Los Angeles

While sprawling Los Angeles has world-class museums and art schools, artists working in the shadow of the entertainment industry are more "under the radar," affording them the space and time to imagine. Featuring artists Diana Thater, Liz Larner, Tala Madani, and Edgar Arceneaux.

AIRED: September 23, 2016 | 0:55:18

Hi. I'm Claire Danes.

Welcome to the Art21 series

"Art in the 21st Century."

Art21 travels the globe to present some of the most

innovative artists of our time.

This episode takes us to Los Angeles, where artists

Diana Thater, LúLarner, Tala Madani, and Edgar Arceneaux

find the space, time, and freedom to experiment.

Here is "Art in the 21st Century."

L.A. is a film town. Heh!

You are kind of under the radar as an artist.

Woman 2: The space that I'm interested to work in

is really in my head.

Woman 3: Community is what the L.A. art world is about.

Man: It's just always been home to me.

istant siren]

Woman: ♪ Doo doo doo

♪ Doo doo doo

♪ Doo doo doo...

[Vocalizing continues]

Thater: This time of year, it's unusual to see a whale.

Usually right now, you see maybe dolphins.

I don't know. I think she went back out to sea.

Woman: ♪ ...doo doo doo doo

♪ Doo doo doo doo...

[Singing fades and stops]

Thater: I thought for a while I would become an architect

'cause I'm very interested in space...

which is why I make installation

'cause installation is all about moving through space.

And perhaps that's more of what I was really interested in,

is dealing with the complexities of our relationships to space.

And a friend of mine had visited this temple in India.

It is a temple to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman.

You know, I'm always looking for these kind of


between the animal and the human world,

between animal culture and human culture.

So I wanted to go film monkeys in the temple to a monkey god.

I always have a vision or an image, like

like a photograph in my mind of what I'm going to see.

It's never there, but when I get there,

what's really there is even better.

So when I got there, I found out that the temple didn't have an interior.

It's just a facade built on a cliff.

And when I made the installation,

one room is the temple.

You walk through the doorway, and I made my own interior.

And of course, what you find when you go in is an image

of theater seats with a viewer sitting in it,

watching a movie of monkeys.

So it's the theater, which is the sacred space.

The viewer comes in, and you watch someone watch.

I've always been incredibly influenced by hollywood film.

Ever since I was a child, I've been a sort of film fanatic.

You know, I grew up wanting to be two things.

I either wanted to be a movie star

or I wanted to be an artist.

And a really great way to become an artist is

to go to graduate school and study art

with real artists.

I wanted to read a lot, and I wanted to learn theory

and I wanted to work in film and video.

I had a friend who was an architect, and he said

all the best graduate schools are in Los Angeles.

So I picked up and moved to California.

It's almost a tradition.

Teachers teach, the students graduate,

they go on to become artists and teachers themselves.

So the relationship of this work to the work

in the other galleries, can you talk about that for a minute?

Man: I mean, living in L.A., you're surrounded by signs...

Mm-hmm. Of course, so it's

certainly inspired a lot by that.

Thater: And I think that's important to L.A. artists, also,

is if you're always involved with young people,

if you're always involved in teaching,

you're always talking about new ideas.

So I'm just building a tiny video wall.

This is the installation at LACMA.

Normally I install one piece at a time.

But for something like this, it's really complicated.

I need to be able to move around and look through every doorway.

Like, you have to get down here...

look through this doorway to this doorway,

so you can see that every view is planned

so that from any doorway, you see

another color and another image.

When I first started working,

I wanted to make something new.

And I came to the idea

that abstraction in art

is the abstraction of the figurative.

But abstraction in film and video is

the abstraction of time.

And that's how I came to working with images of the natural world

because the natural world is not inherently narrative.

It's another kind of time, another kind of cycle.

I'm interested in the relationship

between images and space and time.

When the viewer walks in, I want them to...

know that they're entering into a work of art.

So how do I make you conscious of the space that surrounds you?

I do that by tinting the space because that makes it a volume.

And it makes you fully conscious of

the space you occupy, uh, how you move through it.

You see your shadow, you interfere with images,

and the technology is exposed,

so there's a kind of loss of self,

but there's a kind of hyperconsciousness of self.

And each of those spaces is sort of really

choreographed to give you the opportunity to have

a sympathetic bodily response to an experience.

And that sympathy is not constructed

intellectually or emotionally.

It's seeing the dolphin

spinning in space

and feeling it fully within your body.

I'm interested in you feeling the buzz

and feeling that super-fast flutter that bees do...

the giving viewers an opportunity to feel

their full self in the presence of other kinds of selves.

[Recording of birds chirping at high speed]

Animals are quite foreign to me.

I want to film them,

but when I'm with them, I am afraid of them.

I think I'm a lot more of a city girl

than I am anything else.

People think I'm an adventurer

just 'cause I go to exotic places

and film gorillas or dolphins.

It's not because I'm an adventurer.

It's because I have to.

This is Keebu.

Every day, when I went up in this tower, Keebu would climb

a tree opposite me and sit and watch me film every day,

so I have tons of footage of Keebu sitting in this tree,

and he's quite beautiful.

"Gorillagorillagorilla" is a piece that I made

in the Mefou National Park in Cameroon.

The work focuses on western lowland gorillas.

The gorillas are in these huge enclosures

surrounded by double electrified fences.

It's to keep them safe.

It's to keep humans from poaching them.

They are so endangered.

They are so vulnerable.

But I found that documentary filmmakers who had come there

before me had built these huge towers with ladders on them

so that they could film the gorillas

as if they were out in the wild.

So I decided I would film them in 3 ways:

gorillas as explained to us by science...

gorillas as if they're free...

and then the third, imprisoned,

the way they really are.

[Overlapping chatter]

Thater: It's really about questioning how we know animals,

how is information about animals delivered to us,

and it's delivered to us in these ways.

This is an era in which the greatest changes

that are happening to the earth are manmade.

There was this idea that animals were returning to Chernobyl,

which is, of course, the largest nuclear meltdown in history.

[Overlapping chatter]

Thater: So I went to Chernobyl, and I spent 7 days

living in a trailer with a very small crew.

It's dangerous. It's radioactive.

It's fascinating in so many ways.

I use the abandoned movie theater as a movie theater,

and I projected images of the outside

on the interior of the movie theater.

The one thing I never wanted was to reinforce the propaganda

that animals are thriving in Chernobyl, which they're not.

The whole point of the piece is the struggle,

the will to live,

and the struggle to live.

I want us to find different ways to think through living

and different ways to construct power.

How do we think about the natural world

in a way that doesn't destroy it?

Woman: ♪ Doo doo doo doo doo doo... ♪

Thater: I think all artists want to change the world.

Woman: ♪ Doo doo doo doo doo doo... ♪

I hope all artists want to change the world.

And if there's anyplace that we can imagine a different world,

it's through art, it's through literature, it's through film.

Woman: ♪ Doo doo doo doo

Thater: And I'm completely willing to say it.

Maybe if I'm willing to say it, other artists will say it, too,

that, you know, come the revolution, I'm going to be ready.

Woman: ♪ Doo doo doo doo

♪ Doo doo

Larner: Clay is just this kind of amazing material

in that it has all these different states.

Larner: And it's, you know, very loose and pliable.

It can be unwieldy, especially when you're working with a lot of it.


It's a little skinny. Hmm.

Larner: And then, you know, it dries out, the water leaves it,

it beit just becomes, like, this dust.

And you have to get it into the kiln, you fire it,

and it vitrifies and becomes very hard and stable.

It's so interesting that dust becomes this material that is,

like, probably one of the hardest things to degrade.

A little bit more. OK.

Push it in there. All right.

I'm going to need thisuh-oh.

I grabbed it too hard.

Larner: The kind of idea behind many of these works is

that they're broken.

It's a rupture,

and every rupture is different.

So the terms are, like, kind of both poetic terms

and geologic terms, so a subduction is when

two plates, um, overlap each other, so these

there's these forms called subductions,

and then the one on the wall over there, that is a caesura,

and that's a poetic term that means a break in one poem.

The thing for me about sculpture is that it's

the most physical form of art

while still retaining this aspect of the poetic totally.

And so the physical reality of instability, something

that we all have to deal with, is part of these works.

The land is very important in California.

It's what brought people out here.

It was the end of the frontier.

It's like the myth of America kind of ended in California.

Ready for some digging?

I grew up about 60 miles northwest of Sacramento.

My father was mostly a rice farmer,

although we also grew wheat and barley

in the winter and tomatoes and beans.

Ooh! Good catch.

When I was 12 and my sister was 11,

he sat us down and said, "Girls,

you think either of you want to run this ranch?"

We were like, "No." Ha ha ha!

But I think about that now like, "Wow.

"I just, like, said that when I was a kid,

and it changed my whole life, basically."

I was an undergrad,

and philosophy was my declared major.

I decided to just apply to art school.

I got into CalArts as a third-year photographer.

At the end, when I got out, I realized

that I didn't really want to make pictures of things.

I wanted to make things.

I decided to stay in L.A. You know, it was a slower pace.

It was easier to live here

and make work as a young artist.

Iof course I thought about moving to New York

and just realized that I wanted to experiment and explore,

and I didn't want to have a lot of attention on me.

I guess the idea of an artist being someone that can change

their mind, that that's kind of what you're required to do,

is to follow your ideas and not just do the same thing

over and over again, that's part of what I found

really exciting about being an artist.

So this is "Planchette",

and what a planchette is is it's that little piece

on a Ouija board that is heart-shaped, usually.

I'm not really thinking you can contact thethe dead

by touching this, but I love that idea

of everyone's hands being on this object, and that's

supposed to be able to evoke spiritual communication.

I just think that i just love that idea.

I don't really like to tell people

what to think about things.

I like to give them things to think about

that aren't spelled out, that hopefully

just come from the physical itself.

That'sthat's a reason to make sculpture right there.

So these pieces are called the "Guests", and, um,

the idea with them is that they don't have any place

in particular that they have to be,

like on a base or on a wall.

But then they are really defined

'cause they're, like, super mathematical.

And one of the hardest things to do with this was just

to get it so that they would never bind,

you know, that I could move it in any direction

and it would stay fluid.

I have little hooks for them, too,

So you really can wear them. Woman: Really?

Yeah. Have you done that?

Yeah, I did do that. We did a fashion show with them.

You did? It was really fun, yeah.

OK, I don't think I'll be using this one.

It's copper.

How about pink?

Mmm, keep the pink.

Larner: Every pigment that I get, I make a small sample of it...

Lot of green and blue.

And so I have this kind of huge palette...

No, too harsh.

And it really has to do with looking at the form,

and it's kind of thinking of it as a character.

It has a certain presence within it that I want

to try to bring out in the color.


Larner: I'm really interested in technique, but I don't want

to stabilize a technique or get into just

having the technique become the art.

I want the ideas about what's happening physically

to be what the art is about.

[Fountain water rushing]

We call them cubes 'cause there's really no other words,

but when I made those pieces,

each of the bars were the same length.

But they're curved, so is that a cube?

I don't even know if that technically is could be considered a cube.

And then the way that the color is applied does not reinforce

the form, so you see all these other forms within the form.

The work is pretty solid, but it seems as if it's

falling over or, um, lifting up or going to move.

Something that I try to do is to not use the same methods,

but work with the same ideas.

So that's why "2001," it's a similar kind of idea

in terms of color,

but it comes from a really different method.

"2001," uh, the idea for that

was to make an animation as a sculpture,

and so I really did make an animation.

It was a sphere turning into a cube,

and a cube turning back into a sphere.

And then, in the computer, I pushed them all into one space.

There's no repetition as you're moving around it.

You get this sense the thing is rotating,

even though it is actually still.

I believe right now we're in a time where reality

and illusion are kind of always together,

and I think that the reality of this work is its illusion,

and you're constantly having to understand the form

and then re-understand the form and re-understand the form

and re-understand the color because it's changing on you.

You know, if I keep using the same techniques,

then it's going to become more permanent,

and I don't want it to be permanent.

I want it to be about impermanence,

so I have to keep changing the way I do it, otherwise it

itit gets too etched ininto the fabric

of perception, and it becomes too stable.

One of the things, you know, when I started finding out

about geology and just, like, the first rule of geology is

"rock fall down," which I thought was so great, you know,

that it's just this cycle of from mountaintop to sea bottom

and then back up, and that's kind of, like,

your Geology 101, first day.

[Birds chirping]

Larner: "Public Jewel" was commissioned by the GSA

for the Federal Plaza in Denver.

This is her last name. Oh, thank you.

Thank you.

Larner: I first didn't realize

that I was going to have to do multiple stones.

I thought I might find one stone and, of course,

that wasn't possible, so then I realized I needed

to make what I'm calling the agglomerate boulder.

[Distant car horn honks]

And that was kind of the great realization

'cause then I could get stones from all over Colorado.

It was funny to me to just even understand that,

you know, stones seem so permanent, but there were

many stones that would not be able to make it

even 5 years out here on the plaza.

OK, can you just switch them real quick?

That's better.

It's a history that's in each stone, you know?

They're each like a little time capsule

if you know how to look at them.

In this piece, of course, the rocks are being held

up high, kind of above your head.

It's a weight.

It's a palpable weight,

and I think people will think about that

when they walk into those buildings.

[Overlapping chatter]

Larner: Geology in geologic time

and individual human time is so different.

Our lives are so short compared to geologic eras.

Ready for the kiln.


Larner: I've always felt that, like, being an artist,

you shouldn't get too much into production,

like, it shouldn't become this thing that, you know,

you have to do, but you should retain that freedom

to, like, take a break and reflect.

I plan on downsizing the studio.

I'll sit in the shadiest one.

I feel really lucky.

We have a 2 1/2-year-old,

and I just want to spend some time with him

while he's really young.

I want to find some spaciousness

and some tenderness in my life

and bring that back when I come back to work again.

[Distant goose honking]

Woman: People always come to L.A. for the stars,

and that's what we're going to do today.

How fast you can actually get to wilderness

in Los Angeles is brilliant.

And I think, you know, you have to kind of find

the things that inspire you.

Oh, look at that light.

Oh, magnificent. [Gasps]

It's so close. The moon is very close.

[Keys jingling]

It's a great studio, but...

a painting studio, what do you need?

You just need some paint, some brushes, some space.

Different paintings have different origins,

but mostly there is an idea in the very beginning.

It might not be verysort of like a verbal idea,

but it's still an idea of, like, you want this to happen,

and then you have to figure out how the image will work to make it happen.

So I was just really interested with the idea that

there is a really recognizable face,

and there is no requirement of a nose for this face.

So I start making a lot of sketches, basically.

I started with this color, and then I sort of couldn't

make sense of the orange, so it became all black and white,

and then I think what really solved it was the idea

that they should have Hitchcock kind of shadows.

I was thinking about an ideology of the smiley

that surrounds a smiley about peace.

I started to think about him as a dogma, as a presence,

as a force,

and when their behavior was, uh, forceful,

uh, then certainly they're not that benevolent.

Something else in the show that I was really interested in

in general was light.

I think I'm also interested in the word "projector."

and then somehow, when I was working on them,

the light of the projector reminded me a lot of a kind of

religious light, and I thought it would be interesting

to think about how thisthis religious light is now replaced

by the projector, and that's the source of the light,

is, I guess, much more controlled.

There are a lot more religious references than I've

ever had before because the smileys seem to be

like a cult, and that led to thinking about other cults.

I was really interested in the clashnot the clash,

per se, but the sort of getting closer, adopting,

the adaptation of one culture by the other,

whether violentlythrough the smiley cutting off the nose

of another guy to make him more like the smileys

or withthrough desire, that there is this sort of

budding pushing-closer

of the two systems.

You know, sometimes adopting another culture

can go sometimes wrong, you know?

In Los Angeles, the landscape being so open,

you're not really bombarded with a lot of things in front of you.

And there's not a lot of hindrances to sort of, like,

plow through every day to get to your thoughts, your own thoughts.

I was born in Tehran, Iran,

and I left Tehran at 15 and I came to Oregon.

It was culturally, uh, very informative.

Obviously I was, you know, taken out and brought somewhere

and it made me reallyprobably, uh, what it taught me most was

how, um, Iran is perceived outside of Iran,

more than anything else, and you become aware of

well, especially somewhere like, um, rural Oregon,

you know, which is not very metropolitan.

I mean, it would have been a very different experience if I had moved to Los Angeles,

surely, because there are just so many Iranians in L.A.

I think there is a proclivity for people to read

into the figures as from Iran.

If I was a Mexican artist, the audience would read them as Mexican men.

Focusing on a group of men in my work

more than a kind of equilibrium

between a subject of man and woman,

it's not coming necessarily from a personal experience

of having women being segregated.

I think, for me, the reason that I started focusing on men

is because of my curiosity, thatin the same way that I'm

equally interested in sort of male locker rooms in America,

it's much more speaking to my own limitations

of entering spaces...

which I then work through in my work

on some level.

Well, they're not necessarily even, uh, going to be works.

Some of them are just empty canvases, of course,

but some of them are, you know, they're beginnings of something.

This figure was trying to fly with feathers,

and I thought that was quite a, um, thatthat

that's just sort of still somewhere around somewhere for me.

So, you know, yeah, just keeping some things I could lead.

In a way, they'rethey're like sketch books,

but inin painted form.

For any painting

that happens, you know, you do so much and some might even

don't happen, so this is a few of them that might lead to...

might lead to little other moments, basically.

Painting is actually quite difficult.

I think that's why I'm really interested in it,

is that it's not something that comes really easily.

And in a way, I try to sort of paint them in a really loose

and easy and uncontrolled way,

so to embrace not just in the image,

but also in their painted attitude,

that level of freedom, that level of pure life, joy.

As a painter, my sense of storytelling

happens to be satirical or funny.

It certainly loosens up your unconscious

to be able to come out in ways that it couldn't otherwise.

This is a little corner I've made

for making some animations

that I'm working on at the moment.

So this is the, um,

it's a piece of wood board that's been painted

with acrylic, and then you can just make the mark,

take a picture, and erase it and then come back again.

The animation's going to be about...

two minutes, maybe two minutes and a half,

and for that, there will be about 1,700 frames.

So far, it's just a few steps

of a figure coming into the space.

This animation will have a voice.

Yeah, and it's going to be really interesting.

It's going to be the voice of god, so I have to imagine

what the voice of God will sound like.

This was the first animation where I, um, also had

a real background, a filmed background.

II get a very, um, naive pleasure from them.

I'm really interested in this relationship

between adults and kids,

you know, the potential

of what the kids are capable of

and what the adults are capable of.

The stories that maybe are the fundamentals

of, uh, western cultures are very much

about the kids replacing the adults,

you know, with "Oedipus Rex."

But a lot of mythologies in Iran

are actually that the parents kill the kids,

sometimes by mistake.

So, yeah, so we'll see if the kids, um...

are stronger with the adults.

The way the paintings portray the figures

as sometimes childlike or behaving badly

or not knowing who the aggressor is, and if they're liking

being victimized or being pulled at.

I think I'm much more interested in our

in our culture that looks

at those particular gestures

and finds fault in it.

For me, I think the salvation

is to behave like children.

So, in a sense, the true oppressor is the frontal lobe.

The true oppression would be, like, the controlled behavior.

The redemption isis through this misbehavior,

and I think thethe fact that we would judge them

as sort of behaving very badly says

about level of oppression that we put on ourselves.

[Overlapping chatter]


All right.

Arceneaux: Today we're going to focus on the end of Scene 3,

when he's on the floor, the green present shows up.

So we'll just start off with the green light.

"Until, Until, Until"

is a performance,

which I'm calling a play,

that is based on an actual performance

that Ben Vereen did in 1981

where he decided to do a tribute

to the vaudevillian performer Bert Williams

at the 1981 Republican gala,

which was a celebration of Ronald Reagan's election.

Man as Vereen: ♪ See them shuffle along ♪

♪ Watch them shuffle along and take your... ♪

Arceneaux: The first act was like a straight-up minstrel show

so when he came out on stage, he was dressed in blackface,

which is surreal in and of itself,

and did this really moving tribute.

And then the second part is where the critique was...

he's trying to assert hishis manhood OK.

But ABC edited out that second part

and only showed him doing a minstrel show for Ronald Reagan

and, like, you know, 25,000 white Republicans.

Man as Vereen: Well, these here, these, my friends...


Arceneaux: And two days later, Ben was surprised to learn

that all the people who were part of his circle

of friends and supporters, they all abandoned him.

Man as Vereen: That's quite all right.

I, uh...

I just forgets my place...


Now this is the thing.

Even if America had seen it, I am not convinced

that most people would have thought that it was a good idea.

Heh! That's the reason why I wanted to do it,

because of that uncertainty...

Man as Vereen: You're marvelous!

Arceneaux: And the power of what art is,

which is distinctive from other fields,

is its unruliness,

which ultimately means that...

art is not inherently good.

It's not inherently bad,

but it is inherently contradictory.

All right, I'll sing it...

Arceneaux: Its nature is to ask new questions.

[Man hums a show tune]

Arceneaux: You know, L.A. is a complicated place,

and it's so big.

There are still parts of it I've never seen.

But this route will give you a sense of the different L.A.s, it's broken up

into these invisible barriers of class and race, you know?

It's a very different experience when you get to see

the other part of L.A. Where, you know,

where regular people live, working-class folks live,

you know, so where I came from.

[Distant siren]

It's just always been... home to me,

um, but, you know, all of my family's here,

and I'm a third-generation Angeleno.

[Church bells pealing]

My mother's, like, a really good storyteller, so, you know,

she would really bring the past to life.

On Sundays, like, after church, she would be in her room,

you know, like, lying on the bed, and one of us would go

in there and lie down and then the other one.

The next thing you know, like, all 6 of us would be in there

on the bed like, "Mom, tell us some stories about Grandpa,"

like, "tell us some stories about your childhood," so...

I'm named after my grandfather.

Yeah, he was a painter and an inventor,

and part of thethe story of my name is that,

you know, I look like him, I walk like him, I talk like him,

but he died a couple months before I was born.

So I could accredit, probably, my interest into philosophy

and religion and science to that anomaly

because I started asking myself early on, like,

"How could I be him and be myself

at the same time," you know?

Drawing, for me,

is both a technique, but it's also a methodology.

It's a way of thinking about how

we make connections between things.

This is a...a big-rig truck

that's crashed into the side of a church.

This is like a collision of belief systems, right?

And when I was in my undergraduate studies

at Art Center, I remember, you know, encountering,

like, all these car accidents, and it seemed to bethere

there was some kind of pattern that existed to it.

And then I started to think about it more philosophically,

which was, like, you know, "Why is it that we

consider car accidents and car crashes to be random?"

because randomness is defined by a sense that we live

within the logical, reasoned universe.

I'm constantly trying to figure out how you could talk about

big ideas, but through images that are somewhat familiar.

So, within the space of making aa body of work,

the thing that I'm trying to talk about is

not necessarily in the picture.

[Electric saw whirs]

You know, this is just like making a drawing, you know?

Man: Yep.

Arceneaux: It's all little, tiny detail stuff.

Man: No comment.

Ha ha ha ha!

Maybe we should just make a drawing instead.

I know. I know, I know. Ha ha ha!

Arceneaux: So "The Library of Black Lies"

is both a library and a labyrinth.

'cause, you know, like, the difference between

a labyrinth and a maze is that in a maze,

you're supposed to get lost,

but in a labyrinth, you find yourself in the middle.

And I still don't know what's in the center of this one.

This is one of my early experiments,

thinking about the limitations of what we can know,

that even though the book has been destroyed in some way,

like, you can't open it and read it any longer,

it's taken on a new form.

So I don't know if this is going to make it in the library or not,

this particular one, but I am going to be crystallizing some books,

and this may be what's in the middle.

[Electric saw whirring]

But, you know, the other thing about uncertainty is that it's

something that you can't ever get rid of.

Um, as a matter of fact, it's a necessary product

of exploration.

[Saw whirring]

Ideally, that's where innovation comes from.

That's where something new comes into the equation,

is when you allow for that

that uncomfortableness,

that sense that you don't know.


[Indistinct chatter]

In a lot of ways, you know, the "Black Lies" project is a way

of examining the library

as a means by which to transform oneself...

'cause we live in an information age,

so, like, there's information everywhere.

I mean, that doesn'tit hasn't radically transformed society in any greater way.

[Distant, overlapping chatter]

Arceneaux: I wanted to produce some troublesome juxtapositions

between knowledge of something that has power

in itself and knowledge as something

that can be harnessed for political purposes,

either to suppress or to transform one's position.

[Overlapping chatter]

Arceneaux: This idea of the American dream is

the thing that we're all working towards...

but at the same time, a lot of people are recognizing

that they haven't gone anywhere.

[Chatter continues]

[Distant traffic noise]

The reason why I use mirror is

because I try to use materials

that have certain properties

that trouble things and...

this one, it troubles the gaze, you know, like, you

there's no neutral place to stand.

It forces you to contend with the fact

that you are reflected in it somewhere.

This is a project that's called "A Book and a Medal."

By coincidence, I come across these two letters.

The first one, um, what's known now as the suicide letter,

was sent to Martin Luther King inin December of 1964.

And essentially, the letter

said, "We know your secrets,

and if you don't stop, we're going to expose you."

And then, at the end, it said, "You know,

and you should just kill yourself."

It turns out that the letter

was sent to him by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

King: A time comes when silence is betrayal.

Arceneaux: In the show, what I was trying to do was

to explore the vulnerabilities

of a person who's in a position of leadership.

King: ...beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us...

Arceneaux: Martin Luther King as a historical subject

has been monumentalized.

He's been turned into a kind of aa superhero.

King: I cannot be silent in the face of such

cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness,

for it grows...

Arceneaux: In a lot of ways, I mean, the project of democracy

as a true possibility

is really predicated on how the United States deals

with its legacy of genocide and slavery.

So I didn't want to produce a situation in the show where

you felt like this was done...

because this is still ongoing.

Um, as a matter of fact, it could be unresolvable,

and I think, to some degree, some people may be thinking

that this might be as good as it gets, so, like,

the "I Have a Dream" speech, where "I may not get to

the mountaintop with you" is a metaphor,

I wanted to put that on a table

and say, "Let's let's analyze this."

Will we get any better than this?

And Ifor me, I'm not sure.

30 years ago, a man did a performance

that was meant to challenge the status quo,

and it irreparably damaged his life in the process.

He was willing to go on this journey with us

to bring this piece back into the public

in the way it was meant to be seen.

Let's make a great show.

[Patriotic music playing]

Arceneaux: I have to be quite honest.

I never imagined that I would ever do anything with blackface.


It's not a subject I have any interest in,

but yet here I am.

[Vaudeville music playing]

[Recorded applause and cheering]

If you've seen the video

of Ben Vereen

at Ronald Reagan's presidential gala,

it's one of the most surreal things that I've seen,

and it's haunted me for 20 years.

We were on the phone yesterday.

And it was actually it was really, really moving.

I was sort of brought to tears during thethe call.

Ben said, "Listen, you know,

"you have to do this piece your way,

"and so take this material andand run with it.

You know, it's yours now."

I just

forgets my place...


So I'm even getting choked up right now just thinking about it,

but, you know, it'sit's...

if that happened to me,

that kind of betrayal

and humiliation, you would hope

that there would be somebody out there

who would want to kind of pick up that mantle.

[Singing indistinctly]

Arceneaux: And I could sense fromfrom him that, independent

of if the piece is great or not, he knows that there's

people out there that care now, you know, that what he tried

to do 30 years ago, this may be that time.

Maybe now is that time.


[Vaudeville music playing]

Ready? Action.

Announcer: Next time on "Art in the 21st Century"...

[Electric drill whirring]

Woman: I'm not sending a message.

I'm creating an experience

for looking.

Announcer: To learn more about Art21

and our educational resources, please visit us online


"Art in the 21st Century,

Season 8" is available on DVD.

To order, visit

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