Western Art Makes A Compelling Tale


ART OF THE WESTERN WORLD PBS, tomorrow, 9-10 p.m. (please check local listings). Premi`ere of a nine-part series. Perry Miller Adato, executive producer. TELEVISION can be an ideal way to teach art history. It is predominantly visual. It can condense a great deal of information into a few images and words. And it can go almost anywhere to examine distant works of art.

Small wonder then that television was chosen some years back by Sir Kenneth Clark and Robert Hughes to spread their views about civilization and modern art. And why it was recently selected by historian and television journalist Michael Wood to present an overview of Western painting, sculpture, and architecture.

``Art of the Western World,'' which premi`eres Mon., Oct. 2, on most PBS stations, is a nine-part introductory level television course on the Western visual tradition. It was filmed at over 140 locations in 10 countries, utilizes the talents and expertise of numerous filmmakers and art scholars, and is intended to provide the viewer with a broad understanding of the ideas and attitudes that helped shape the well over 2,000-year history of Western art.

By and large, it succeeds. It certainly covers a lot of time and territory, from ancient Greece to James Turrell's ``Rodin Crater Project'' in the Arizona desert. But more important, it picks its way carefully over the many issues that make the art of the past 20 or so centuries difficult to categorize.

It visits galleries, monuments, churches, castles, abbeys, gardens, and auction houses, with the camera climbing scaffolds, flying over cities, or zooming in for close-ups to convey whatever is unique and important about particular works of art.

The series, while comprehensive, is far from academic. In fact, Mr. Wood insists it is both entertaining and accessible. ``I look upon the ideal audience to be someone like my mother...someone who's not too knowledgeable about the subject....''

Wood provides precisely such images and information. The first program, ``The Classical Ideal,'' is followed by ``A White Garment of Churches,'' which traces the development of sacred architecture in the 11th and 12th centuries. It isn't all clear sailing, however. Informative and insightful as it is, `` Art of the Western World'' lacks the kind of unifying vision that made both Sir Kenneth Clark's and Robert Hughes' earlier series so memorable. True, the viewer is presented with a smooth-moving sequence of images, ideas, and events, and with a fairly clear analysis of what preceded and followed significant movements and periods. But at the end, even the most attentive viewer won't have much of an idea of the point of it all. Wood is correct in his summation when he states that, since there can be no valid interpretation of history, much of what is presented in such a series as this is, of necessity, subjective and tentative. Fine and good. But that doesn't mean that the viewer should receive only a succession of facts and largely unconnected discourses by experts, no matter how insightful the latter might be. The real point of such a broad, sweeping series is to provide the viewer with something substantive - a cohesive overall conception or intuition as to what it all might mean, against which he or she can weigh the facts and insights provided over the nine hours it runs.

That, unfortunately, is the one thing ``Art of the Western World'' doesn't do.

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