Dorm Chasers

R.J. Cutler Goes to College; Artists Get Some Airtime

Dad: "Going to my goddamn job isn't fun. I'm sick to my stomach, but I just do it."

Casey: "Wouldn't you want me to do something I enjoy?"

Dad: "Not really. No."

"I don't know how to be gay!": The Freshman Diaries' Neil.
photo: Lisa Maizlish/Showtime
"I don't know how to be gay!": The Freshman Diaries' Neil.

Details

Freshman Diaries
Sundays at 9:30 (and other times) on Showtime

ART:21
September 9 and 10 at 9 p.m. on PBS

Inevitably, Casey rebels, and various other good kids go a little bit bad—not necessarily because they're showing off for television cameras (if they did any grandstanding Cutler left it on the cutting room floor), but because college is a giant lab for personal experimentation. Especially for students like Nicole, an 18-year-old so dignified she already looks like a district attorney, and so straitlaced she's never been kissed by a boy or exceeded the speed limit. She dreams that college will wreak some kind of alchemical transformation. (Actually, she describes it more simply, in terms of Felicity theme song lyrics: "You can become a new version of you.") And so it does.


These days there's a network for just about every niche: food, sports, music, cartoons, animals, politics, indie films, even home repairs. But visual art gets no respect on television, beyond the occasional documentary on Picasso or late-night screening of Pollock. So the very existence of Art:21—Art in the 21st Century feels groundbreaking. Spread over two nights, the second incarnation of the Emmy-nominated miniseries presents a serious but entertaining contemplation of 15 modern working artists. The producers selected a vivid mix of established names (Kara Walker, Gabriel Orozco, Kiki Smith) and intriguing up-and-comers (Trenton Doyle Hitchcock, Walton Ford), devoting about 20 minutes to each artist's work. Surprisingly, the program doesn't overemphasize biography, although life stories leak out as they discuss how artistic obsessions and styles took hold of them.

Just as Project Greenlight reveals the army of technical people behind the scenes of a movie, Art:21 offers a fascinating glimpse of the assistants, artisans, and printmakers sometimes involved in bringing a vision to life, totally messing with the myth of the lone suffering artiste. And the camera keeps us entertained by evoking a sense of perpetual motion as the work comes into being: Walker cutting remarkably graceful, disturbing figures from construction paper; Raymond Pettibon's hand slashing out dark inky lines; Collier Shorr racing around youth wrestling matches with her camera, contemplating "the life I would've had if I was a boy"; Vija Celmins planting tiny white specks on a canvas she has been working on for over a year, discussing the way she "builds a painting" as she erases and repaints dot after dot. Intimate and painstaking work laid open for the world to see.

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