Contemporary art, by its very nature, resists the televised experience. Art, like poetry, is about slowing down, paying closer attention, and dissolving philosophies. Hardly television's forte.
Art:21, the most successful television series on contemporary artists to date, just finished up its third season on PBS last month. The show introduces viewers to many of the art world's A-listers, demystifying their practices for large audiences. While this year's season may have been a bit drier than the previous two, it's still interesting to examine how the complexities of post-postmodern art are sugarcoated for the masses.
Rule number one is to couch the learning experience in the language that viewers expect from the tube—namely, with cheesy celebrity bumpers. Each episode of Art:21 is hosted by an inconsequential star who has little or no connection to the themes or artwork explored. David Alan Grier, for example, opens the episode dedicated to the theme of "power" and does little besides contribute a sketch wherein he bosses around his assistant. Similarly, Grant Hill is on call for the "play" episode.
Rule number two is to focus on the artist first, and the art second. Most of the segments begin with the artists pontificating on their childhood interests or engaging in an activity tangentially related to their artwork. Only after several minutes of this folksy "just a normal guy" approach will the producers begin to focus on the actual art.
The final approach is to show the artists working mostly in isolation. Occasionally a collaborator will appear on screen, or the show will follow the artist to a museum installation, but by and large, each artist is portrayed in the Emily Dickinson vein—creatures of solitude working away at their creative endeavors far from the banal hubbub of the world. The most glaring omission in this approach is a market-driven art world—one of dealers, detractors, collectors, curators, and critics that often create the unpleasant art-world stink that Art:21 tries so hard to get away from.
Since Art:21 does such an admirable job of showing art as an easy-to-swallow, likeable endeavor, maybe artists can pick up a few cues from the show's production. First: Find a celebrity buddy to hang out with. Failing that, use popular motifs and imagery to make your work less intimidating. Second: Talk more about your childhood hobbies than about your art. Make it all about you; if you're likable enough, your art will be popular, too. Finally: Be an art-world outsider. Audiences apparently like fossil collectors and avid readers more than opportune careerists.