Arguing the value of works that shock

Shocking, what art can do. It can tell the truth about horrendous social conditions, egging on the public to confront issues they would rather not face. It can describe the whole range of human experience - the evil as well as the good.

"Culture Shock" (PBS Jan. 26, 9-11:30 p.m., and Feb. 2, 9-11 p.m., check local listings) is an intelligent, carefully researched four-part series that explores works of art and art forms that have shocked their audiences.

Many works of art have raised public and critical hackles and later proved to be significant. The series means to challenge widespread popular (though rarely critical) disapproval of shocking contemporary art from sex and violence in Hollywood films to current trends in visual art.

It begins with the 90-minute "Born to Trouble: 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' " and then moves on to "The Shock of the Nude: Manet's 'Olympia,' " followed by "Hollywood Censored: Movies, Morality & the Production Code," and finally, "The Devil's Music: 1920s Jazz."

"Huckleberry Finn" was considered too crude for "polite" society. And while Mark Twain wrote in the vernacular of pre-Civil War Mississippi in order to expose the suffering of slaves and reveal the humanity of one runaway, some African-American teachers and parents object to having it taught in high school because of the use of racial slurs. This film, the best of the four, tries to be fair in presenting both sides of the controversy.

Edouard Manet's classically composed image of a reclining nude caused a furor in 1865 because it offered a realistic image of a known courtesan. Today, "Olympia" is generally considered a masterpiece. In "Shock of the Nude," historians touch on the meaning of the painting and how it reflected French society.

What does not follow from this illuminating exploration of Manet's world is that any contemporary artist who happens to find a public nerve to shock is necessarily creating a masterpiece or even exposing the dark underbelly of American culture.

Filmmaker Jill Janows fails to make her case in "Hollywood Censored" because she doesn't explore the real relationship between commerce and popular culture. The only censor in Hollywood today is the dollar bill. The 1930s, '40s, and '50s produced some of the greatest films of the century (which she dismisses) - the period of time when a public-relations man, Will Hays, self-policed the industry. There was no explicit sex, crime never paid, and violence had limits. Working within the restraints of this Production Code, genius still flourished.

Jazz sprang up from the joy and the suffering of an oppressed people - it was always humane. "The Devil's Music" shows how jazz articulated the rhythms of life, the heartbreak of despised love, the speed of the new century, and the sophisticated musical imagination of Louis Armstrong.

But when Janows tries to justify the inhumanity of "gangsta' rap," which articulates the misogyny, hate, and self-indulgent violence of a few, it doesn't work. Again, the relationship between commerce and popular culture is underexplored.

We live in a time when shock for shock's sake often takes the place of thought and skill, when few critical voices are raised to explain how these "shocking works" reflect - and influence - the culture from which they come.

"Culture Shock" is a provocative series that deserves to be watched. But it also deserves to be questioned.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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