Art is the “unmistakable evidence of the best things our species is capable of creating, things made by the liberated thought, the acute vision, and the unquenchable creative fire of our shared humanity.” – Simon Shama, Civilizations

Those are the final words spoken in Civilizations, a nine-part history of art that aired on PBS this spring and summer. In this my next-to-last week of summer vacation, I binge watched the series – thanks to my wonderful wife Julie who got it for me from the also wonderful Upper Arlington Public Library.

Such a great series! I highly, highly recommend it even if (or especially if), like me, you don’t know beans about art. I learned so much – why Ramses II is the best-known of the Pharaohs (answer: he often appropriated old statues of former Pharaohs and changed their names to his), why domes became all the rage in Renaissance Italy (answer: Islam envy), even why so many Dutch paintings have dogs in their corners (answer: the Dutch artists valued scenes of everyday life, and Holland had lots of dogs). I was especially moved by the end of episode six, which compared landscape painting of the mid-19th century to the amazing Hubble Space Telescope photographs of our own time.

My favorite episode, though, was episode 7, “Color and Light.” I’ve always thought light and color to be among the most fascinating topics in physics, and I love the close connections between the science of light and the art created to study light.

The idea that color has to come from somewhere, that paint with vibrant colors wasn’t always available at every corner store, had a surprising effect on the history of art. I love the story of ultramarine, how this beautiful blue was so expensive it was once reserved for only the holiest of subjects, and how when the artist Titian broke that tradition by putting ultramarine on the pagan Ariadne it was a scandal.

I didn’t know that impressionists like Monet (my favorite) were so inspired by Japanese art. It really shows how interconnected and multicultural our world has always been. While studying Monet’s paintings of The Gare Saint-Lazare, a train station in Paris, one of the commentators made the observation that the impressionists were painting not only light, but time. I was struck by the idea that a painting can convey the feeling of change and movement. The final scenes of this episode, in which we plunge into a deep black circle painted on the ground (a work by Anish Kapoor called “Descent Into Limbo”) is something you need to experience.

Episode 8, “The Cult of Progress,” was a little bit heavy. As an optimist, I know that the desire to return to an idyllic past is mostly the result of a bad memory. Yes, the past century was full of horror and bloodshed, and we owe a great debt to the artists who captured that horror so vividly, lest we ever are tempted to forget. But every century has witnessed horrors, many of them far worse than those of the 20th. What strikes me about 20th century art is that the artists saw the inequity and the stupidity and weren’t afraid to show it to us. Instead of generals, they gave us soldiers slaughtered in the field. Instead of kings and queens, they gave us prostitutes in brothels. Instead of glories to God, they gave us rail lines that vanished into death camps. The difference, it seems to me, is that 20th century artists felt the freedom to show us what they saw.

And that brings us to the last episode and the modern world. I still don’t understand Jackson Pollock. But Episode 9, “What is Art Good For?” featured many other modern artists who amaze me with their ability to see beauty and expose injustice. I was blown away by the work of Kara Walker, using black silhouettes to expose the injustices of slavery and racism. At first I scoffed at Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese artist who uses gunpowder explosions to create art. But what comes from those explosions is incredibly beautiful – you have to see it to believe it.

Finally, the program highlighted artists who are speaking to the refugee crisis of today. These works, including a massive, all-black raft full of inflated figures by Ai Weiwei, will touch you in a way the nightly news just can’t.

I have so much to learn about art, just as I have so much to learn about music, and literature, and history, and science and math, too. The world is an amazing place!

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