives to tell the story of an artwork’s context, meaning and significance through time… aiming to engage and inspire young audiences’.

As it happened, when the Oculus headset arrived, I had a young audience on hand, namely my 16-year-old son. His gurgles of joy in realising his mother had something unusually cool in her study turned to cries of horror when he realised the only thing it was able to connect with was ‘an artwork’s context, meaning and significance through time’. The depth of his scorn was not something that even a brand-new Oculus might plumb. Did he want to hear about Seurat’s disenchantment with the Académie and his schism with the impressionists? Or the fact that Georges lost his father at a young age? Was he interested in the fact that ‘La Grande Jatte’ was universally decried by the critics and at first showing was a massive flop? No, no and no. ‘I’m going to try and get YouTube on this,’ he announced happily after a few minutes, and settled down to hack into the press kit.

The laudable ambition, and the sticky problem, within this series, are twinned. It is exactly the same ambition, and the same problem that plagues nearly all arts programmes broadcast since the dawn of time, or at least since Kenneth Clark was in shorts. The fact that this one is on virtual reality and slightly interactive only highlights the point. Producers never learn.

What co-creators Gaëlle Mourre and Quentin Darras have done is the same as those behind most well-meaning arts shows usually do, which is to take a cultural concept or moment in history admired by those in the know, and try and draw in those who are not, via a famous image, a celebrity or a gimmick, in this case VR. It always fails, because the approach is fatally didactic, and fools nobody. Notable exceptions include Matthew Collings, who questions everything, and the late Robert Hughes, who took a more direct route by simply writing intelligent scripts and not giving two hoots for immersion, engagement or new audiences.

What’s the Point? might be voiced by a rapper but the script is written by a history of art boffin. The bibliography of academic journals in the credit crawl says it all. Why didn’t Mourre and Darras invite Debelle, herself a distinguished writer, speaker and political activist, to say what she thought about Seurat and his radically disruptive art? That would have been more engaging, and certainly more interesting. And as for immersion: if you want immersive art, take a leaf out of Marvel’s book and watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, streaming this week.

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