As viewers of BBC documentaries will know, only one thing happened in the history of art. It happened in France in the second half of the 19th century, and it's called Impressionism. BBC2 was back on the subject yet again last night, with shouty Waldemar Januszczak's new three-parter, The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution. The thesis - Impressionists as dangerous revolutionaries - can be deduced from the title, and it's the very same line every 'new look' at the Impressionists takes. It's fair enough, if tired, but plays down the fact that a lot of Impressionist art is, inescapably, very very pretty - which is why it's so hugely popular - and quite a lot of it is little more than pretty (and some of it really rather bad). The presentation is lively, and Waldemar is interesting on the technical side of things - the paint tube, the ferrule, the portable easel. He tells the (mostly) familiar story well enough, but surely BBC2 viewers could handle something other than the Impressionists from time to time.
Looking back at the story now, what amazes is the dominance of the Salon system, the popularity and prestige of what now looks like hideously bad art. But hasn't it pretty much always been the case that what looks to one generation to be self-evidently the best (and therefore most expensive) art to the next generation seems jaw-droppingly awful? This is some consolation as we look at the current art market, dominated by the Saatchi-Serota axis, and the approved big-money stars of the art firmament. Here, surely, is the Salon art of our time - but of course the BBC doesn't see it that way, sedulously plugging the official line through its yartz mouthpiece, our old friend Will. I trust that when the story of 21st-century art is being told at some future time, viewers will enjoy watching Gompertz excitedly describing the Emperor's magnificent new clothes.