Just Goes to Show

Published on 26 December 2017

Illustrations: iStock

Political thrillers, gripping dramas and smart comedies aside, popular streaming service Netflix also presents an engaging variety of arts and culture programmes.

By Marcus Goh

When you log on to Netflix, you are probably thinking of watching dramas like The Crown, Orange Is the New Black or Stranger Things. But if you prefer shows about arts and culture, you’ll find that the company also has a whole genre of programmes dedicated to topics like design, music, architecture, and photography, all of which come under the Netflix Original banner.

As early as 2012, Netflix started commissioning and providing viewers with exclusive shows such as the three-season Norwegian drama Lilyhammer. However, it was only after their political thriller House of Cards debuted that their original programming started gaining traction. In 2015, Netflix ramped up its production of arts and culture shows, with photography-focused documentary Tales by Light. The company has since expanded its repertoire to biographical programmes featuring design and literary professionals such as American writer Joan Didion.


One of Netflix’s arts documentaries, Abstract: The Art of Design, premiered in February last year to mostly positive reviews. The show features designers from different industries and gives insight into how they work.

“It’s one of the few documentary series I’ve come across to focus on famous designers,” says art director Chen Daizhong. “It’s always interesting to get a peep into their lives, history and work ethic, to see what moulded them into who they are today.”

Chen adds that he usually hears about art documentaries from friends or online sources. Besides those shown on Netflix, he’s also caught other arts documentaries like Objectified (about designers and manufacturers), The Happy Film (by Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister), and Exit Through the Gift Shop (a street art documentary).


Arts documentaries can be somewhat of a niche genre, given that most people would rather catch the actual art production in person (like on stage or at galleries) than watch a show about the art production itself.

However, for those who are pressed for time, these documentaries provide a way to appreciate the arts on-demand. After all, the whole objective of a streaming service is to eliminate appointment viewing, which can sometimes be an issue when it comes to plays and other live works.

Screen Stars - Channel arts and culture with these Netflix documentaries.

Photo: Netflix

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
GENRE Documentary feature
RUNNING TIME 1 hour 19 minutes
TRAILER www.netflix.com/sg/title/80097472

If you’ve always been fascinated by fireworks and pyrotechnics, Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang offers a glimpse into that fiery world. It features the work of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang and delves into how he expresses himself through his art form. This production received a Sundance Grand Jury Prize nomination.

Photo: Netflix

Abstract: The Art of Design
GENRE Documentary series
RUNNING TIME 40-50 minutes
TRAILER www.netflix.com/sg/title/80057883

Released last year, Abstract: The Art of Design features designers from creative industries such as illustration and graphic design, to those who specialise in the automotive and architecture fields. Each episode spotlights one designer and how they go about their work; there’s even one episode on a Nike footwear designer, Tinker Hatfield. There’s no better way to learn about design than from the pros, and the designers featured are at the top of their game.

Photo: Netflix

Tales by Light
Documentary series
NUMBER OF EPISODES 12 (two seasons of six episodes each)
RUNNING TIME 20-27 minutes
TRAILER www.netflix.com/sg/title/80133187

Tales of Light showcases photographers at work in exotic locations (Alaska, underwater in Tonga), with commentaries about where, how and why they do what they do. This easy-viewing, engaging and eye-opening series features photographers like Darren Jew and Krystle Wright.

Photo: Netflix

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
Documentary feature
RUNNING TIME 1 hour 38 minutes
TRAILER www.netflix.com/sg/title/80117454

Joan Didion is an American writer known for her literary journalism focusing on American morals and culture. She has also written novels, plays and films. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold features interviews with people who have worked with her, and offers a personal insight to the subject as it’s directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne.

Photo: Netflix

Hip-Hop Evolution
Documentary series
RUNNING TIME 46-48 minutes
TRAILER www.netflix.com/sg/title/80141782

This series follows the genesis and growth of rap music from the 1970s to the ’90s, from the first rhythmic rappers of New York to gangster rap. Each episode in Hip-Hop Evolution looks at a specific time period, featuring interviews with emcees, rappers, deejays and other industry icons like Ice-T. Archival footage shows you what rapping was like in the past, lending a nostalgic air to the production.

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