PRINT September 2001



YOU CAN JUST HEAR 'EM at the story meeting: “Look, what we want to do here is demystify these artists. We gotta make them regular, friendly folks. None of this wrestling with art-historical forebears crap, none of that B.S. theory. And above all, no authoritarian narrator telling the audience what to think.” The silence of no basso profundo voice-over from Robert Hughes on Art:21—Art in the Twenty-First Century, PBS's four-episode look at twenty-one contemporary artists debuting September 21, is almost deafening.

An opening segment—hosted by Steve Martin doing his patented mock-self effacing act and the world's oldest ingenue, Laurie Anderson, among others—introduces each episode's theme: “Place,” “Spirituality,” “Identity,” or “Consumption.” But then we're on our own. After Martin's shtick comes the world's most sophisticated aw-shucks artist, the great ur-Conceptualist Bruce Nauman, now a fully content lion in autumn on his New Mexico ranch. Nauman reveals that he became an art student in college because he “wasn't doing very well in the other stuff.” Richard Serra attributes his fascination with volume, weight, and steel to the childhood experience of watching a ship's launching. Southern Gothic-lite photographer Sally Mann, in the most cohesive life-into-art episode, seems to love the progeny and the landscape that are her subjects. Kerry James Marshall—a winning television personality who, incidentally, could have done the Hughes thing if PBS had wanted it—still studies old masters in the museum. And I assume that the other artists, including James Turrell, Ann Hamilton, and Shahzia Sikander on “Spirituality” (something gooey I avoid whenever possible), are equally modest and forthcoming. The cumulative point: Famous contemporary artist are unpretentious people of tangible inspiration who just happen to have the wherewithal to make gloriously manifest their slightly off-the-wall ideas.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. But a dash of history and a few tough questions would have added necessary spice to Art:21's informational custard. Richard, can you show us a glimpse of the guy who raised hell when Tilted Arc was taken down? Sally, can't you admit there's a Jock Sturges vibe in some of those pictures of your kids? Without a little grit—and a tour guide—Art:21 presents an insoluble paradox: Since works of art never, ever look profound on televlslon, and since the artists on the program go out of their way not to sound profound, the only way their talents can come across is if viewers are already familiar with the art. And in that case, there's not much need for Art:21.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.