Mary Beard’s Shock Of The Nude, BBC Two, Monday

Centrepiece of an art-themed triptych that included Tuesday’s slow TV event Life Drawing Live!, in which viewers were invited to take part in a nationwide life drawing class, Mary Beard’s two-parter tackles the thorny subject of the nude in art – western art, mostly, because it’s there the so-called “male gaze” is at its most active, problematic and pernicious.

Following on from Sunday’s Art On The BBC: The Story Of The Nude, which did pretty much the same thing using archive footage of (mostly) male art critics with (mostly) bad haircuts, it was always going to be a push for Beard to come up with anything new. And so it proved in episode one. Of nudes there were plenty, of shock not so much.

Still, Beard is an engaging and knowledgeable presence and you can’t fault her survey for its breadth. She began in Ancient Greece (where else?) and worked through Renaissance Italy to the French Impressionists, Picasso, Freud and into the late 20th and early 21st centuries where she looked at the work of female artists such as Jenny Saville and Jemima Stehli, whose Strip series of photographs show her undressing in front of a variety of men who are controlling the camera’s shutter release.

At root was the idea that nudity in Western art is almost always sexualised in some way and almost always intended to titillate, while at the same time often commenting on that fact, while at the same time seeking to push art forward (witness Gustave Courbet’s scandalous and commendably realistic 1866 painting of a woman’s torso and genitals, thick pubic hair and all). You get the drift. But the arguments always tend to come back to the same questions – who’s painting it and why, who’s looking and why – and to the same landing points: Michelangelo’s David, the death of St Sebastian (a gay icon depicted by everyone from Botticelli to Pierre and Gilles) and to 17th century artist Artemesia Gentileschi, whose oppressive and menacing nude study Susanna And The Elders is a commentary on her own rape at the hands of her painting tutor aged 17.

So what did we learn? A decent amount, to be fair. I didn’t know, for instance, that art sessions with nude male life models are a popular draw (sorry) for hen parties, or that where the nude exists in African art it’s rarely intended to sexualise or titillate. But the art world interviewee who said the only place you see nudes these days is in an art gallery obviously hasn’t spent much time on the internet, and on a not dissociated topic I’d love to know if Beard considers naked selfies a form of art, and if so where they fit on the artist-viewer transactional spectrum. Maybe it’ll be covered (or should that be uncovered?) in next week’s episode.