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What Is Modern Art?

Scoffing critics to celebrations of invention - prose, poetry and music inspired by art, including Steve Reich and Christina Rossetti, Yasmina Reza, Don McLean and Robert Hughes.

From scoffing critics to celebrations of invention - prose, poetry and music inspired by art with readings by Peter Wight and Indra Ové.

We hear from TV presenter Jeremy Paxman questioning Damien Hirst, the Director of the Tate 1938–64 John Rothenstein's analysis of Bridget Riley's art of optical illusion and predictions about the future of art from the influential Australian Robert Hughes - presenter and author of the Shock of the New 1980 documentary television series.

Readings include Christina Rosetti's poem In an Artist's Studio, extracts from Plato on what making art is; the American critic Susan Sontag's argument for a new erotics of art; John Donne's poem Witchcraft by a Picture; a speech from the hit play Art, written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, which depicted the response of his friends to a man buying a completely white painting and the views of residents in Harlem to photographs of their streets in an essay from Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

Claude Debussy scorned the term Impressionism but it didn't stop critics using it to describe his compositions and the music choices in this programme include Debussy's La Mer performed by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Don McLean's Vincent inspired by Van Gogh's painting of Starry Nights, Clarence "Pinetop" Smith's Boogie Woogie and Four Organs by composer Steve Reich, one of the people sharing their view of an art work from the collection of MOMA, in New York in the new podcast and Essay series The Way I See It - which you can find on BBC Radio 3 at 10.45pm or available to download.

You might also be interested in the Free Thinking programme collection of discussions of visual art and debates about running a museum recorded with Frieze London Art Fair

READINGS and TV clips
Jeremy Paxman interviews Damien Hirst on Newsnight 2012
Albert Wolff: Review of an 1876 Impressionist Exhibition
Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation
Andy Rooney asks When Did This Become Art?
Wallace Stevens: The Man With the Blue Guitar
Plato: The Republic Book 10 translated by Robin Waterfield
Leon Battista Alberti: On Painting published 1450 translated by John R Spencer
Elizabeth Jennings: Caravaggio's Narcissus in Rome
John Donne: Witchcraft by a Picture
Bruno Alfieri: Review of Jackson Pollock quoted in a Time magazine article "Chaos, Damn It!" 1950
Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Marcel Proust: The Guermantes Way translated by Mark Treharne
Yasmina Reza: Art translated by Christopher Hampton
John Rothenstein on Bridget Riley: Modern Painters Volume III
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts: Harlem is Nowhere
Frank O'Hara: To Larry Rivers
Robert Hughes from his TV series The Shock of the New 1980

Producer: Luke Mulhall

22 hours left to listen

1 hour, 14 minutes

Last on

Sun 20 Oct 2019 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:01

    Jeremy Paxman

    Jeremy Paxman interviews Damien Hirst, Newsnight

    • BBC Newsnight 2012.
    • Tr.
  • 00:02

    Grandmaster Flash

    Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel

    Performer: Grandmaster Flash.
    • CD1 Tr4.
  • 00:02

    Richard Wagner

    Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg: Prelude

    Performer: Berliner Philharmoniker, conductor Seiji Ozawa.
    • PHILIPS 4262712.
    • Tr3.
  • Albert Wolff

    Review of an 1876 Impressionist Exhibition, read by Peter Wight

  • 00:08

    Steve Reich

    Four Organs

    Performer: Steve Chambers, Philip Glass, Art Murphy, Steve Reich, Jon Gibson.
    • NEWTONE RDG5018.
    • Tr1.
  • Susan Sontag

    Against Interpretation, read by Indra Ové

  • 00:13

    Stephen Sondheim

    No Life from Sunday In the Park with George

    Performer: Dana Ivey and Charles Kimborough.
    • RCA RD85042.
    • Tr 2.
  • 00:14

    Claude Debussy

    La Mer

    Performer: Berliner Philharmoniker, conductor Simon Rattle.
    • EMI 5580452.
    • Tr2.
  • Wallace Stevens

    The Man With the Blue Guitar, read by Peter Wight

  • 00:21

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    Lute Suite BWV 996: 2. Allemande

    Performer: John Williams.
    • CBS CD42204.
    • Tr2.
  • Plato translated by Robin Waterfield

    Republic, read by Indra Ové

  • 00:23

    Einojuhani Rautavaara

    Symphony No. 6 ‘Vincentiana’, 2. The Crows

    Performer: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
    • ONDINE ODE8192.
    • Tr2.
  • Alberti translated by John R. Spencer, revised edition 1966

    On Painting, read by Peter Wight

  • 00:28


    Symphony No 6, Pastorale, 1. Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country

    Performer: Berliner Philharmoniker, conductor Herbert von Karajan.
    • Tr5.
  • Elizabeth Jennings

    Caravaggio’s ‘Narcissus’ in Rome, read by Indra Ové

  • 00:32

    Christoph von Gluck

    Orfeo ed Euridice, Act 3, ‘Che faro senza Euridice?’

    Performer: Janet Baker, Raymond Leppard, London Philharmonic Orchestra.
    • ERATO 2292458642.
    • CD2 Tr11.
  • John Donne

    Witchcraft by a Picture, read by Peter Wight

  • 00:38

    Don McLean


    Performer: Don McLean.
    • EMI5258472.
    • Tr11.
  • Christina Rossetti

    In An Artist’s Studio, read by Indra Ové

  • 00:42

    Alban Berg

    Altenberg-Lieder op.4, 1. Seele, wie bist su schöner

    Performer: Juliane Banse, soprano, Wiener Philharmoniker, conductor Claudio Abbado.
    • Tr1.
  • Bruno Alfieri

    Review of Jackson Pollock quoted in a Time magazine article “Chaos, Damn It” 1950 read by Peter Wight

  • Oscar Wilde

    The Picture of Dorian Gray, read by Indra Ové

  • 00:47

    Johannes Brahms

    Sonata No.2 op 100, 3. Allegretto graziosa (quasi Andante)

    Performer: Tasmin Little (violin),Piers Lane (piano).
    • CHANDOS CHAN10977.
    • Tr6.
  • Marcel Proust

    The Guermantes Way, translated by Mark Treharne read by Peter Wight

  • 00:53

    Clarence 'Pine Top' Smith

    Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie

    Performer: Clarence 'Pine Top' Smith.
    • AVID AMSC553.
    • CD1 Tr2.
  • 00:57

    Brian Sewell

    Brian Sewell

  • Yasmina Reza

    Art, translated by Christopher Hampton read by Indra Ové

  • 00:58

    Jean Sibelius


    Performer: Tom Krause. Performer: Gustav Djupsjöbacka.
    • FINLANDIA 4509968712.
    • Tr15.
  • John Rothenstein

    Modern English Painters vol.3 Hennell to Hockney, read by Peter Wight

  • 01:02

    Colin M.Turnbull, Francis Chapman

    Musical Sticks

    Performer: Mbutu Pygmies.
    • Smithsonian Folkways Recording 40401.
    • Tr16.
  • 01:03

    Leah Worth, Bobby Troup

    The Meaning of the Blues

    Performer: Miles Davis.
    • Northern Music Corp MCA 328898.
    • Tr8.
  • Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

    Harlem Dream Book, read by Indra Ové

  • Frank O’Hara

    To Larry Rivers, read by Peter Wight

  • 01:06

    Claudio Monteverdi

    L’Orfeo, Toccata

    Performer: European Voices, Les Sacqueboutioers, Emmanuelle Haim.
    • VIRGIN CLASSICS 5456422.
    • Tr1.
  • 01:08

    Igor Stravinsky

    The Rite of Spring, 2. Dances of the Young Girls

    Performer: Orchestre National de France, conductor Daniele Gatti,.
    • SONY CLASSICAL 887254425552.
    • Tr19.


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