Mary’s Forbidden Art reveals political status

Thursday:Mary Beard’s Forbidden Art; (BBC Two, 9pm)

Mary Beard at Zitadelle Spandau Museum, Berlin
Mary Beard at Zitadelle Spandau Museum, Berlin

This year is a big one for Mary Beard. At the end of 2022 she will retire from her teaching post at Cambridge, a role she has held for almost 40 years.

However, the classicist will be maintaining ties with the university by paying the £10,000-a-year living costs of two undergraduates from minority ethnic groups and low-income homes for the full duration of their degrees. She claims it’s her way of paying back after all her role has given her.

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Beard made the announcement last year, describing the Joyce Reynolds Award – which is named in honour of one of her own Classics tutors – as symbolic of the faculty’s commitment to attracting diverse applicants.

She said: “It’s a pledge; we really do want people from more diverse backgrounds to study Classics. Classics is a subject that has changed, is changing, but needs to change more.

“We’ve done a lot of work in saying that you don’t have to have Latin and Greek before you come, you can learn it here, that this isn’t just for posh people who’ve done Latin for ages. But you still walk around the Faculty and it looks – although not entirely – very white.

“I have no illusion that giving a couple of scholarships is the solution, but it’s a way of showing we’re serious about equality of opportunity.”

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For those of us who have enjoyed Beard’s broadcasting career, here’s hoping she won’t be stepping back from TV too because she’s one of the most interesting and thought-provoking hosts around, although in a chat with Radio Times, she was quick to play down her skills, saying: “I’m not the heroic presenter; the only reason I can make broadcastable telly is because there is a BBC team behind me, explaining how to get better pictures on the iPhone, helping me to download vast files and showing me – remotely – how to set myself up with Margaret Atwood on Zoom!”

She was referring to her lockdown series Inside Culture, which she fronted from her own home. However, last week saw Beard getting out and about again when the first episode of her latest programme was broadcast.

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Forbidden Art examines works which have disturbed and unsettled the masses, some of it even being banned for a time. She uses her trademark wit, warmth and forthright attitude to make what could be a difficult subject accessible while asking thought-provoking questions on who decides what is ‘right’ and exploring how attitudes change over time.

This week, Beard turns the spotlight on works that challenged the political status quo by expressing opinions and attitudes others have sought to ignore or eradicate. Among those featured are German Otto Dix, a First World War veteran whose realistic depictions of the horrors of life in the trenches made him an enemy of the Nazis.

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Look out too for discussions on the paintings of film director and gay activist Derek Jarman, and the fate of the now-infamous statue of Edward Colston, which is currently on display in a Bristol museum, complete with graffiti and the ropes used to topple it.

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