Egg or art?

'Egg: The Arts Show,' a lively new series hatched on PBS, takes viewers off the beaten path to explore unconventional art, from yodeling to a flowering puppy sculpture.

"Art - Who Needs It?" asks one episode of a lively new series on PBS.

Whipping up the eternal questions about art into a fresh format, "Egg: The Arts Show" (Fridays, beginning April 6, 10-10:30 p.m.) is a half-hour magazine organized around themes such as "Hair," "Flight," "How to Be Happy," "Unnatural Science," and "Collectors."

Why an egg as symbol of the show? "An egg is one of nature's most beautiful objects ... fertile - full of possibilities and life - just like the arts," says Jeff Folmsbee, executive producer and creator of "Egg," along with Mark Mannucci. "We think the arts make great food for thought - so an egg seemed like an apt metaphor."

Why do we need art? What purpose does it serve? And why do we have to keep asking when the answers seem so self-evident? Well, a lot of things are labeled art today that never used to be. And we've come to a place in our civilization where many ancient values themselves are questioned. Some people argue that the so-called fine arts are not profitable, so why should they continue?

"Egg" doesn't provide too many answers to questions about what art means or how it reflects the cultures from which it comes. The show can be downright exasperating that way. But "Egg" does dip the viewer into the world of expression. Creativity bubbles up all around us, whether it is a group of friends constructing a magnificent quilt, or the Miami City Ballet keeping George Balanchine's exquisite choreography alive. Life demands a creative response, and human beings have always and will always rise to the occasion. "Egg" juxtaposes high art and low, fine art and folk, trained artists and self-taught. It's a smorgasbord of small dishes. Some are awful, others wonderful. Your own taste and education determine preference.

That's what executive producers Jeff Folmsbee and Mark Mannucci intended, anyway. They began "Egg" as a 12-part series for a limited PBS market last year. But it was well received and has been endowed by the Pew Charitable Trust and other foundations for at least 50 more programs. The first 12 parts will be recycled into the new series so we can see them all, according to Beth Levinson, story editor for "Egg."

Ms. Levinson and her staff comb newspapers and arts magazines, and talk to arts historians, curators, and critics to seek out interesting art phenomena.

"We let the art world lead us in part," Levinson says. "But the stories go through a lot of filters.... We ask what are the presenters presenting, what are the retrospectives in museums, who is showing in [galleries]? But also, we are looking for artists who speak to us and to our viewers.... I don't know that we're trying to find out what art is, but to ask, what can art say? How can it change our perspectives? When we decide to do a story, it's saying something powerful about the world."

What is 'eggy' art?

"We want to show the gamut of high and low, homegrown and classical art," says Mr. Folmsbee. "And we hope there will be a crossover. If you are interested in yodeling, we hope you'll let us introduce you to the world of Jeff Koons."

The producers don't like to dwell on the distinctions between high art and low, Mr. Mannucci says. "The purpose is to tell a story in a clear, engaging way about what this artist does and why he does it," he says.

"It's difficult to define what art is," Folmsbee adds. "I wouldn't attempt it. But there's more in common among the various arts than not. I think they try to tell the truth about some aspect of life, and they freshen your appreciation of life. Or sometimes they challenge who and what you are."

Both men emphasize that "Egg" is not necessarily about what they like, though they acknowledge that taste does enter into it. "It's about what we perceive to be important stories in the arts out there, with importance being defined in an 'eggy' way," Mannucci says. Just what "eggy" art may be is a bit vague, perhaps, but they seem to know it when they see it.

Finding a balance is key. The producers champion yodeling because they believe it is a dying art form. But Pop artist Jeff Koons is included because, Mannucci says, he stimulates people to think about the nature of the arts.

Provocative and playful

Much of "Egg" is presented with tongue-in-cheek. "Humor is disarming," Mannucci says.

"Egg" can be provocative, too: The segment "Unnatural Science" features the work of English "specimen" artist Damien Hirst - whose recent sculptures include whole cows cut up, the pieces placed in glass boxes and submerged in formaldehyde, then reassembled out of order. No attempt is made to comment on how this work might reflect the materialism of Western society, or the effect of scientific reductionism on our perception of the world. Is it art, is it science, is it hype?

In the same program Ned Kahn celebrates the beauties of nature with advanced technology that even the scientists he knows find mysterious: a 40-foot tornado in a building and a "bowl" of cumulus clouds arising ("Sea of Clouds") that invites the viewer to disturb its formation by blowing in it. The latter piece is located in the lobby of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

"Most scientists sit in front of computers all day," Mr. Kahn says. "I wanted to make something real that they would walk by and remember ... how amazingly complicated the real phenomenon is."

Also in the same program is Nancy Burson's eye-opening "Human Race Machine," a piece that allows the viewer to see herself with different racial characteristics, an exercise in empathy and science, since "there is no gene for race," she points out.

"All my working life I've asked three questions: How do we perceive ourselves? How do we perceive others? How do we perceive [our place] in the universe...? The 'Human Race Machine' is really a prayer for racial equality."

"Egg" can be playful, too. Koons's 42-foot-high "Puppy" made of topiary greens may not be a transcendent experience; it may not even be art. Koons's work may be unworthy of our interest, as art critic Hilton Kramer vehemently insists in the film. But "Puppy" does celebrate the ordinary gifts of the world. In creating a giant baby dog and placing it outside The Rockefeller Center, Koons invites us to consider the importance of such creatures in our lives. Yes, it's sentimental, not deep. But many viewers have found it amusing because it's so unexpected.

"Egg" can be magical. Nearly every dance company represented offers movement that enchants the eye.

From the formal precision of the Miami City Ballet under artistic director Edward Villella to the organic forms emerging from the disciplined improvisations of Pilobolus, dance defies gravity, raises the spirits, and expresses the exuberance of a living language.

"We are poets of gesture," Mr. Villella says. "Dance is a fascinating language that crosses all borders - we can take it anywhere...."

Hair-raising stories

"Egg" can also be down home. A community theater in Apple Valley, Minn., puts on a rousing performance of the '60s musical "Hair." The actors are every bit as invested in it as pros. Outsider artist Alyne Harris paints black angels and white angels because, as she says in the film, "There's no particular color up in heaven."

"Egg" can be innovative. Chinese artist Wenda Gu gathers hair from around the world to make his installations. He makes curtains of hair by dipping it in glue and laying it on plastic sheeting until it dries. The installations are sophisticated, but the materials are unconventional - and metaphorical. Even the ink used in his calligraphy (a Tang dynasty poem) is made of powdered hair.

"Egg" can also be annoying. If you don't care for the finer points of yodeling, for example, it can be purgatorial. The producers say their purpose is exposure, that they want the viewer to make up his or her own mind. That is "Egg's" strength.

It is also "Egg's" liability. How can we take all these things equally seriously? "Egg" raises the question: "Have we lost all sense of criteria in the arts?" Are the splashy photographs of Catherine Chalmers (the "Food Chain" - a worm eats a tomato, a praying mantis eats the worm, a frog eats the mantis) really on the same level as a Richard Serra steel sculpture?

But even as it exasperates, "Egg" illuminates. We're allowed to question its choices as well as enjoy them. Nothing else on TV so consistently reminds us that art matters. Says Folmsbee, " 'Egg' is about how art relates to life."

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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