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Mediocrity is excellence

Art can’t be justified, except by what it is

Mediocrity is excellence

An endless stream of commercials, soaps, serials and political wrangling has been the staple of our television for years. We deserve it I suppose. In between, we have moronic sit-coms in which actors make grinding efforts in order to be funny. They assume — the producers and directors are equally at fault — that unless they appear to be dim-witted morons, nobody would think that they are funny.

I mentioned this to a group of drama enthusiasts in Lahore recently. I said that what depressed me more than anything else was the grotesque faces the actors made to each other (and to the camera). Some of them nodded, but one studious looking young man with a shaven head, rose from his seat, “Sir,” he asked in an earnest tone, “May I ask you to tell us what sort of facial expression we should assume when acting in a comedy?”

“I give up” I said, helplessly.

 * * * * *

Television can be good if those who are making it have a determination to make it work on its own terms, not as a surrogate for any other form of Art or journalism, but as itself, confident, imaginative and distinctive. I am entertained by a programme about the design of a railway coach as much as a programme about the brushwork of Michelangelo, and I really don’t see any harm in thinking that all forms of individual self-expression, and aspirations to excellence, are forms of art.

Art can’t be justified, except by what it is. But without it, as a society, we would lack a soul and we would lack a voice. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of our television to devise a programme which discusses books and films and paintings in a way that is neither sneering nor sycophantic — nor just plain silly.

There is, in our country, an enormous hypocrisy when it comes to television. No one wants to admit that it is a commercial enterprise whose primary aim is to make money. The state-owned television works on the principle that its allegiance lies first and foremost to the government which owns the majority of shares. Its programme making is therefore not dictated by Market Research but the whims and caprices of the party in power and its policy makers. The other commercial television networks exist only to make money.

Unfortunately, their first obligation is to the shareholders, the second to the advertisers and only the third (not so important) obligation is to the audience.

Television can be good if those who are making it have a determination to make it work on its own terms, not as a surrogate for any other form of Art or journalism, but as itself, confident, imaginative and distinctive.

If television has to achieve any kind of a respect, it will have to own up to a dual responsibility: to address a mass audience and to address a minority audience. (Let us not forget that the minority audience also pays the license fee and an equally steep monthly rent to the cable operators). It has to display a commitment to the forms that have been tried and tested — the serious documentary, the original telefilms and the teleplays based on a vast number of good short stories that our literature abounds in. It has to mix high and low culture. Only then will it form an emotional and a cultural heartland. This can come about but only with the abolition of mindless executives and bureaucrats.

I certainly do not suggest that every tv programme should be a work of art. It cannot be, for obvious reasons. For a programme to be a work of art you need a dedicated commitment and an enormous amount of freedom and a cast-iron integrity that forbids you to make any compromises. Our networks are incapable of providing such facilities to an imaginative producer.

The commitment to quality was the fuel which drove the BBC throughout what is known as its golden age. The BBC is the only public broadcasting service in the world to have realised that it has a duty to serve the public. Its philosophy asserted that the public was best served by making best programmes. And so they showed all the popular soaps and pop-music, sit-coms (loved by housewives) gardening and cookery shows etc, during the peak viewing hours, but in off-peak hours they screened Kenneth Clark’s Civilization and Robert Graves’ I Claudius and a host of exquisite programmes about the human condition in the less privileged world.

Mrs Thatcher, known as the “iron lady” made sure that BBC’s liberal and broad-minded stance must be curtailed. She invoked market forces to justify the destruction not only of the BBC, but the Health Services and other public utilities as well. The daring and imaginative programmes were given a short shrift.

The Beeb gave the world a format of broadcasting ethics. We rejected it because we thought that its benchmark — ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’ — was a Western ploy to prevent us from asserting our identity and authority.

 * * * * *

It is hard not to be affected by a feeling of abject despair; so much seems to be wrong and so little seems to get better. In my view if the television network has any desire to show vitality there are two strategies on offer. The first is the intention to occupy the cultural high ground by becoming, as it were, the National Arts Gallery. (Of a hundred and twenty seven channels at least one of them should aim to be that if only for a couple of hours a day). The second strategy is dedicated to middle-brow tastes — classical and modern serials, one-off plays, well thought-out children’s performance, game shows, factual and nature programmes.

What we have chosen, instead, is to go for the third category: the low-brow form devoted to inane quiz shows, soaps centred round hapless maidens unable to find any happiness because of the zalim samaj, agony aunts, and an unending circus in which jingoistic political analysts shout at each other making absolutely certain that the viewer does not hear a single word. These masquerades, which now take up most of the morning and afternoon hours, can be seen on all the channels. The irony is that this fare is wrapped up in a shiny, crinkly golden paper and offered to the viewers as ‘meaningful entertainment.’

The viewers have been so conditioned that they regard this package to be the paradigm. They have actually come to believe that what they see is either good or very good. Of the eighteen or so dull as ditch water cookery programmes that I ever had a chance to see, the caller who phones in, spends the first three minutes in assuring the master chef that his/her programmes are the best that she or he has even seen.

Television has succeeded in convincing our audience that mediocrity is excellence.

Zia Mohyeddin

zia
The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

One comment

  • Television is and has always been for the masses and while the lack of quality television programmes in Pakistan call only for despair, it is remarkable how the BBC too has descended into the abyss. Their catering to the public used to comprise of television shows like Fawlty Towers or Not the nine’o clock news to say nothing of Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster. Now however, the viewer gets total unadulterated rot like Sherlock or Doctor Who,which the former while making Conan Doyle very mainstream can hardly be heralded as classic. So what does it come down too ? The democratization of culture? Perhaps.

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