Are nature documentaries the greatest art of our time?

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The dentist I went to as a child had posters of Impressionist paintings on the ceiling. I remember lying back and gazing through my discomfort and pain at a thronging lunch party by Renoir, a Degas ballerina, and a sunlit field of poppies by Monet.

There were no such posters on my recent trip to the dentist. Instead, high on the wall, a flat-screen TV played “Planet Earth II,” a 2016 BBC Earth documentary narrated by David Attenborough. Looking through plastic goggles past the assistant’s latex-covered hands, I could see a shaggy sloth swim across turquoise waters, then a Komodo dragon dragging its slaloming tail through the mud, strings of bloody saliva dangling from its maw.

Did all this help with my dread of the dentist’s chair?

Actually, it did. I was astonished, and therefore distracted. But I was also provoked into an insight.

Just as the Impressionist paintings reproduced on my old dentist’s ceiling were enduring artworks reduced by overfamiliarity to kitschy cliches, the best nature documentaries deserve to be rescued from overfamiliarity. We should stop taking them for granted and see them for what they are. They are great art. Maybe the greatest of our time.

I realize the claim sounds odd. After all, they weren’t really intended as high art. They’re television documentaries. They were created primarily to educate and to entertain. And yet a lot of things we now display in our museums and think of as art were never intended as such. African carvings. Russian icons. Minoan ceramics. Egyptian statues.

Cathedrals, too, like Notre Dame, Chartres or Rouen, were never intended as art. They were houses of God; they had no single creator; they were communal efforts. Yet there is widespread consensus that Europe’s cathedrals were the greatest artistic creations of the Middle Ages, and among the most awesome in human history.

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