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When TV Was Daring and Radical, Sort Of

Mike Newton Jun 30, 2015

"Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television"
The Jewish Museum
Through September 27

don’t own a television. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t watch TV: I just use the Internet instead. TV viewing remains an almost absurdly popular activity — according to ratings company Nielsen, the average American watches a staggering five hours of live TV every day — but more and more, the big TV networks are being forced to cede space to online streaming services. TV-as-abstract-medium isn’t going anywhere, but broadcast television — that ever-present force, steadily humming along 24 hours a day with reruns, infomercials and urgent news breaks, beamed out by a clutch of all-powerful networks — is starting to shed some of its seemingly boundless cultural influence.

I threw out my television in part because I got sick of it. Like many of us who watch TV almost exclusively online, I stopped seeing much reason to deal with the annoyances and inanities of broadcast: the long ad breaks, the joyless waiting for something good to come on, the entrenched conservatism, the sense that — to quote metatextual TV character Jack Donaghy — most TV shows are just there “to fill time between car commercials.” TV is the most passive of passive entertainments; setting aside a handful of exceptional programs, TV, at its best, is a fun way to kill some hours and, at its worst, a vessel for some of the most reactionary and manipulative messaging that corporate capitalism has to offer.

But what if I’m wrong? What if all along, TV was actually sneaking radical, progressive messages into peoples’ living rooms? That’s the oddly revisionist take of “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television,” on view at the Jewish Museum. The show posits that throughout the 1950s and into the ’70s, American TV took major cues from modern intellectual culture, introducing ordinary viewers to the shock of new art.

One of the exhibition’s shining examples is “The Twilight Zone.” “Twilight Zone” is famous for its sharp, twisty writing, its lovely cinematography and its earnest, if sometimes preachy, liberal politics. But “Revolution of the Eye” goes deeper, pointing out that the show drew heavily from progressive, avant-garde art movements like surrealism and expressionist film. Elsewhere in the exhibition we get ephemera from “Winky Dink and You,” a popular mid-1950s Saturday morning cartoon that fought against television’s natural passivity by encouraging children to make art on their TVs with a “magic drawing screen” (a big piece of transparent vinyl); among the show’s crew was legendary experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek.

The exhibition also spends time with Ernie Kovacs, whose madcap, inventive comedy style is presented as a sort of prime time Dadaism. And then there’s the classic late-1960s “Batman,” with its bright colors and zippy graphics making clear nods to the pop-art stylings of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (in one episode, the Joker becomes a famous artist when his acts of destructive nihilism get taken as genius high-art experiments).

But, to what extent can radical ideas remain radical after they’ve filtered down into or been co-opted by the mainstream? “Batman” may have dipped into the visual litany of pop art, but pop art was supposed to be a critical reflection on the perils of American consumer culture; “Batman” was trying to get kids to buy action figures. The exhibition compares Bonnie MacLean’s trippy 1960s rock-and-roll posters with the look of hit NBC variety show “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” but while MacLean’s art emerged from a genuine creative subculture, “Laugh-In” used psychedelic aesthetics as window-dressing for goofy jokes and cute, dancing hippie girls. Even the name was a co-optation of something radical: “Laugh-In” being the harmless version of a “sit-in” or “teach-in.”

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 excoriation of TV culture, he laments that “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images.” Television may have introduced millions of Americans to avant-garde images, but it used those images to sell stuff; along the way, something was lost.

Still, though, there’s an intrepid spirit that infuses many of these older TV shows: a willingness to play and experiment with form and image, and an enthusiasm for then-new technologies. Today, the best TV shows get their inspiration not from visual art, but from movies, sticking with tried-and-true conventions of cinematic storytelling and taking few formal risks. Perhaps it’s just as well. If TV is just another tab in the browser, then if we want to see art, it’s no longer enough to just watch. Now, we have to look.

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