TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 1989

Remote Control

Television

. . . You remember that expression, “get the lead out”? It’s almost out, almost gone. Clean water? I’m for clean water . . . I’ve been an outdoorsman and a sportsman all my life. I’ve been to these national parks . . . So I’ll just keep saying I am one . . . I am an environmentalist. I believe in our parks. I believe in the President’s commission on outdoors. And I’ll do a good job, because I am committed.
—George Bush, 1988 Presidential Debate

STUPIDITY FASCINATES. It is forthright. It is never self-conscious. It never listens. It says what it means and means what it says. Giving all it’s got, telling you everything, it partakes of a kind of encyclopedic self-evacuation. I’m not using the Barbara Kruger term “stupidity” in a judgmental sense (although nothing truly escapes our cataloguing of the loved and the unloved), but rather in an observational one. And aptly so, as today’s most efficient provider of our daily quotient of stupidity is that most observed of objects, television: a veritable hologram of the stupid, a kind of ’90s-style blob, no longer warm and organic, but cool, electronic, and dry. Fixed by its relentless delivery of doubtless declarations, we are touched by its untouchability and untouched by what we thought were touches. Its constant confessions have the velocity of an oral high colonic of such proportions that we are drenched in its residue of chattering waste and flatulent candor.

But lately, the airwaves seem to be held hostage by a new brand of stupidity, or so we’ve been told by the media pundits: further “refinements” of the infotainment genre, antic hybrids of the conventional news magazine, the rampant group confessional, and the show biz tip-sheet. Plump with hyper human interest, they appear to blur the distinctions between what’s “news” and what’s not. After all, “real” news isn’t stupid, it’s serious, right? Ted Koppel is America’s dean of delicate diplomacy, right? Tom Brokaw’s got a direct line to what’s really happening, right? When Sam Donaldson, George Will, and David Brinkley have a powwow, they’re telling it like it is, right? Not like Mort, Geraldo, and Maury and Co., who yuckily crawl through all that (yuck!) violence, death, money, and sex. After all, “real” news is about war, disease, secret arms deals, and abortion-clinic bombings, and what could these events possibly have to do with violence, death, money, and sex?

It’s too easy to cavalierly dismiss the tabloid genre as sensationalizing puff and to oppose it to the integrity of “hard” news, which tends to anoint an event as truth or fiction, creating a broad consensus amidst its viewership. This is not to valorize so-called trash TV into anything more than a kind of baroquely embodied moment of the stupid, but simply to suggest that “serious” news can be seen as a different shade of stupidity. After all, the difference is not always in the story, but in the telling; not in the moment, but in its representations and how these representations coalesce into an official history—not that one is more informed than another, but that the mode of presentation “legitimizes” or “illegitimizes” the story.

Why are we shown one picture and not another? Why this sound bite and not that one? These decisions reveal a web of preferences that are determined by economic and social relations—filtered through the heady discourse of taste—and emerge as opinion, but are never named as such. It is this constantly surveilling arena of taste that patrols the inner and outer limits of our lives, dictating to some degree our enemies and our infatuations, our past and our futures. And as far as history is concerned, some like it dry: crisp as a cleanly starched shirt, antiseptic as a well-scrubbed surface, devoid of prints and stains, and evacuated from bodily occupations.

Hence the great divide between “high-minded” reportage and the excesses of docudramatic tall tales. This bifurcated paradigm is well established in print journalism, but TV sports a kind of sloppy faux-inclusivity that mixes “all the news that’s fit to print” with unfit but juicy schlock exposés and topical scream sessions. Inviting us to “find your world in ours,” TV literalizes the threat of our newspaper of record, collapsing the recordings of the “real” into the hyperbolic realms of fantasy, parody, and reenactment. Every report is proof positive that a human being is nothing more than an “item” wrapped in skin. Every incident is up for grabs, fodder for alteration, exploitation, and “revenue enhancement.”

Perhaps what I might be suggesting is that this capacity to fascinate, coupled with a big yen for bigger bucks, makes us dumbstruck. Embalmed in a kind of electronic amniotic fluid, we are frozen like kitties patrolling mouselike movements. Whether it emanates out of the mouths of “serious” kingpins or screeching buffoons, we take stupidity seriously. It can fill hours and pass time. We can look and not see. And given our blind eyes, anything goes. If nothing else, surely the past eight years have taught us that the notion of justice has become a crass irony, benevolence a sappy joke, anyone else’s struggle a relief because it isn’t ours. We’re gripped by a discourse of taste that spews judgments with the velocity of bullets, resolute in its rightness. It inhales pathology like oxygen and dispenses it in the guise of opinion and expertise. It makes difference the enemy. Ignoring the systemic constructions of power, it focuses on the moment and not the process, the individual and not the scene, the figure and not the body. Current events, national struggles, and sexualities are created, renewed, or canceled like sitcoms. And perhaps that makes some sense, since stupidity does seem to render everything, from war to peace, from life to death, into one big and sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic, sometimes sexy but seldom unwatchable situation comedy. And that’s not funny.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column on television appears regularly in Artforum.