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TV's 'Shock of the New': like a plane trip over the 'jungle' of modern art

We are now entering that time of the century when pundits will start summing it up and telling us what really happened, and prophets will uncover their crystal balls and begin to predict how it will end and where our civilization will go from there.

Art will be no exception. If anything, the easy a accessibility and wide dissemination of 20th-art makes it almost inevitable that the first of these end-of-century appraisals will be an attempt to characterize the art of our time.

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As a matter of fact, such an attempt has already been made. And interestingly enough, in the form of an eight- part public TV series on the history of modern art ("The Shock of the New," PBS, Sunday, Jan. 11, check local listings for premiere and repeats).

Lest that seem a bit precipitous -- this is, after all, only 1981 -- let me hasten to explain that there is considerable evidence that 20th-century modernism is already either winding down or has actually ended. At least that is the thesis of Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, who wrote and presented this first TV series attempting to place modern art within its full historical context. Indeed, for the purposes of this series, 20th-century modernism is seen as tentatively emerging in 1875 and expiring in 1975.

Originally conceived as a sequel to Kenneth Clark's highly successful "Civilization," this series is a BBC-TV and Time- Life Television coproduction presented on PBS by South Carolina ETV. The series took over three years to complete and was filmed in more than a dozen countries.

In describing the series, Mr. Hughes says, "I want to evoke the spirit of modern art by showing how it has acted on society, and vice versa. We will try to look at ourselves and our century through the lens of art -- painting, sculpture, architecture, photography to some extent -- but not cinema, that's another subject entirely.

"We explore eight major subjects in the eight one-hour episodes, beginning with Europe at the turn of the century when the term modernism first came into use. Modernity meant believing in technology, not craft; in human perfectability, not original sin; and above all in the ceaseless consumption of things and images of things."

And explore these subjects he does, in one-hour segments whose titles are revealing in themselves: "The Mechanical Paradise," "The Shapes of Dissent," "The Landscape of Pleasure," "Trouble in Utopia," "The Threshold of Liberty," "The Sublime and Anxious Eye," "Culture as Nature," and "The End of Modernity." And with numerous filmed interviews with the artists and architects discussed, footage shot on location throughout the world, and fair to excellent color reproductions of the art itself.

Hughes himself does most of the narration, and with a theatrical flair that should keep most viewers eager to follow this series to its concluding episode.In many ways this is as dramatically effective an attempt to explain modernism as we have had to date, and I can well imagine that a large number of people will get their first real toe- hold on modernism's meaning and significance from his pictorial juxtapositions and sequences, and from the extraordinary way he can handle words.

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and yet, I can't help but feel that it is possibly too effective, that it is presented as though it were a fast-moving miniseries adapted from a novel rather than as a thoughtful analysis of an important period.

Now this is all well and good, since it is probably better to have a dramatic encapsulation of the subject than none at all -- or to have it presented in a dry and academic fashion. Mr. Hughes himself insists this is a "personal view" of the subject, and by statement and implication he continually reminds us of the overlapping complexities of modern art.

The fact remains, however, that modernism is still too close for us to be objective enough about it to treat it in this fashion. The "script" of modernism hasn't been written yet, nor have we been able to digest its richness of ideas, individuals, forms, dogmas, etc. It quite simply overwhelms any attempts as yet to pin it down, or to state flatly that its crucial element was one thing and not another.

For instance, Mr. Hughes says that "modernity . . . meant believing in technology, not craft; in human perfectibility, not original sin," when the fact of the matter is that modernism is a complex historical reality that includes bothm technology and craft (witness the teachings of the Bauhaus), and bothm the concepts of human perfectibility and of original sin. That is, unless we are willing to give the title of modernist to Mondrian and Malevich, but not to Nolde and Rouault (to say nothing of Munch.)

The dramatic format of the series makes it difficult to avoid certain conclusions that may or may not have been intended by Mr. Hughes. We are swept up by the theatrical rhythms of the presentation, by the switfness of certain sequences, even by the music, in ways that reflect TV realities at least as much as those of modern art. Mr. Hughes's highly effective juxtaposition of Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," for instance, with camera shots downward onto New York streets full of yellow taxi- cabs is fascinating TV, but misleading as far as the larger context of Mondrian's art is concerned.

While I urge anyone the least bit curious about this thing called modern art to see "Shock of the New," I also urge all who do so to remain constantly on the alert. Be stimulated by what is presented to look more closely at the art itself, but don't take it as the true and final explanation of what took place. Modernism is still pretty much of a jungle as far as we are concerned. True, we have hacked out a few paths, and have turned parts of it into neat villages and towns, but large areas of its are still impenetrable and untamed.

"Shock of the New," entertaining and informative as it is, must be seen more as a fascinating plane trip over this jungle than as an expedition into its primal and complex depths.

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