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Simon Schama on the Unsettling 'Power of Art'

Dec 20, 2006 (Talk of the Nation)

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We usually look at art in the hushed, reverential surroundings of museums and galleries — and that, argues writer and art historian Simon Schama, can fool us into believing that great works of art are polite. In fact, he concludes, great works of art are thugs that force us to see the world in new ways, whose purpose isn't to soothe but to unsettle.

In a new book that accompanies a series of BBC-TV documentaries called The Power of Art, Schama examines the life and work of some of the greatest names in Western art history — Caravaggio, Bernini, Rembrandt, Jacques-Louis David, Turner, Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko — and how each created a transcendent masterpiece under enormous stress.

Along the way, Schama hopes to be able to answer the question "what's art really for?" Schama and Neal Conan address that question and others regarding the power of art.

You can find images of the art works discussed in this segment at the links below:

Caravaggio: 'The Conversion of St. Paul' — 1601, oil on canvas (Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)

Caravaggio: 'The Beheading of St. John The Baptist' — 1608, oil on canvas (St. John's Cathedral, Valletta, Malta)

Joseph Mallord William Turner: 'The Slave Ship' —1840, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Turner: 'Regulus' — 1828-37, oil on canvas, (Tate Gallery, London)

Rothko's series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant (Tate Gallery, London)

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