PRINT February 2009


Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design

THE AUDIENCE FOR ART is never static, but it is limited. I have always thought that if your ambition is actually to “change minds” on a large scale, at least in the United States, you need to move to Hollywood. If you want to “talk” to the public, you can’t wait for tourists to pay twenty dollars on an annual vacation to New York to walk by your art in a museum. You have to bring it into their living rooms by working in television, or film, or (gulp) advertising. I know this sounds snarky and defensive. Television? Please. In the words of John Waters, I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls. We wouldn’t even consider working in television. Our egos could never survive the system.

But art and television weren’t always so opposed. They weren’t always mocking each other at cocktail parties to mask their mutual envy. In TV by Design, Lynn Spigel, professor of screen cultures at Northwestern University, initiates a discussion of the arts’ oft-ignored participation in the first decades of television, from the 1940s through the ’60s. She investigates a time when—despite fears of what FCC chairman Newton Minow called the “vast wasteland” of commercial television—many in the art world, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, saw television as a place of almost utopian possibility. The book contradicts our peculiar amnesia regarding these early interactions, ones very different from later, better-known experimental endeavors. Spigel draws on extensive research into early programming, commercials, and networks to illustrate how the mass medium was actively engaged and utilized by many on both sides of the high/low divide. She even suggests that advertisers, far from being desperate leeches, were some of the most visually savvy players in television—capable of treating their audience as culturally literate, if not curious.

For better or worse, many Americans first experienced modern art in their living rooms, where they watched illuminated images of others living better lives in pretend places. Television gave us access to appearances and opinions of a range previously unknown. What you watched and what you didn’t said a lot about who you were—and, more important, who you wanted to be. TV by Design describes how commercial networks were acutely aware of the associated “brow” levels: the “TV snob,” who would never; the “quality” viewer, who knew how to steer the dial; and the lover of camp, who knowingly and eagerly watched what he or she shouldn’t. Initially, television targeted all three of these levels, and “highbrow” institutions likewise aimed to exploit television’s potential reach. Suddenly, without leaving your chair, you could watch a Duke Ellington special, visit an Eames-furnished living room complete with Calder knockoffs, take a tour of a museum or studio, or enjoy the trompe l’oeil antics of Ernie Kovacs.

By the mid-’50s, television had become the ultimate barometer of taste. Postwar watercooler chitchat fed our cold-war desire to replace Paris with New York City as the world’s cultural capital. (Only later did we move to Los Angeles.) Market researcher Pierre Martineau stated at the time, “As a nation we have suddenly developed a taste for taste,” underscoring the distinctly political character of such sophistication. Modern art was encouraged and fertilized, not only in the corridors of MoMA and the State Department but also on television. And how great it must have been to have had this taste for taste, or to have had an opinion. To feel that how you dressed, what you read, whether you knew how to use chopsticks, whether you could pronounce—let alone spell—“hors d’oeuvres,” and whether you could recognize a Mondrian meant something. It was inevitable that we would lose this. These days, you might be able to have a firm sense of the history of painting, or catch up on your theory, or watch enough film, but we are too far along to do it all. Our lives are but our own niche editorial choices.

SPIGEL CONCENTRATES ON the early history of CBS to show how a few individuals developed sweeping ambitions for the televisual transmission of culture—in tandem with graphic design, modern art, and architecture. CBS was the leading network of its day; its success was partly seen as the result of its dedication to a new, crisp, modern look. The network granted its creative director of advertising and sales promotion, William Golden, almost total control. Golden created CBS’s famous “eye” logo, elegantly and adamantly administering its dissemination. He remained highly aware of his company’s objectives and his audience’s attention span without compromising visual rigor. (Indeed, his maniacal attention to detail extended to customizing the ink in the postage printer so that it matched his CBS stationery!) Reading about Golden makes me cringe at how relaxed and sloppy our current graphic world is, forever damaged by desktop publishing. (Why hire a designer when you can do it yourself?) In the ’50s (and this might be my fantasy), when you went to the bank or the airport or watched television, you were often entering articulated space. By 1960, Spigel tells us, a “design explosion” had occurred in the visual field of television, helping to reinforce America’s image of itself as forward-thinking: Advertising, title art, and set design were meticulously crafted by the likes of Ben Shahn and Paul Rand.

I should also confess that, despite Sixth Avenue’s “Black Rock” being one of my favorite skyscrapers in New York, I never really appreciated that Eero Saarinen designed the building specifically for CBS. Talk about understated. Or that Saarinen’s wife, Aline, translated her role of art critic from print to television, making regular appearances on NBC’s Today Show and Sunday, even becoming a correspondent for NBC News in 1964. Spigel suggests that Aline was both appreciative of her new audience and resigned to the medium’s limits. In a Today Show press release, she describes her viewers as “men shaving in motels [and] women doing their housework,” although she insists she never “tried to talk down to anybody.”

Even so, Spigel describes how mid-’50s advertising directors and designers already knew that the average audience held strong opinions of its own. In particular, audiences were overwhelmed and even annoyed by the amount of advertising; in response, commercials quickly adopted the less-is-more model. Visuals soon dominated text, and art directors began to draw freely from high culture. Many took note. As early as 1955, MoMA mounted an exhibition of United Productions of America films, highlighting their graphic commercials. By 1966, we have Stanley Kubrick saying, “I think some of the most imaginative filmmaking, stylistically, is to be found in TV commercials.”

Art advertised, too: MoMA was the first museum in the United States to present itself on television, in a 1939 broadcast in which Alfred H. Barr and Nelson Rockefeller discussed Brancusi’s Bird in Space. Almost unbelievably, by 1949 MoMA was participating in a television production nearly every other week. Granted, modern art on television—especially abstract painting—was more frequently mimicked, mocked, or lampooned than it was praised. (If you think it’s hard to take seriously now, imagine fifty years ago.) And of course, most viewers couldn’t tell a Picasso from a Pollock. They just . . . knew it was new. Artists were often portrayed as cliché bohemians. Viewers saw crazy paintings made by coffee-drinking, chain-smoking, wine-guzzling, insomniac beatniks—without day jobs! A common plot involved a wife being deceived by a lecherous phony to pose nude as a model. But, to repeat, in the end they did see it.

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED by the construction of taste. It’s almost impossible to discuss this without dissecting one’s own precarious, pretentious, and embarrassing personal development. In a psychoanalytic sense, everything is understood, or in this case appreciated, by what preceded it. There is no purity or neutrality. I remember seeing spoofs of Ingmar Bergman on comedy shows and then seeing Bergman defended by Woody Allen, long before I saw any Bergman films—eventually growing to like and then to dislike them. (I’m prepared to revisit this judgment when I’m elderly and have more time to think about my death.) I’m sure I saw a Rolls-Royce on a Grey Poupon advert before I saw one in real life. And so it goes. Spigel’s book begins to address our fear of admitting the provenance of many of our initial impressions. Of particular interest to me was the positive example of late-night programming that Spigel recounts. By the beginning of the ’60s, networks had discovered a pre-VHS demand for older Hollywood films and “art house” European cinema. Replacing dead air with late-night movies, programmers created a new culture of film buffs. I remember reading Joe LeSueur’s memoir of Frank O’Hara and marveling at how many evenings their friends would gather to watch old films. Better yet, I recently saw a clip of Cindy Sherman on Andy Warhol’s television version of Interview, saying, “If I had a history it was probably just from watching TV and old movies.”

Warhol gets his own chapter. And as tired as I am of thinking about him, Spigel put me back in the mood. She takes a long look at Warhol’s courting of the vulgar medium, a behavior now largely dismissed as belonging to the “bad Warhol.” But Warhol loved television from the beginning: He was its employee, its subject, and ultimately its producer. He created a great deal of rarely seen title art for CBS and NBC (he was considered the poor man’s Shahn!). His unfinished film Soap Opera (1964) betrays his delirious curiosity about the medium. Silent segments of actors performing limited actions—smoking, dancing, arguing, making eye contact, slapping one another in the face, masturbating—are spliced with appropriated commercials for carpet cleaners, meat slicers, toaster ovens, Secret deodorant. Best of all is a wonderfully horrifying five-minute advert for Seven Day Beauty Set Shampoo, which Warhol forces us to sit through twice. Since advertisers take for granted that their job is to sell, they are denied that most dangerously available solipsistic avenue that fine art borders: I don’t care what you think. I would argue that Warhol’s early involvement in graphic design and television spared him much naïveté with regard to just what’s for sale. As he showed us, looking at advertising can be a great education in visual communication: how to say much with little; how to persuade someone without insulting them. I’m as interested in tact as I am in taste.

Spigel even suggests that Warhol’s shameless portraits were necessary funding sources for his late television escapades, hours and hours of cable-access fashion shows, interviews, and so on. Of his 1981 cameo on Saturday Night Live, he says, “I think comedians should be good-looking and boring.” In the two-hundredth episode of The Love Boat, Warhol famously plays himself. His entourage consists of two models and his “executive assistant,” Romaine. Vicki, the captain’s daughter, asks, “How does an artist know a painting is truly successful?” To which Romaine responds, “When the check clears.” Exactly.

Matthew Brannon is a New York–based artist.


Lynn Spigel, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television, (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2009), 402 Pages.