Art That Made Us, review: a great idea but the talking heads talk too much about themselves

But it turns out that some people – artists, mostly – want to insert themselves into the picture. We start with Antony Gormley admiring a beautiful little figure known as Spong Man, carved to sit on top of an Anglo-Saxon cremation urn. I had never seen this before, and was interested to know much more about it. But here comes Gormley.

“The thing that interests ME about this…” he began, before we were told about Gormley’s own work. The artist pontificated that “the whole point of making something is to communicate to somebody who they will never meet, somebody that might live in a different continent, might live in a different millennia.” Was the unknown sculptor of Spong Man really thinking about this? Or is Gormley simply speaking for himself?

This is not an isolated case, as the programme keeps showing us contemporary artists’ work instead of focusing on the chosen artefacts and the times in which they were made. It’s a shame, because the idea is excellent and the academics have a great deal of knowledge to impart. Some of the works were new to me, while the programme breathed new life into the most familiar – such as novelist Maria Dahvana Headley reading from her electrifying translation of Beowulf.

We skip over the Tudors because the invited artist – Jeremy Deller – refused to touch “horrible” Henry VIII. Art That Made Us seems to have handed over an awful lot of power to the artists of today.

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