Tax Dollars at Work: PBS Promotes Art Online

On August 23rd, the Public Broadcasting System launched a new web portal for promoting the arts. PBS Arts spearheads an overall expansion of arts programming to take place over the next year that will include a night each week dedicated solely to the arts. What makes this development especially encouraging is that the emphasis remains on the public, social component of art in America. From Katrina to Guantanamo Bay, the art appearing in these virtual exhibitions takes a no holds barred look at how contemporary art reflects what is happening in America. PBS Arts puts your tax dollars to work to show you just how relevant the arts are to American life today.

In Ruin and Revival, the tragedy of post-Katrina New Orleans takes shape through the sculptures of Thomas Mann. Mann’s Storm Cycle memorializes not only the city lost to the sea, but also the heroic efforts of everyday people who helped others find a way out of the waters. The infamous FEMA trailers, New Orleans tragic topographical bowl shape, a dog fed by aid workers for months, an angel statue found in the ruins, downed power lines, and even the markings officials placed on homes after inspections to indicate if any bodies were found inside all find a place in Mann’s treatment. Videos and slideshows with commentary give a well-rounded pictures of Mann’s art and the rest of the exhibitions.

Citizen Architect profiles Auburn University's Rural Studio, which was founded by Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee to teach students how to design buildings that serve the community. Based in Hale County, Alabama—a section utterly crushed by profound poverty—the Rural Studio channels the energy of young, creative students towards serving struggling people who need human-centered housing as much as the affluent do. Mockbee, who passed away in 2001, would be proud of how his dream has been realized.

Finally, Read All About It: Art From the Headlines specifically concentrates on contemporary art and contemporary events by breaking down works into the categories of Climate, Gender and Sexuality, War, Empire, Extinction, and Torture. Those categories sadly overlap in today’s world in which warfare by the American empire loses all honor through employing torture. I found Eleanor Antin’s photographic settings comparing present-day America to the decadent days of Ancient Rome. Antin’s Plaisir d'Amour (after Couture) from Helen's Odyssey (shown above) captures the orgiastic consumption of the past while drawing a painful parallel to our present situation.

"[W]ith global warming, climate freakiness, wild fires, water loss, disease migrations, economic destabilization, terrorist vengeance—hey, we're on a roll here," Antin says blackly and bluntly. Hopefully, this beginning of PBS Arts is the beginning of a long roll in which the arts are given a platform to play a role in the public discourse. Unfortunately, the inevitable criticism that arts programming using public dollars is something we can’t afford in lean times will rear its ugly head, but, in reality, we cannot afford to avoid talking about the issues embedded in this art. PBS Arts breaks the silence by giving shape to our fears and faults as a nation and is money very well spent.

[Image: Eleanor Antin. Plaisir d'Amour (after Couture) from Helen's Odyssey, 2007. Chromogenic print, 61 x 92 1/2 inches.]

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