Jill Janows, filmmaker and executive producer of PBS's "Culture Shock," says she was inspired to make the TV series because there were questions in the air that kept nagging at her.
"Why do people get so upset about the arts [such as Mark Twain's novel 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' which has been called racist]? What does cultural conflict tell us about a society, and is there a history and a context to this social phenomenon...?" Ms. Janows wondered.
Controversy over funding of the National Endowment for the Arts was one indication of the cultural climate in the early 1990s, when taxpayers asked whether they should be forced to pay for art they deemed offensive such as photos by Andres Serrano.
Janows says she took a risk that such a discussion would still be relevant at the end of the century.
"As we all know, the arts and their impact on society are still huge public issues," she says. "The series is topical."
The series selects four works of art that are clustered around the first part of the 20th century: "Born to Trouble: 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' " "The Shock of the Nude: Manet's 'Olympia,' " "Hollywood Censored: Movies, Morality, & the Production Code," and "The Devil's Music: 1920s Jazz."
"Huckleberry Finn" was attacked for its low morals when it was published in 1885. It has become a classic, but its power to provoke passion in readers remains strong. The show uses the current-day discussion - is the book racist or did Twain author a brilliant satire - as a tool to examine the role of art in society.
"The historical context in which we teach in the classroom today is one that really holds up a very Eurocentric perspective on history," says Kathy Monteiro, an Arizona mother who fought to have the book removed from her daughter's high school required-reading list.
Ms. Monteiro, secretary of the Arizona office of the NAACP and a junior-high teacher, says that the book should not be required because the racial issues it raises are too painful for students in most high school classrooms. She says her daughter and other classmates of color were faced with racial epithets and harassment after reading the book.
James Miller, former trustee of the Mark Twain Memorial, says that part of the problem with "Huck Finn" is "that it has become, since World War II, a kind of whipping boy for all kinds of unresolved anxieties about race in American culture. It bears the burden of that sometimes, and very often it doesn't bear it because it can't really resolve these questions."
But Janows says the questions are often as important as the answers: "It was [Pablo] Picasso who said that great art gives form to our terror, as well as our desires." The show is about how art may express the anxieties of an age, she says, along with its dreams and ambitions.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society