The Art Of…, ABC review: more interested in personalities than art

How to cover 'the Arts' for a broad audience is a perennial problem for the ABC. This show won't satisfy those looking for depth.
Host Namila Benson and Amanda Palmer in Episode 2 of The Art Of...Being Imperfect. Image: ABC.

How to cover the arts on television in the 21st century? If you’re the ABC, that’s a tough question. The arts themselves remain popular. It’s just that reporting on them in an educational and informative fashion is probably not going to rate as well as a reality program involving sheepdogs.

Despite what the title would have you believe, The Art Of… is not really about art. It’s about feelings, emotions; taking the viewer on a journey. Each episode focuses on an emotional state or topical subject, where a range of artists discuss how the subject affects them and their work. Unsurprisingly then, like pretty much all of the ABC’s recent arts programming, The Art Of… is a lot more interested in personalities than art.

Across the series, host Namila Benson and a collection of arty types – including series regular and ‘TikTok art historian extraordinaire’ Mary McGillivray – take aim at the big topics in art. Later episodes cover issues like ‘Food’, ‘Masculinity’ and ‘Being Funny’. The personalities appearing across the 15 episodes include singer songwriter Amanda Palmer, drag sensation Courtney Act, ‘culinary legend’ Matt Preston, alongside sculptor Billy Bain, visual artist Del Kathryn Barton and author Christos Tsiolkas.

Read: ABC Arts programming. Here’s our wishlist.

The Art of… Heartbreak

The first episode this week uses art as a way to examine the always topical subject of heartbreak. Well, not art exactly; this is a series about creatives, not what they actually create. So Namila talks to Josh Thomas, creator of Please Like Me, about what it is that draws audiences to stories about heartbreak – which seems like a bit of a backhanded compliment to give to a comedian, especially as they’ve left him out of the ‘being funny’ episode. (The humour episode features Shaun Micallef, Zainab Johnson, father and son duo, Dane and Bow Simpson, and Chinese Australian political artist, Badiucao.)

Singer-songwriter Emma Donovan gets to talk about the need to have experienced heartbreak in order to sing convincingly about it, and how music has helped her get through hard times. There’s also a bit of art history from McGillivray, as she explores the history of the broken heart emoji (seems we can thank a 15th century print for that one).

Yumi Stynes and Clementine Ford host divorce party events for the recently re-single, which makes them perfect guides to help the suddenly-solo illustrator and muralist Celeste Mountjoy (aka Filthy Ratbag) through her pain. And Namila herself never got over the pain of seeing E.T. as a child, so there’s that.

It’s not hard to see why the ABC decided to put personalities first. For starters, it airs on Tuesday nights: its lead-ins are a show where Tony Armstrong literally just travels around looking at stuff (Tony Armstrong’s Extra-Ordinary Objects), and one where Myf Warhurst answers all-important questions like ‘what is fear?’ (Secret Science). An arts program that’s just some mildly famous people talking about their feelings fits right in to such a schedule.

Despite the possibilities of art that explores heartbreak, the approach here is defiantly surface-level. When Clem Ford says, ‘If you’re avoiding what it means to converse with heartbreak, how can you possibly create art about the depth of human existence?’, it’s instantly undercut (Yumi interrupts to say ‘that was so deep’).

Every time someone threatens to say something insightful, like when Josh Thomas talks about how he had to balance his fictional depiction of mental illness with the real-life issues his mother was dealing with, we’re brought back on topic with voice-over comments such as, ‘like Josh said, heartbreak really is universal’. Everyone here seems more interesting than the program they’re on; it’s almost like the arts might be something worth looking at in depth.

As for the art itself, how it ties into the theme is the only value judgement here. Some art might sound more interesting or insightful than others, but there’s only snippets on display. What’s being examined here is how heartbreak inspires the artist, not the work that inspiration leads to. If you were hoping that the ABC might have come up with an arts program that actually engages with art, well… like Josh said, heartbreak really is universal.

The Art Of… starts on ABC on Tuesday 4 June, 9.30pm and episodes available on ABC iview.


3 out of 5 stars

The Art Of...


Namila Benson


Format: TV Series

Country: Australia

Release: 04 June 2024

Available on:

abc iview, 15 Episodes

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.