Arts in the Media: Power of Art

We've been watching the PBS art series Simon Schama's The Power of Art, which airs on Monday nights at 10:00 p.m. Schama says, “This is not a series about things that hang on walls; it is not about decor or prettiness. It is a series about the force, the need, the passion of art — the power of art.”

Each week we stroll along the streets and alleys with Schama in Spain, Rome, France, England, or another locale, as he describes and examines the lives of artists in their historical, cultural, and social milieus. He takes us on a sweeping cinematic voyage back in time, and we become omniscient viewers observing the lives, obsessions, and desires of these artists, portrayed by actors re-enacting turning points in the artists' lives and creating works that defined them at the height of their powers.

The artists and their defining works in the series include:

This week, Schama covered Turner's creation of the Slave Ship. In this drama, he explores “my Turner, extreme Turner, the cockney poet just short of madness. The Turner we ought to know. The Turner we really ought to revere.” Turning his back on gentile, English countryside paintings, Turner, in middle age, portrays the themes of life and death and suffering and salvation in his paintings. In the late 1830s, although slavery was banned in Britain, it was a thriving trade in the Hispanic empires and the U.S. Turner paints the Slave Ship, a depiction of a historical event which took place in 1781. The captain throws over board 100 sick slaves, still shackled, in the shark-infested waters in the Caribbean so that he can get his insurance money for “lost cargo.”

In the painting, the slave ship is engulfed in spray, seemingly cursed and haunted; there is a monster fish in the background; iron fetters, flung limbs, and frantic wave action thrash on the surface of the water. A deep trough draws us into the center of the painting as though the waves are parting (by an unseen hand?), and a small patch of blue appears in the right top of the painting. Did Turner see this painting as a depiction of a day of martyrdom, retribution, and judgment — a vindication that slavery would be destroyed? The public responded by speaking out against slavery, but the critics dismissed Turner as a “crack pot.” Does the painting attack you and make your heart race, asks Schama, and the answer is yes. Schama concludes that this painting “reaches through truths of eternity and history and changes all of art most completely and transports us somewhere into the ocean of light.”

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