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Art Under the Radar

Think Tank Specials — Art Under the Radar

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For more than a century, modern art has moved from one “ism” to another: Impressionism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism, Futurism, Surrealism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism and more. But as a new century dawns, some artists and their patrons are working on a different track, hoping to preserve and revive traditional standards of beauty and craft.

Art Under the Radar,” a one-hour documentary premiering Thursday, August 23, at 10 PM (ET) on PBS, examines another side of contemporary art. Ben Wattenberg, moderator of the weekly public television series Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg, is host-essayist of the special. Andrew Walworth, executive producer of Think Tank and such critically acclaimed documentaries as “The First Measured Century,” “The Best of Omnibus” and “The Stockholder Society,” is executive producer.

“Paradoxically, this documentary asks if traditional art is the next new thing,” said Ben Wattenberg. “We hope to show that beneath all the talk about what is shocking and provocative, there is a healthy growth of traditional art, across the board — painting can be representational, fiction can tell a story, poetry can rhyme, music can have melodies.”

Art Under the Radar” begins with a look at cutting-edge contemporary art. In the 1980s and 1990s the art that made the headlines did so because of its ability to provoke. In reaction, politicians and advocacy groups railed against obscenity, blasphemy and lack of quality in the art that received government funding. Today, the political debate has quieted, but much of contemporary art is still pushing the limits.

The program discusses how early 20th Century artists reconsidered everything previously taken for granted in art, such as objectivity, color, space and time. This began the chain of “isms,” from Impressionism to post-modernism.

In the documentary, Wattenberg attends an auction of contemporary art at Christie’s and talks with Philippe Séégalot, then Christie’s international director of contemporary art, as he explains the importance of several of the works for sale. The program also examines how the art world has dwelt on novelty over the course of the twentieth century, and shows how some critics now think the so-called cutting edge has itself become the establishment, inadvertently obscuring worthy artists working in more traditional ways.

Among the artists profiled in “Art Under the Radar” are contemporary representational painters Paul Georges, Janet Fish, Graham Nickson and Jacob Collins. These artists may be working within tradition, but they don’t think what they’re doing is old hat. In fact, many will tell you the avant?garde is what has become stale. Is it possible that traditionalism is the next new thing?

The move toward tradition does not deal exclusively with painting; it extends to music, poetry, sculpture and architecture. Wattenberg talks with members of the “Derriere Guard,” a group of artists from different disciplines who are challenging critics to rethink the criterion by which contemporary art is judged. “Art Under the Radar” examines the importance of the late sculptor Frederick Hart, whose classically oriented art graces the National Cathedral and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. The special features excerpts from Hart’s last television interview before his death in August of 1999, where he shares his vision of beauty as an uplifting force in society.

Among the interviewees for “Art Under the Radar” are Philippe Séégalot, former international director of contemporary art at Christie’s; Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic; Hilton Kramer, former art critic for the New York Times; James Cooper, editor of American Arts Quarterly; Frederick Turner, professor at the University of Texas; and Stefania de Kenessey, composer and founder of the “Derriere Guard.”

Ben Wattenberg is the co-author of The First Measured Century, The Real Majority and This U.S.A.; and the author of The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong, The Real America, The Birth Dearth and Values Matter Most. His PBS television specials include The Giving Boom: How the New Philanthropy Will Change America, The First Measured Century, The First Universal Nation, Values Matter Most, The Grandchild Gap and The Stockholder Society. Wattenberg’s nationally syndicated newspaper column appears in 200 newspapers. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The program is a production of BJW Inc. in association with New River Media of Washington, D.C. Funding for “Art Under the Radar” was provided by Pfizer Inc.; T. Rowe Price; The Smith Richardson Foundation; The Bernard & Irene Schwartz Foundation; The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; The John M. Olin Foundation; and PBS.

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Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.

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