PRINT April 2001


EGG the arts show

WAY BACK in the antediluvian ’70s, they shot parts of The Sting outside my studio in Pasadena, California. Until the novelty wore off, a few of us artists would stand around and watch. I remember overhearing a couple of extras talking. One asked, “And was that movie a good thing for you?” The other answered, “Sure was. I got two full faces and a profile,” Actors are grateful for small favors; they’ll find the one positive sentence in an otherwise excoriating review and rejoice over it. Artists, by contrast, will find the one hedging phrase in an otherwise glowing review and agonize over it. Artists are ingrates. In fact, the entire art world is composed of extremely picky, unappreciative people. Or so it may seem to the folks at PBS when they read my conclusion concerning their EGG the arts show, premiering nationally April 6, after last year’s limited-run “pilot” season, which garnered it a “special prize” at the 40th Festival of the Golden Rose in Montreux, Switzerland, and effusive praise from Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg (“gorgeous without being showy, brainy without being pretentious, poetic without being la-di-da”).

EGG is a weekly half hour apportioned into several short segments gathered around themes such as “Body Language” or “How to Be Happy.” The former is wholly about dance; the latter documents—in reverse order—yodeling, bonsai, and the art of Jeff Koons. The yodeling segment features a yodeling cowboy, an Irish woman yodeling at a fair in Iowa, and a father-daughter yodeling team. This is excellent, and moving, television because a) it’s about a form of show business, and showbiz translates well into TV documentaries, and b) there’s no upper-middlebrow bullshit explaining why yodeling is good—the viewer can hear it. The segment about the Japanese-American bonsai artist is pleasant enough, but vacuous, crutched on viewers’ readiness to find such a dedicated old guy endearing.

Which brings us to Jeff Koons, who’s amazingly still getting media mileage out of his benignly robotic character “Jeff Koons” (think Andy Kaufman’s “Latka” as a Teletubby). All the numbing art-on-television devices are in place: the artist soporifically explaining how his goods are made (“forty painters working twenty-four hours a day, in two shifts”); a hostile critic condemning even Koons’s giant flowering Puppy (Hilton Kramer: “It’s crap”); an enthralled curator (Michael Auping “He’s making objects that reflect who we are as a society”—Aaaaaarrrggh!!!); and quick, uninformative pans over Koons’s work. It’s all so PBS judicious, so Masterpiece Theatre bowdlerized (no mention of Koons’s X-rated pictures of himself shtupping his porn star then-wife, or of his referring to his then-expected son as a “biological sculpture”) that nobody within the art audience will learn anything new, and nobody without wilt get the slightest idea of how deep, dangerous, and resonant is the whole issue of kitsch morphing into serious art almost solely due to context.

But given the near-zero coverage of contemporary art on television (the occasional thirty seconds on the evening news when a “Sensation”-like scandal breaks), shouldn’t we be grateful for EGG? Answer: no. Eight minutes of once-over-lightly on a cute ‘n’ clever media-meister doesn’t do art any good at all. Although I’ll bet Koons is ecstatic over his two full faces and a profile.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.