Last week, PBS presented the first episode of the seventh season of the Peabody Award–winning series Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century. Produced and directed by Susan Sollins,who died suddenly this month, the shows, which are being broadcast on four consecutive Fridays through November 14, focus on 12 international artists—Tania Bruguera, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Leonardo Drew, Omer Fast, Thomas Hirschhorn, Elliott Hundley, Katharina Grosse, Graciela Iturbide, Joan Jonas, Wolfgang Laib, Trevor Paglen, and Arlene Shechet—with three artists per episode. (The shows are also available online.)
What marks the series is the particular intellectual and artistic character of Sollins, an artist in her own right, who successfully brought together the unlikely and the unexpected. You can best see this in the episode that focuses on Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn as he assembled residents from the Forest Houses public-housing complex in the Bronx to assemble his museum/lecture hall/social space Gramsci Monument last year. Dedicated to the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, the project entailed impromptu and planned mini-seminars and classes for all-comers (toddlers to adults), with the aim, Hirschhorn has said, of establishing “a definition of monument, to provoke encounters, to create an event, and to think Gramsci today.”
That’s doesn’t necessarily sound like compelling television but Art21 makes it work, following the action as residents and visitors attend Hirschhorn lectures and debate Gramsci’s theoretical principles. Yes, it’s all very conceptual, but it proves the possible accessibility and persuasiveness of well-considered social activism, and art.
As for the series going forward,”the same team will continue Susan’s work,” said producer Eve Moros Ortega. “Our message,” she said, “is that we see the new season as a tribute to Susan—that we honor her legacy.”