copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Art treasures of the wasteland

by Susan Felleman

TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television by Lynn Spigel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). 392 pages. $27.50

If you spend enough time on YouTube, you are occasionally given cause to revise your understanding of something and often that something has to do with American popular culture and history. I recently caught a video of John Cage performing his “Water Walk,” on CBS’s game show, I’ve Got a Secret, in January 1960. Now there’s cognitive dissonance for you: John Cage on a TV game show!

If you like this kind of cognitive dissonance—the kind that turns conventional wisdom on its head—Lynn Spigel’s excellent book, TV by Design, is for you. In it you’ll learn of a visit by Jack Kerouac to the Steve Allen show in 1959; about Georg Olden, an African-American painter and graphic artist who was put in charge of all on-air art at CBS Television in 1947; that avant-garde filmmaker Sidney Peterson was hired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1952 to make experimental telefilms and oversee museum productions of art programs and series for commercial television; and that television commercials—“one minute movies”—were shown at the 1966 New York Film Festival alongside such radical avant-garde experiments as Tony Conrad’s earliest flicker films, collage films by Stan Vanderbeek, and work by Harry Smith, the Maysles, and others.

Spigel’s well-researched and absorbing book paints a vividly revisionist picture of many important aspects of U.S. culture and the rise of television in the postwar period and is a welcome corrective to the reductive representations and fantasies about the U.S. “boob tube” familiar from many histories, textbooks and, paradoxically, from popular culture itself, as well as, more predictably, from high art arbiters of taste and purveyors of culture. Focusing on “the material relationships between television and the broader sphere of postwar visual arts,” (8) Spigel successfully complicates questions of taste, class, gender, art and entertainment, often drawing the reader’s attention to paradoxes, for instance, “whereas television melodramas and sitcoms associated modern art with scandalous femininity, commercials made special appeals to homemakers by acknowledging their taste for modern design” (61); or, that in the early 1960s, when Newton Minow delivered his “Vast Wasteland” speech, television was educating a generation of cinephiles through midnight movies, Ernie Kovacs was creating programming that was experimental and—according to many—avant-garde, and the Museum of Modern Art film library was organizing a retrospective, “Television U.S.A: 13 Seasons.”

In her first chapter, “Hail! Modern Art: Postwar 'American' Painting and the Rise of Commercial TV,” Spigel surveys television programming in the postwar years through the various ways it engaged with modern art and design, from the frequent discussions of contemporary American art on commercial public affairs programs; the complex imbrications of themes of modern art, communism and gender in episodes of TV series, such as Playhouse 90, Climax!, I Led Three Lives, Collector’s Item, Perry Mason, and The Dick van Dyke Show; the relation between jazz, improvisation and modernism in specials, like Duke Ellington’s “A Drum is a Woman”; to what she calls, “Vaudeo Modernism: Art as ‘Boffo’ Entertainment”—modern art as both shtick and style in variety shows.

Spigel demonstrates the contradictions and ambivalence around TV’s representation of modern art in the period: for instance, the propagandistic possibilities of the new discourse of freedom around American action painting—which was a calculated riposte to the “ugly American” image—along with typically anti-intellectual popular suspicions that art was effete and feminine. Spigel notes many of the same clichés, tropes and contradictions in television narratives that I have observed in my own studies of U.S. movies in relation to the fine arts. Regarding the heated polemics around high art and mass culture by prominent critics of the time, including Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, Spigel astutely observes that

“while abstract expressionist painting seems the direct opposite of the variety show’s populist ‘boffo’ appeal, leading art critics valued precisely the same formal qualities in painting that the leading television critics valued in variety shows: liveness, kinesis, spontaneity, and presence.”

And “although art critics typically deplored mass culture, such emphasis on liveness and spontaneity erected similar aesthetic criteria for both painting and television” (46-47).

Spigel’s second and third chapters, “An Eye for Design: Corporate Art at CBS,” and “Setting the Stage at Television City: Modern Architecture, TV Studios, and Set Design,” go behind the screen and into the archives, delving into personnel and history of CBS Television, especially the way that design and architecture are part of the larger picture of media presence:

“The rise of television as both a business and a cultural form can’t be understood simply through the standard accounts of sales statistics, network-affiliate contracts, ratings, program planning, business deals, and policy decisions [but] must also be considered—as it was by the business culture of the time—from the point of view of visual design.” (70-71).

These chapters, possibly at the cost of the subtleties of the descriptive and hermeneutic approach in the first chapter, tend to focus on individual personalities: CBS Chairman William S. Paley, President Frank Stanton, creative director William Golden (the man behind the iconic CBS eye), graphic art director Georg Olden, and the architects of the network’s Los Angeles tour de force Television City, William C. Pereira and Charles Luckman.

Spigel does incorporate contemporary arguments about the extent to which modernist design (i.e. Bauhaus and its legacy)—although often thought of as avant-garde—has served corporate and technocratic purposes very comfortably. But she portrays a range of attitudes toward both, from Golden—a left-leaning humanist who favored socially conscious representational imagery, such as that by his friend Ben Shahn, to abstract art—to ad-man and business mogul cum architect Luckman, whose career perfectly illustrates the equation between high modernist design and late capitalism. An illuminating section of chapter three (which certainly would have benefited from a better illustration program) deals with the construction of Television City in the light of Beatriz Colomina’s claim that “modern architecture is a form of media.” Spigel characterizes the building’s glass curtain wall as like a television screen, and notes the media properties of its dynamic and vast “interior flexibility”: structurally moveable surfaces, demountable walls, and expandable studios in which twenty-eight hours of live programming per week could be performed and shot. Spigel also tells the fascinating side story of an elaborate, interactive, architectural model of Television City that debuted at Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight Room upon completion of the CBS complex in May of 1952, and then toured department stores across the east, playing to SRO crowds amounting to over five million.

Chapter 4, “Live From New York—It’s MoMA!: Television, The Housewife, and the Museum of Modern Art,” probably contains Spigel’s most significant contribution to rewriting the history of postwar art and media. A complex account of the vicissitudes of this major institution’s relationship to mass media, it centers on MoMA’s “Television Project.” Begun in 1952 and conducted under auspices of avant-garde filmmaker Sidney Peterson, with Douglas Macagy, the project’s aims were to impact policy around commercial and educational television and the arts; to develop production techniques and commercial productions, and to create an archive consistent with MoMA’s film library. The evidence suggests that female patronage was intimately associated with MoMA’s approach to media, not without a certain amount of institutional anxiety, and that—somewhat surprisingly, in hindsight—this institutional arbiter of taste was skeptical of public television, favoring a commercial approach. Spigel’s careful excavation of the MoMA television archives allows her to draw some of her most salient conclusions. She concludes,

“The case of MoMA asks us to rethink the binary logic that pits television against art, domesticity against publicness, and entertainment against education.”

Toward the end of this invaluable chapter, Spigel recounts the rise of video art in the 1970s and the deeply paradoxical way that it impacted the contemporary art world’s approach to media, along with MoMA’s. Video art was elevated to museum-art status

“largely through assertions of its difference not just from television’s commercialism, but also from television’s domestic, everyday, feminine status…[and] degraded television by aligning it with femininity and the home.”

The crucibles in which gender and power came to be connected to media, “high” and “low,” make for absorbing and at times disturbing reading. Discerning patterns in the politics of institution, gendered patronage, and art world discourse, Spigel joins the likes of Martha Rosler and Marita Sturken in deconstructing the already canonical myths of the origins of video art, demanding that we reexamine assumptions about art and media history.[1][open notes in new window] Spigel asserts:

“If we now widely regard TV as art’s opposite, this isn’t a natural conclusion nor is it based solely on social distinctions of 'taste.' Instead, these commonsense taste distinctions are also the product of concrete historical struggles among institutions and industries that fought for power over visual culture and its publics…. for cultural critics, this case suggests a need to reconceptualize the historical relations among entertainment and education, domesticity and public culture, femininity and modernism, television and art” (177).

After these powerful conclusions, the somewhat narrower foci of the remaining three chapters threaten to be a bit of a letdown—and Ernie Kovacs and Andy Warhol, the subjects of Chapters 5, “Silent TV: Ernie Kovacs and the Noise of Mass Culture” and 7, “Warhol TV: From Media Scandals to Everyday Boredom”—are familiar figures, although Spigel has new things to say about both. But Chapter 6, “One-Minute Movies: Art Cinema, Youth Culture, and TV Commercials in the 1960s,” is especially interesting and significant for its rich depiction of a phase of New York cultural history in which Madison Avenue was in bed—so to speak—and at cinematheques and cafes with experimental filmmakers and other postwar bohemian and counter cultural elements and its intervention in conventional narratives about the 1960s. Spigel details the extent of the influence of the international art cinema, as well as American experimentalism on television advertising in the 1960s, describing an array of TV commercials, many of which came to be shown at film festivals alongside less mercantile and ideologically suspect cinema. This chapter draws a multifaceted picture of the art-commerce circuit, acknowledging, as Thomas Crow put it, a relationship that “could be described as a necessary brokerage between high and low, in which the avant-garde serves as a kid of research and development arm of the culture industry,”[2] but Spigel also complicates the most reductive iterations of this view by scrutinizing issues of female spectatorship and detailing movements away from commerce, for instance the work of “advertiser gone media rebel” Fred Mogubgub and Robert Downey’s spoof, Putney Swope.

Spigel’s is bottom up scholarship. For this study she read a formidable body of literature, looked at a lot television, and visited many archives (there are 61 pages of notes). References to theory are pointed and economically distributed, always supporting her conclusions rather than driving them, and represent impressive disciplinary range: from Walter Benjamin (of course!) to Thomas Crow, Andreas Huyssen, Paul Virilio, Stuart Hall, and Miriam Hansen, among others. Spigel’s is a major, interdisciplinary contribution to the histories of media, art, design, popular and visual culture, one that more than achieves its goal to contribute to a television history that sees the medium’s import in its fusion of “entertainment, art, and the everyday.”


1. Martha Rosler, “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment,” and Marita Sturken, “Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form: Great Expectations and the Making of a History,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture, 1990). [return to text]

2. Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1996), 35.

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