“Art in the 21st Century” is an excellent PBS series on contemporary art now entering its sixth season. It has found a winning formula, which it sticks to here.
Each episode features three segments on individual contemporary artists. In this new season, the first episode begins with a piece about the prominent Los Angeles-based photographer Catherine Opie. It moves on to a piece about one of the world’s most acclaimed living artists, El Anatsui, a Ghanaian based in Nigeria, and concludes with a piece on an even bigger name, the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.
What I like about the series is its deference to the actual artists. There’s no annoying presenter imposing his or her view on the art we’re shown. The artists (Lynda Benglis, Sarah Sze, Rackstraw Downes, and Marina Abramovic are among those who will feature in forthcoming episodes), are allowed to speak for themselves, and they do so in the setting of their studios, their favored places of work, and the galleries that show their art.
The result? There’s no dumbing down. Better yet, we’re allowed to see that creativity, although it is endlessly fascinating, is in essence pretty straightforward. It’s usually the curators and, yes, the critics who tend to complicate things and make them seem obscure.
It’s fascinating to learn from Opie, for instance, that, when creating portraits of people who, because of their appearance, might arouse discomfort in some viewers, she has not only Diane Arbus in mind – an obvious precedent – but the 16th-century painter Hans Holbein as well.
Opie talks about her interest in the way identity is formed within groups. So it’s instructive to go from her to El Anatsui, who talks about creating “kinship” – the bringing together of things that were once separate. As he does so, he casually rearranges an installation of separate sculptures into a huddle.
The balance in each segment between biographical back story and recent work feels just right. In between, all manner of curious details arise. We learn from El Anatsui, for instance, that he became fascinated in lettering in his youth, and that the letter G especially aroused his interest – perhaps because it had such interesting “appendages.”
The artist, who now runs a bustling studio in Nigeria, was constantly thinking as a young man: “What precisely do you do as an artist?”
It’s a question that seems as alive as ever, not just to him but to the other well-established artists featured here. Maybe that’s why they’re so good.
One of the themes that comes up in both the segment on El Anatsui and the one on Ai Weiwei is creative control: How much control, for instance, does an artist have over his or her studio assistants (both these artists rely heavily on assistants). And how much control do they have, or want to have, over the display of their work?
El Anatsui says he refuses, “as a matter of principle,” to give instructions on how to install his magnificent textiles made from discarded bottle tops and bottle neck foils. He embraces chance and change in their display. “It’s different every time,” he says. “That’s the whole idea.”
The filming of the segment on Ai Weiwei began when the artist was still in detention, held by Chinese authorities on charges of tax evasion. It opens with footage of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praising Ai’s courage as he opens the artist’s public sculpture, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” on a wet day in New York. The artist himself is conspicuously absent. (At the time – May of last year – people legitimately feared for his safety.)
We then hear two of his assistants talking about him, in itself an act of admirable courage. One of them, Inserk Yang, says Ai “gives [us] a lot of freedom. He’s not the kind of artist that imposes his creative decisions on his assistants or co-workers to be executed.”
The observation prompts all sorts of questions, including: “What does an artist do if he doesn’t impose artistic decisions?”
Such questions are not necessarily answered later in the segment when Ai, now released and permitted to talk, but only about his art, describes the blithe, almost comical circumstances of his decision to become an artist.
The labels used to describe us, he says, “are more convincing than anything else. That’s why they call me ‘political activist’.”
It’s a fascinating, enigmatic interview, in which Ai also explains the origins of one recent sculpture. The carpenters who work for him, he says, are always looking for something to do. When Ai suggested one idea, they commented on its difficulty, to which he replied, “Oh, that’s a purpose!”
The challenge, which took them a year to realize, became “like a game to them,” he continues. “They really love it. It really has no purpose, but they accept it because they love it.”
“Art in the 21st Century” credits us with the ability to respond in our own way to statements like these, and to decide whether or not to take them at face value. There are times, I feel, when the show could be a little spicier and a little less deferential. But I try to imagine alternative ways of doing it, and they almost all seem worse.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.