THERE she is, totally naked, reclining on pillows in a full frontal pose, just three and a half minutes into a prime-time public television show. It is the first of the nude model's many appearances on the second episode of "Culture Shock," whose first two installments will be broadcast on Wednesday night.
Even today, tuning in to PBS and seeing a woman whose only bow to modesty is a well-placed hand comes as something of a stunner. But the rest of the series -- in all, four and a half hours in four programs -- is far tamer.
"Culture Shock" turns out to be elucidating and entertaining but, most of all, safe -- safe in its choices of art to illustrate the never-ending conflict between artists and society, between freedom of expression and censorship, between what is conventional and what might lie ahead. Rather than pick from recent skirmishes in the culture wars -- the relationship between music and movie violence and the massacre at Columbine High School, say -- the series focuses on past battles where art not only prevailed but also ascended into the canon: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Manet's "Olympia (below)," movies made in the 1920's and 30's before, during and after the Hollywood production code and "the devil's music" -- jazz.
Jill Janows, the executive producer of "Culture Shock," said that she purposely did not rehash current conflicts. "I wanted to provide the historical context to examine what these conflicts say about society," she explained. In each case, art mirrored something that was happening in society -- the spread of black culture into the mainstream, for instance -- and triggered anxiety about it. "The freedom of art to challenge the status quo can be terrifying," Ms. Janows said, adding that she wanted to get people talking about culture.
That in itself is something television about the arts rarely does. Television viewers -- and therefore programmers -- favor biographies of artists, narrative documentaries and live or taped performances over other arts programs, several industry executives said. "Culture Shock," Ms. Janows said, "looks at issues." Morality, sex and race are central to the narratives.
Although not many people outside public television have yet seen "Culture Shock," several welcomed its thesis. That did not, however, stop them from nit-picking, mostly about the works Ms. Janows selected. "Those choices are relevant," said Harold E. Morse, the chief executive of Ovation, a cable arts network. "But if you look at hot controversies in the arts today, they're between the beginning and the middle of the continuum; they're not on the edge." (The New York Times holds a minority investment in Ovation.)
Ms. Janows admitted to having another reason for resorting to history. "It's not radical, it's not avant-garde," she said of the program, sounding slightly defensive, "but it's very difficult to raise money for arts programs." "Culture Shock" makes reference to present-day disputes -- protests against gangsta rap, contentions that "Huckleberry Finn" is a racist book -- but to have focused on contemporary clashes, she said, would have aggravated financing problems.
When Ms. Janows proposed the series seven years ago, even her employer, WGBH of Boston, was nervous about it. "It was only when I got support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities that I got permission to use the development department of WGBH," she said. The humanities endowment put up $585,000 and the arts endowment $325,000, leaving Ms. Janows and WGBH to raise a further $2,590,000 from foundations.
Finding financing took four years. That, as well as the research and writing, was completed long before Columbine or the contretemps over the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last fall, though well after many 1980's uproars -- over, for example, the merits of Richard Serra's public sculpture "Tilted Arc," which was unceremoniously removed from Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan, or the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.
"I couldn't put Mapplethorpe on public TV," Ms. Janows said.
Generally speaking, arts programs on other networks, such as they exist, also avoid controversy. Ovation has not done a show about Mapplethorpe either, though Mr. Morse said he would consider one, depending on the content. He added that Ovation has presented programs about other controversial artists, including Damien Hirst, whose works incorporating a sliced-up pig and a decomposing cow's head with maggots feeding on it disgusted some visitors to "Sensation."
One exception may be drama. Showtime, the premium cable movie channel, is producing a movie about the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati, where the director of the Contemporary Arts Center was tried and acquitted of obscenity charges. The movie is to be shown in the spring.
Like many contemporary documentaries, "Culture Shock" interweaves historical material with on-camera interviews and cinema verite. The most complicated episode, about Huck Finn, retells the novel's plot, recapping its early repudiation as a threat to public morals; visits historical sites like Elmira, N.Y., where Twain wrote much of the book; spends time with Twain scholars; checks in on race relations in Hannibal, Mo., where Twain grew up and is today celebrated (though without much participation from black residents) and outlines the unsuccessful crusade of a woman and her daughter in Tempe, Ariz., to remove "Huckleberry Finn" from the high school curriculum. (It runs for 90 minutes; the installments that follow last an hour.)
Oddly enough, "Culture Shock's" link to today is weakest where recent culture wars have raged most virulently, in the visual arts. The episode about the painting "Olympia," which captures the direct gaze of an obvious prostitute and caused a furor in Paris when it was first seen in 1865, makes a connection to today in only two noncontroversial ways. After showing that artists like Cezanne and Picasso later painted their own Olympias, the program enlists Mike Bidlo, a New York artist, to do the same. He recreates Olympia as a photograph using the nude model. And for viewers who are unaware of Manet's position in art history, the program goes to a recent auction where a Manet self-portrait sold for more than $18 million.
There is no shortage of people who would criticize artists of the 1980's and 90's, but Ms. Janows said that when the Manet program was written, she and the episode's producer, Richard P. Rogers, thought that concentrating on the historical would be enough. Later, producers of the jazz and movie installments, and Ms. Janows, who produced the Huck Finn show, decided to make direct connections to contemporary disputes, giving voice to dissenters.
Still, "Culture Shock" may disappoint people who believe the series should vigorously support free expression.
"I wish they had actually focused on the First Amendment," said Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "But it's good to give people examples of controversial things that have moved into the mainstream and to show, if there had been suppression, how much poorer we'd be."
Besides, Ms. Bertin added, "they'd get all kinds of hell if they did what was perceived as an advocacy piece."
Taking a strong position was never an option, Ms. Janows said. "We tried not to come down on one side or the other. Serious people can have concerns about the limits of culture. The fears are real."