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High Culture, Low-Def

HAVING BEEN RAISED IN THE CHURCH OF SELF-EXpression, I am made immoderately cheerful by the arrival of EGG the arts show, a 12-episode weekly omnibus from New York's WNET/Thirteen, dedicated, in the words of producer Jeff Folmsbee, to the proposition that "the arts are for everyone." I am not at all sure that this is in fact true -- no more than that sports are for everyone, or that Jesus is, or the stock market, or lutefisk. Or even that it should be true, if only for the sake of the arts themselves, which benefit to no small degree from being suspect, strange, marginal and elitist. But given the comparatively low esteem in which this country holds what we might call "less-popular culture" -- and given that even if not everyone will profit by exposure to the arts, anyone might -- it's probably not a bad thing to act as if they actually are for everyone.

While it may seem prima facie the enemy of culture, the relation of television to the arts is not that straightforward, not least because the medium itself every so often produces something of marked aesthetic value, something better than it needs to be, better than a come-on for a commercial; TV's reach sometimes exceeds its graspingness. Though from the start it took its cues mainly from vaudeville, radio comedies and serials, and B movies, the noblesse oblige of early industry aristocrats like William Paley of CBS and NBC's Pat Weaver, and the fact that production was centered in New York, America's most serious city, cheek by jowl with Broadway and Carnegie Hall, insured that the higher arts were not scanted. There was most famously the 90-minute, commercial-free Omnibus, underwritten by the Ford Foundation and hosted by Alistair Cooke, which debuted with William Saroyan narrating an adaptation of his short story The Bad Man, and introduced the public at large to Leonard Bernstein (explaining Beethoven's Fifth) and Jacques Cousteau. Performers ranged from Les Paul and Mary Ford to Mike Nichols and Elaine May, from kabuki dancers to Agnes De Mille's; an Orson Welles King Lear was presented, and a James Agee serial film on Abraham Lincoln. Viewers in the '50s saw TV productions of dozens of stage plays, including The Green Pastures, Man and Superman, The Royal Family, The Skin of Our Teeth, Blithe Spirit, and several Hamlets and Macbeths, along with such originals as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, a musical version of Our Town, with Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager, and dramas like The Days of Wine and Roses, 12 Angry Men, Marty and Requiem for a Heavyweight, all written for television and later remade for the big screen; indeed, a case could easily be made that in that decade TV drama outshone that of Hollywood film, which in an attempt to lure viewers off the couch and back into the theaters, turned to size and spectacle over substance.

Nowadays one can look with similar aesthetic pride to the likes of The Sopranos, The Simpsons and always to Space Ghost Coast to Coast. I would welcome more programs along the lines of the Death of a Salesman that Showtime is currently showing -- just a videotape of the final perform-ance of the latest Broadway production, simple but effective. Yet on the whole, and with exceptions too numerous and obvious to mention, the medium has never lived up to its potential. Because it is so heavily invested in making its audience happy, in getting people to come back again and again and to hang around to watch the commercials, it shies from complexity, difficulty, darkness, depth. In the cableverse, new networks are created to exploit ever-more-specific markets, and the results, not surprisingly, tend to mirror the newsstand: a cooking channel, a home-improvement channel, a golf channel, a network devoted largely to women in bikinis. No Shakespeare Channel, no Ash Can School Network, no Serial Composers Planet. Because, of course, nobody wants them. PBS, which shoulders the bulk of "quality" TV, increasingly has had to please its public into coughing up the scratch to keep it afloat, and has made its own free-market accommodations: Antiques Roadshow, Are You Being Served?, John Tesh, Riverdance. It's just democracy at work, I suppose: Indeed, the fact that the airwaves are a public trust still leaves us to consider whether a network, by giving the public what it wants (e.g., big-money game shows with easy questions) instead of what it needs (where do we begin?), is not in fact faithfully executing its charter.

WE TAKE WHAT WE CAN GET, WHEN WE CAN GET it. I am writing this around 4 a.m., and in the next room KCET is carrying, as it does six nights out of seven between the end and the beginning of its regular broadcast day, something called Classic Arts Showcase. A modular, "MTV-format" parade of clips of chamber music, operatic arias, ballet, art objects and highbrow whatnot, it is picked up from an around-the-clock satellite feed the L.A.-based Lloyd E. Rigler­Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation makes available free to broadcasters, cable providers and anyone else in the Western Hemisphere with a dish big enough to find it. The material is impeccably acceptable (don't expect Elliott Carter, Pina Bausch or Anselm Kiefer, in other words), with lots of famous dead musicians performing the music of less recently dead composers, and video tours of Baroque interiors. It would be looking a gift horse in the mouth not to cheer the otherwise untendered opportunity to watch Callas, Fischer-Dieskau, Heifetz or Rubinstein at work, but what comes between them is not all equally riveting, and the randomly arranged snippets can smear into a sort of high-class video wallpaper. And because few of the clips -- which are not produced by the Showcase, but are provided by record and video companies or drawn from public and private archives -- are of recent vintage, and many are visually dull, the classic arts begin after a while to seem a little musty, and art itself a thing that has already happened, and can now only be revisited. As heartily as I support the programming concept, and applaud the philanthropy behind it, and as glad as I am that it's there, there is something about the thing itself that keeps me flipping away.

EGG the arts show is more catholic, more contemporary, and not particularly particular about the divide between arts high and low, academic and naive: Blessed be the picturemakers, is its message to you, blessed be the noisemakers, the dancemakers and anybody else who devotes his or her life to scratching any similar impractical itch; it's a paean to devotion, discipline and desire. "Art: Who Needs It?" is the nicely ambiguous -- though clearly rhetorical -- title of the lively premiere episode, which concentrates on art insinuated into the life of the city and the lives of citizens: public artworks, an art show in a Brooklyn hardware store, our old friends the Cornerstone Theater (the subject last year of a fine HBO documentary) retelling the story of Prometheus with a cast of laid-off steelworkers, and "sacred steel" guitarist Willie Eason and his astonishing heirs, the Campbell Brothers. Episode 2, "Working Dancers," which includes segments on Pilobolus, ballerina Tracy Taylor and 62-year-old Dudley Williams of the Alvin Ailey troupe, is even better. Other themes to come include "The Body," "Love, Longing and Desire" and "Money, Greed and Power." If the series has a fault, it's the understandable one of trying to cram too much into half an hour.

Where commercial television succeeds by balancing the familiar with the novel -- that is to say, by keeping its audience interested without scaring it away -- the best art often makes people profoundly uncomfortable, not only because its subject matter is shocking or its style radically new, but because real beauty and deep feeling are always somewhat alarming. Culture Shock, an extremely engaging four-part PBS series about how art upsets and remakes the world, raising hackles and pissing off the squares, opens with the still-dangerous Huckleberry Finn, then in the remaining episodes moves on to Manet's Olympia, the birth of jazz and the misadventures of the Catholic Legion of Decency in 1930s Hollywood. Sensational stuff, art.

EGG THE ARTS SHOW KCET | Sundays, 10:30 a.m.

CULTURE SHOCK PBS | Premieres Wednesday, January 26, 9 p.m.

CLASSIC ARTS SHOWCASE KCET | The wee hours of the morning, every night but Wednesday


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