TV Review: ABC’s Artworks
Critically discussing art in the contemporary era is like walking through a minefield blindfolded while juggling bowling balls and dragging an anvil. So, so many ways to go wrong. Too low and you are a populist. Too trendy and you’re elitist. Strap in to the moderate middle and you lose everything that makes art special (when it’s special).
Premiere on Wednesday evening, works of art, hosted by longtime Radio National art show host Namila Benson, is ABC TV’s next best attempt to get it right. Previous approaches to artistic programming include the marathon Sunday Arts and the fast metro The mixture.
I remember Sunday Arts for its talking head format and endless sequences of ballet rehearsals. The mixture had a cafe decor and a whiplash feel to its cup that made it reckless to look on an empty stomach. Both programs carried deeper messages about art: in the first case, that it is serious and qualified; in the second, that it is risky and avant-garde.
works of art is a refreshing alternative. Judging from just one episode, it works. What makes the program truly innovative is the art it contains.
works of art‘the format is simple. For 30 minutes, Benson presents three artists: actor (and potter, it turns out) Jack Charles, photographer Atong Atem and sculptor Ramesh Nithiyendran. These longer segments are interspersed with short takes of comedians from the Melbourne Comedy Festival talking about failed gigs and whether comedy is an art (answer: yes). There’s also a funny little anecdote: Did you know Brian Eno composed the Microsoft Windows 95 startup sound… on a Mac?
I say that Benson “presents” these artists because what she does not do is engage them in a long philosophical debate where the acute sense of the critic is brought out. Most of the program is the artists talking and, don’t you know, they are articulate, thoughtful and precise about their art.
Benson herself is a warm and enthusiastic personality, but one that doesn’t eclipse. For someone with purple-black hair, huge earrings, and blue lips and nails, she does a good job of blending into the background when she needs it. She has a key skill for a program like this: she knows how to listen.
works of art is meant to be a “new show reframing our way of thinking about art”. In this episode at least, it is the artists who do the cropping. And it feels absolutely right for that moment in time, where artists of all stripes and kinds have been politically forgotten, unless they happen to wear helmets in the moonlight.
Art in the making
The program emphasizes the process: artists at work.
Jack Charles was a pottery teacher before he became an actor, and Benson joins him as he sits behind the wheel. Atong Atem is interviewed in her studio, preparing for a shoot for Benson, now wearing earrings the size of an unstrung tennis racket. Ramesh Nithiyendran more or less interviews himself, showing his sculptures and multicolored paintings.
Sometimes artists talk about their inspirations and intentions; sometimes on the way they create their art; sometimes on their lives and the communities to which they belong.
Diversity is obvious. The art scene today just is diverse, and there is no contradiction in Benson saying that she will bring viewers “the best in the art world” and the fact that there is no national gallery curator or head of symphony orchestra in sight.
On the other hand, these artists are not provocateurs of the kind cows-saw-in-a-half or banana-on-the-wall either. As they perfectly show, they are not against traditional forms. They want to use them for their own creative purposes.
The work of each of these artists is truly original and engaging. Building a program in which you get a taste of it, however briefly, is a step forward from the other two common modes of discourse on art: artist adulation and critical evisceration.
Do yourself a favor
To me, watching art programs is too often like seeing someone I knew well in my lifetime lying on a funeral slab. I say to myself: “Why talk about art? Why not just go and experience it? “
But my complaints evaporate when artists speak for themselves about what they’re doing and why. In the peculiarities and complexities of their lives and professions, we feel what makes art such a truly amazing thing in the world, its ability to offer us what Bertolt Brecht called “complex vision”.
works of art has a lively feel to its aesthetic, but not a jump-cutty. He skilfully traverses the minefield of artistic discourse, limbs intact. Proof of this is that when the episode ended, I immediately called my 17 year old art student son and told him to watch it.
Arts Works airs Wednesdays on ABC TV Plus and iView.
Julian Meyrick is Professor of Creative Arts at Griffith University and former Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.