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250 years of American art

If you're in the mood to learn more about America's first 250 years in art, architecture, and design, wander through New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. You'll enjoy the exhibits, the intellectually curious crowds, the cross-cultural ambiance of the place. If you can't make it to Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, one alternative is to watch a new two-part series on television: New World Visions (PBS, Friday, March 29 and Friday, April 12, check local listings for premi`eres and repeats). But let me warn you: It may be the best alternative available, but it is not very satisfactory.

Art programming made its first indelible mark on American televison in 1970 with Sir Kenneth Clark's BBC series, ``Civilisation.'' Since various triumphant reruns of ``Civilisation,'' there have been many other series attempting to duplicate that ambitious series, which so successfully juxtaposed learning and entertainment. Some were also in the area of art, like Robert Hughes's ``The Shock of the New''; others in the area of science, like Carl Sagan's ``Cosmos''; and of course, there was Jacob Bronowski's masterwork, ``The Ascent of Man,'' which integrated all disciplines. Currently, the ``Smithsonian World'' series, with literate generalist David McCullough as host, is successfully transposing museum material into a kind of electronic ``inform-tainment.''

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However, only Mr. Bronowski's series has managed to soar like Sir Kenneth's. Mr. McCullough, engrossing as he is, comes across as an intelligent Everyman serving as a totally likable guide, more in the Alistair Cooke tradition than the inspired teacher-philosopher class of Clark and Bronowski. All of the others seemed too engrossed in self, too determined to be loved for themselves rather than their revelations, or too determined to impose their personal proclamations on an uninvolved audience.

What Clark and Bronowski had in common was a kind of breathless, nonacademic enthrallment with their subject matter, the ability to catch the viewer up in the thrill of discovery, to share with them the ecstasy of the psychic click when two facts collide to form an idea. Perhaps most important, both Clark and Bronowski made audiences feel privileged to see a unique phenomeneon take place: a knowledgeable person actually thinking on camera.

``New World Visons'' would seem to have much to recommend it -- a body of material stemming from the treasures of the Metropolitan Museum and a writer-host-narrator in the form of Prof. Vincent Sculley, one of the foremost authorities on American art and architecture, professor of History of Art at Yale and twice selected by Time magazine as one of the 10 outstanding American college teachers.

Well, after viewing the first of a two-part series, ``New World Visions,'' I must report that Clark and Bronowski remain secure in their cultural-TV Olympus.

Certainly ``New World Visions'' has nothing to be ashamed of -- Professor Sculley, executive producer George Page, producer/director Lorna Pegram, WNET, BBC, and the Metropolitan Museum have turned out a respectable television program that traces -- in words, paintings, and film -- the evolution of the colonial craftsmen's culture of the mid-17th century to the reverence for landscapes of the mid-19th century. Along the way, in Part 1, Professor Sculley takes viewers to the museum's various paintings, handicrafts, furniture, and architecture collections, but he doesn't hesitate to soar out into the New England countryside or even into a Hollywood screening room. He treats craftsmanship as the art form it is and declines to draw sharp lines between crafts and ``pure'' artistry.

He examines the silver work of Paul Revere as diligently as he examines the portraiture of Robert Feke, John Singleton Copley, Charles Peale, and Gilbert Stuart. And the program often leaves the museum behind and strikes out on its own in areas where the museum's collection is weak.

Fascinating stuff. So why my reservations?

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It's unfair to complain that Sculley isn't Clark or Bronowski. They were extraordinary human beings, capable of transmitting their enthusiasms through the television screen. Sculley, on the other hand, is the quintessential most-popular-teacher-on-the-campus. Perhaps what I am complaining about is that Sculley is too much the college professor and not enough the electronic instigator. With Clark and Bronowski I often had the urge to throw open the window and shout: ``Come, look at what I'm discovering!'' With Sculley, I simply have the urge to find a notebook and jot down the facts.

Or, better yet, take off for Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street to see for myself. On second thought, perhaps that's exactly the reaction Professor Sculley and the Metropolitan Museum wanted me to have.

See you at the Met.

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