Tasty omelette of the arts

'EGG': A

Television

April 08, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A yodeling cowboy, a Bonsai master, an 85-year-old dry cleaner turned poet, and a sculptor who gave New York a 42-foot-tall puppy made out of flowers. That's the lineup of stories for today's premiere of a new national arts magazine, "EGG, the arts show," on public television. As the lineup suggests, it is a magazine with a refreshingly populist and inclusive notion of art.

"EGG" is small show running only 30 minutes in length each week and arriving with none of the headline-screaming hype surrounding commercial network newsmagazines like ABC's "PrimeTime Live." But I predict a longer run and bigger impact ultimately on our culture for this gentle, wry and often wise exploration of art as a reflection of who we are as a people.

Each week, the show takes a concept, theme or question and explores it through reports, profiles and conversations with various artists. The theme of the first episode is "How to Be Happy."

It opens with a mock science film made to look as grainy and boring as educational films of the 1950s and '60s. After identifying the amygdala as the "place of happiness" in the human brain, the British-accented voice of the film's narrator says, "Chocolate can make you happy. Puppies can make you happy. Love can make you happy. Can art make you happy?"

And we are off and running with a report on Jeffrey Koons, the controversial creator of the giant puppy sculpture that stood in Rockefeller Center. The piece is neatly framed by a running debate between Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, who defends Koons' ultra-kitschy and mass-produced work, vs. Hilton Kramer, editor and critic for the New Criterion, who loftily dismisses the puppy sculpture, saying, "Sure, it's art, but what difference does it make? It's [rubbish]."

Along the way, there's an interview with Koons, a look at the assembly line of "workers" he has set up to make his creations, analysis of the works themselves, and reaction from people who have viewed the work. This examination of production, followed by critique of the work itself and investigation of the ways audiences respond to it, hews to the highest standards of scholarly criticism. Except typical of the artworks being examined here is a sculpture of Michael Jackson in repose with Bubbles, his pet monkey. It's just plain fun to watch.

My personal favorites in the premiere episode are Isidore Elfman, the 85-year-old poet who specializes in odes to his wife, and Wylie Gustafson, the yodeling cowboy from Washington state.

We hear Elfman reading at a coffee house from a recently written poem of his titled, "Prepare for the Long Cold Night." It begins, "You've watched her disrobe with gluttonous eyes ... " The sexual appetite in the poem is that of a 20-year-old.

"Poetry makes me feel alive," Elfman says simply.

Yodeling is what makes Gustafson feel alive. The segment on him is as much a history of yodeling -- from Bavaria to Jimmie Rodgers, to a festival of yodelers in Avoca, Iowa, today -- as it is a look at this singer on horseback. The photography is exceptional, almost always including Gustafson's horse and the big, bold western sky.

The piece closes with Gustafson out on the range sitting on a bale of hay yodeling away. His horse is the background chomping grass against a stunning lavender sunset. Staged? Sure. But all media is staged in one way or another.

In terms of its smart and whimsical sensibility, the closest comparison I can make for "EGG" is to the Public Radio International show "This American Life." PBS has been trying mightily the last couple of years to bring the bright tone of public radio to television. "EGG" is the realization of that effort and then some.

'EGG'

When: Today at 9:30 a.m. on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), and 10:30 p.m. on WETA (Channel 26).

In brief: A delightfully bright weekly look at America through its artists.

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