PRINT December 1994


the Divine Host


Though the city of Chicago has recently decided that the only intact interior designed by Mies van der Rohe is not worth preserving as a historical landmark, it maintains its cultural leadership as the source of three popular talk shows: Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, and of course, Oprah. Following the recent battle regarding the fate of the Mies-designed Arts Club with morbid fascination, this reader was impressed by the scorn hurled in the papers by wholesome city developers toward the uppity “East Coast carpetbaggers” (i.e., architects, curators, and design professionals) and suspect “elitists”—Arts Club members—who stubbornly rallied to preserve the design monument. As the eternal present of Mies Modernism rolls over in its grave, subsequent generations will sit upon its former site in the avatar of a new multiplex theater. So much for Modern masters.

One doesn’t have to read The Western Canon by the embattled Harold Bloom to suspect that “high” culture, like all of us, has something to whine about. I must come out as a fan and admit I consumed Uncle Bloom’s recent whopping jeremiad with discreet grunts of pleasure. “Art is not a social welfare agency,” Bloom provocatively declares, but rather helps us, individually, to learn how to overhear ourselves, how to endure ourselves, how to confront our essential solitude before death. So what could be bad?

We are having a crisis when any cultural text that isn’t always enjoyable to everyone all the time is labeled “elite” (shorthand for evil and on speaking terms with the Devil). Bad faith toward anything requiring active reading is so rampant that a student (a foreigner) had to remind me recently, “You know, your Excellency [my preferred form of address], we refer to wine experts when we want to know about wine, gourmets with developed palates when we want to know about food. What’s wrong with having ‘experts’ who know about art?” Like the trusting gaze of an unabused child, his innocence refreshed me. For Lacan, the only ethic was to be well-spoken, bien dit. While cultural “experts” of the recent past have jeopardized their authority with sheer bad writing, ruining people’s taste for thinking with the simulacrum of thought in the form of tortured jargon, we are in danger of confusing any earned difficulty with pretentiousness and are corning to the point where any text that doesn’t go down as easily as a cultural Happy Meal is looked upon as a suspect bad object to be eliminated.

You ask what you should watch.
I ask how I should live.
It’s the same thing.
—Michelangelo Antonioni, Red Desert, 1964

Since I daylight as a pedagogue, I thought, what better place for the ephebes to see a truly democratic text, a text that does not “exclude” the uninitiated reader, than at a talk show. I looked forward to the taping of the Jenny Jones Show with serene enthusiasm unalloyed by the narcissistic crisis accompanying the live-sighting of celebrities I truly admire. While I have nothing against Jenny, and empathize with her personal difficulties with a migrating breast implant (God forbid), she fails to evoke the hysteria by which I experience the live presence of a truly sublime celebrity as a nauseous assault and commentary upon my own person. This is cool, I bragged to myself, I can handle this. While I enjoy the occasional Leibniz text in the privacy of my own home (who doesn’t? only kidding!), I am at one with the global village.

Some of my students were puzzled why we were taking this field trip to Jenny Jones. One had the cheek to inquire of me, the authority figure, “What does this have to do with art?” “Cultural context, honey,” I patiently responded, “it’s about how people represent themselves,” making a mental note to flunk her. Any student who made an intervention on camera, on the other hand, was guaranteed extra credit. As their guide and leader, I wasn’t going to be caught in that audience without a shot at the glory. Ever the prepared pedagogue, I was ready with my comment (good for any topic): at the appropriate moment I would interject, “You can’t look to others for self-esteem, you have to find it within!” (Audience applauds wildly, I smile in a caring way. I drink in the fleeting elixir, like champagne, enjoyed by that fleeting chimera—audience top dog. My students are impressed. Jenny nods approvingly and scans the losers du jour on the panel for visible signs of enlightenment.)

Feeling very glamorous on the bus on the way to NBC, I reflected how part of the qualification for being a talk-show host seems to be overcoming some kind of personal challenge: for Jenny it’s the breast implants, for Jerry Springer, disgrace when as mayor of Cincinnati he paid for a call girl with a personal check, seriously impairing his political career. Perhaps most empowering of all is to overcome a major weight problem: both Oprah and Ricki Lake, the biggest talk-show queens, are triumphant former fatties. Rolanda Watts, a slightly unctuous but well-styled, up-and-coming Oprah knock-off, tries to glom onto that trend by remarking that she used to be really fat. Jayne Whitney often refers to her fat childhood and inexplicably wears no shoes; running around in panty hose (are her feet too fat?) adds a subliminal taste of danger, as the viewer suspensefully waits for her to step on something sharp. Gordon Elliot, a new Australian talk-show guy, is portly. Joan Rivers is a recovering tacky person, and still makes fat jokes, although she is now soignée and petite. Montel Williams is bald. Sally Jesse Raphael is a flaming pity-addict. Phil Donahue is a soft white man. Regis and Kathie Lee used to be considered losers, now they rule (while Kathie walks a dangerous line with relentless references to her perfect family). It is clear that talk-show hosts, like their guests, are in recovery. It’s OK, in fact required, to be flawed, to adequately consume the spectacle.

The talk-show audience member does not emerge full-blown from the head of Zeus, but must be produced, worked over in the audience holding tank by professionally giddy audience prep-experts. As Jenny Jones tapes played on monitors, getting us in the Jenny mood, one prepper confided, “Jenny thinks of you guys as her cohosts! She’ll tell you not to interrupt, but pleeeeze, yell anything you want whenever!” Interpellating us as trainable seals, we were tempted with the coveted “audience VIP card” awarded by preppers to well-performing audience members. As we were encouraged to behave with the rectitude of judgmental ten-year-olds at a food fight, I recalled why I avoided pep rallies in high school. Hectoring and ad hominem attacks were encouraged as the second audience prep-person tweaked an outspoken sister in the audience for having a coiffure “like an ice-cream cone.” At this point, after only 20 minutes of inanely bland prepping, our resistance was low enough for us to laugh at this witticism.

In sum, it took about half an hour for us to be processed into witless zombies capable of yelling at a strange gentleman for wanting to date (gasp!) someone who came out as a “mistress and proud of it.” Sufficiently stupefied, we were ready to enter the studio and learn, at long last, what would be the topic of the day. The walls of the Jenny studio were backlit gables suggesting Early Salad Bar, or the food court at a mall. The insipid sea foam and peach color-scheme contrasted with blaring disco music, decor and soundtrack coalescing ingeniously into the proper Jenny ambiance of bland rowdiness.

Early this century, wowed by the crowds in newsreels, Walter Benjamin predicted that film would close the gap between actors and spectators, eventually enabling everyone to be an “actor” on film, thus making the media text into an effective mirror and potentially “revolutionary” outlet for its audience. The TV talk show seems to be fulfilling his prophecy. With the recent explosion in talk shows (eclipsing game shows as TV showcases for “normal” people), we have unprecedented opportunities to see the full diapason of humanity getting a shot of airtime. The next logical step, enabled by cable, would be for everyone to have their own talk show, evolving from guest to host, spectator worms blossoming into personality butterflies. Indeed, as you read this column, like Trotsky underground in Mexico, Cary Leibowitz and I labor to lay the groundwork for cohost triumph in our still-waiting-for-public-access talk show I Love SoHo!

I tried to remember this as I waited like a gassed dental patient, fully hebetated by audience prep, to meet the affable Jenny, who lost no time before she dissed us: “Excuuuse me, everyone, the Art Institute is here today,” she tattled. She was wearing a long hid (sic) white cardigan that belied her aggressiveness. It is remarkable how well all that makeup photographs. She actually seems a lot less smarmy in person than she does on TV. We knew, since it was Jenny Jones, that the topic was going to be lame: “people who want to date someone they saw on a previous Jenny Jones Show” was the topic offered by the fertile brain of a Jenny Jones producer. Only a sufferer from Tourette’s syndrome could possibly vocalize an opinion on this. Perhaps this nontopic in fact provided the essence of the Jenny Jones experience, as one of my astute students proposed, since everything’s an articulation of the void and whatever. I was glad I assigned the Maurice Blanchot. Still unsated as an audience member, I want to go back.

The three-hour taping was emotionally draining. One strained in vain toward the blandness for any scrap of affect to latch onto, eager to react (even with disgust) as a docile organ of the audience body, eviscerated of interiority, like a trained seal bobbing up to catch the clichés as they were thrown toward us like stinky fish. My cheek muscles were sore from registering artificial bemusement. Days later, I watched myself at home on TV, a smiling and clapping docile audience member, a ladylike version of Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I contemplated my essential solitude before death.

Rhonda Lieberman is a recovering theorist and a regular contributor to Artforum.