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Tuning In to the Arts

TV series aims to fill classroom void in arts education, teaching creative concepts in fun, simple terms

THE arts aren't frivolous pastimes, but essential components of a sturdy education. A terrific new series "Behind the Scenes" (PBS premiere tonight) demonstrates why the arts are so important to the learning process. The series zeroes in on artistic process in words and images the 8-to-13-year-old crowd can understand and enjoy.

Schools across the country began to drop arts programming in the budget crunches of the recession. And just as many arts organizations from museums to symphony orchestras have increased their outreach activities, the series' producers, Jane Garmey, Alice Trillin, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, set out to fill a void in arts education. They wanted to demonstrate how participating in the arts teaches children problem-solving and creative thinking skills.

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The 10-part program introduces children to artistic concepts in simple, clear, amusing terms. The significant elements of music, sculpture, photography, dance, painting, and performance are explored using a combination of animation, live demonstration, and the efforts of an accomplished artist in the field under exploration.

Hosts Penn and Teller are skillful and comic magicians who lend the right touch of goofiness to the individual shows and give the series unity.

The first 30-minute program acquaints us with the problems of depth and the secrets of perspective in art. Penn and Teller fool the eye with various tricks, and Penn tells us that they are professional liars and tricksters. This program, he says, will show you all the artist's tricks for fooling the eye.

Through imaginative animation accompanied by descriptive song, children see pictures put together on a flat surface, moving from two dimensions to the illusion of deep space.

Famous works of art have computer lines drawn across them to indicate the horizon line and the vanishing point.

Every concept is repeated in various ways so that kids understand: The larger object at the "front" of the painting appears to be "closer," while the smaller object near the horizon line is "far away."

But then comes the departure from renaissance perspective with documentary footage of artist David Hockney making a drawing of a chair. First he draws a single view of the chair. Then he walks around it. We see what he sees as the camera takes his point of view. He explains that we really see movement, and his next drawing of the chair incorporates various views of it and the floorboards under it.

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In the clearest, cleanest terms possible kids learn a great deal about modern art and, indeed, about artistic process - how an artist uses his mind to see and how he helps us to see more than we are generally willing to see.

Jane Garmey, an executive producer for "Behind the Scenes" says, "There's a tension in the show: It really shows tricks and techniques and then shows [kids] an artist who is probably doing something very different, who can break the rules." It teaches kids to question what they see and how they see, she says.

In next week's show, jazz composer and pianist Allen Toussaint builds a song as he teaches three little children how melody works. The ingenuousness of the children's ambitions ("I want to be a lawyer and a famous piano player when I grow up") contribute to the pleasant point of the piece.

Both programs are utterly engaging, the animation fairly good, the explanations witty, and the quality of the ideas excellent.

It's a wonder no one has ever thought of a series like this before. Certainly Sesame Street and other programs have done some of the ground work for the filmmakers, but though some of the style and methods may have been foreshadowed by other shows, "Behind the Scenes" has its own character and purpose.

Ms. Garmey explains that the goals of the series are many, that the creators want to make children think more creatively and critically and help them understand that artists are people who think.

"We wanted to give children a sense of what goes on in the creative process," she says. "And to put aside preconceptions, I think we show that there are some unexpected ways to look at things. And we wanted to demystify the arts, to help kids see that the arts have a connection to their world, that the arts aren't an upscale enterprise that's totally exclusive - they are fun and exciting."

"Behind the Scenes" just may accomplish those goals. The first two episodes, anyway, make the artists seem readily accessible and the artistic process exciting and fun. The hard work part can be left to the kids' own future experience.

Other artists featured in the series are conductor JoAnn Falletta, painter Robert Gil De Montes, sculptor Nancy Graves, choreographer David Parsons, jazz percussionist Max Roach, theater director Julie Taymor, painter Wayne Thiebaud, and photographer Carrie Mae Weems.

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