Avant-Garde Art on TV—The Early Days of Television: Interview with Maurice Berger by David Ebony
The advent of affordable television sets in the late 1940s and ’50s, and network television programming aimed to enthrall the masses, arguably had the most significant cultural impact on the planet since the invention of movable type. The powerful new medium quickly became the primary source of news, information and entertainment, largely supplanting the cinema, theater, and publishing as the predominant form of mass communication. The post-World War II generation, the so-called baby-boomers, were the first to get their brains washed by TV. For many, TV watching became an addiction and, indeed, a way of life that continues to flourish today—albeit now with DVRs and digital platforms, like streaming video, loosening the once iron-clad grip of broadcast television.
Early on, TV producers sought to lend their productions a certain cultural integrity and legitimacy by incorporating into their programs elements of modern and contemporary art and design. It was an esthetic merger of avant-garde art of the day and TV shows, aimed to elevate the new medium conceptually by associating it with all that was progressive, edgy and new. The marriage was brief, however, since, with the introduction of portable video cameras in the early 1970s, artists were able to use the medium for their own individual expression. And by that time, network programmers, more confident of their shows’ audience appeal, no longer needed to include avant-garde art in their bid for cultural validity.
This unique phenomenon and pivotal cultural moment are meticulously explored in a provocative and revelatory new museum exhibition, “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television,” currently on view at the Jewish Museum in New York [through September 27], in advance of a national tour. Organized by curator Maurice Berger for the Jewish Museum and the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, this lively and multifaceted show contains some 260 objects, including artworks, artifacts, photographs, video clips from early TV shows, and a broad range of other archival materials. The exhibition, as well as its comprehensive catalogue, with essays by Berger, and Lynn Spigel, a scholar in the field of television history and culture, captures a sense of the vibrant and tumultuous period, from which TV, as we know it today, emerged.
Recently, I met with Maurice Berger at the Jewish Museum to discuss this extraordinary exhibition, and its importance and relevance to contemporary art and artists today.
David Ebony: What attracted you to this subject? Were there precedents for “Revolution of the Eye”? I don’t know of any.
Maurice Berger: I have always been interested in the subject. When I was a kid growing up on the Lower East Side, in a low income housing project, I was very much aware of art—my mother was an opera singer—but economics made it difficult for me to see a lot. I got my art fix by visiting museums as often as I could. Certain things I would see on TV at the time would remind me of works by artists like Magritte, Dalí and Duchamp that I had seen in the museums. I began to sense a relationship between modern art and television in those days.
Unfortunately, there has been almost nothing in the way of exhibitions related to the theme. And there’s been very little scholarship on the subject, with the exception of one amazing book—TV by Design [TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television, 2009] by Lynn Spigel. Her book confirmed what I had long suspected, establishing a connection between early television and avant-garde art of the time.
TV by Design was a major source of inspiration for “Revolution of the Eye,” and I consider Lynn to be the “soul” of the field, but there are certain things that I deal with that she doesn’t, and some things she focuses on in her book that I chose not to include in the show. In any case, I wanted her to have a voice here, and she has written a fine introduction to the “Revolution of the Eye” catalogue.
Ebony: How does this exhibition tie into your other work at the Jewish Museum, and projects elsewhere?
Berger: I’ve been involved with the Jewish Museum’s television archive for about twenty years. I organized the context videos for a number of exhibitions at the museum, including “Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities,” 1996, and “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” in 2002. I also worked on the video and film components of other museum shows, such as “The American Century” at the Whitney Museum in 1999.
Ebony: How did you put together the impressive tour for “Revolution of the Eye,” with five venues across the country, traveling through 2017?
Berger: I care very much about audience. I curate not for other curators, but for museum audiences who could benefit from and be inspired by the experience of the exhibition. I care deeply about the country as a whole, and I think it’s important to reach as many people as possible in as many areas of the country as possible. If I do a big show, I try to have it travel to at least six venues.
Ebony: Oddly, there’s no West Coast museum on the list. It seems that Los Angeles would be an especially important place for “Revolution of the Eye” to be seen.
Berger: We’re certainly working on that. That’s why we left the sixth slot open. Hopefully, a Los Angeles museum will eventually pick up the show.
Ebony: In your essay for the book, you mention Lynn Spigel’s comment that TV is a form of respectable culture. Do you believe that?
Berger: I do think that TV is a respectable art form. For me, there’s no distinction. Ernie Kovacs, for instance, in his shows in the 1950s and very early ’60s, treated TV as an art form that corresponds to the work of the Surrealists and Dadaists, and is just as good.
Ebony: In the book, you discuss modernist aspirations vs. profit-driven motives for TV. Can those aims be compatible?
Berger: There’s good TV and bad TV. It is, after all, a corporate culture. Its greatest aspirations are perhaps not about art-making, but about profit-making. But many TV producers realized early on that quality can attract a large audience. There is really no area of art-making that is free of those concerns. The art world is a business, too. It’s largely controlled by powerful dealers and collectors.
Ebony: One conundrum that kept coming back to me as I read your essay has to do with the suggestion that early TV shows embraced modern art. Did they? Or did they merely create parodies of it? Some of the shows seem to reduce it to mere decoration.
Berger: Sometimes there were direct parodies of modern art. There were shows that played on modernist conceits. At its best, TV embraced modernist ideals and esthetics in various ways, such as Rod Serling’s clear and unambiguous embrace of Surrealism in “The Twilight Zone;” and the designers of the sets for the Ed Sullivan show are other examples. They sought to create a new kind of statecraft for television.
The production designers of the Sullivan show realized that when someone is up on stage singing, or doing a comedy routine, illusionistic stage sets, like those you’d see in a theater, weren’t helpful. The designers were directly influenced by art exhibitions such as “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum, the first major museum show of Minimalist art in the United States, in 1966.
They created sculptural objects for the shows that the performers could actually engage with to highlight their movements. Sometimes these objects resembled works by Robert Morris or Sol LeWitt. The shows often incorporated into the sets backdrops related to Color Field paintings that almost overwhelm you, and Pop art motifs that created a sense of immediacy. They captivated your eye, and caused you to pay attention. It was more than a stylistic similarity. TV changed the rules of the art experience, just as it changed the rules of performance. Rod Serling’s use of Surrealism was perhaps a more literal appropriation.
Ebony: You include in the exhibition clips from early TV shows with guest appearances by artists like John Cage and Salvador Dalí. I’ll never forget as a kid watching Dalí on the Dick Cavett Show arriving onstage with a live anteater on a leash, which he promptly plopped on the lap of Lillian Gish, one of the other guests on the show that night. It was unforgettable, and I haven’t seen it since.
Berger: Yes. Unfortunately, not many of Cavett’s shows have been released on DVD.
Ebony: Do you think that TV is anti-intellectual? This question seems to be one of the central provocations of your show. It insists on a reevaluation of the esthetic qualities and intellectual ambitions of early TV, which probably many of us did not realize, or had dismissed.
Berger: It’s meant as a provocation. What surprises me about the reception of the show is that so many of my art-world colleagues are open to it. There’s been an especially strong response from young people.
Ebony: Is it because they are far removed from the time, and from the reality of the period, which older viewers experienced firsthand?
Berger: I think it’s because they are removed from the bias against television. Television, in one form or another, is part of their reality, and its validity is no longer questioned as it once was. They no longer have the kind of fearful attitude toward television that earlier generations often had.
The last twenty 20 years or so have been pretty amazing for American television, starting with “The Sopranos” in the 1990s. We’ve entered a new golden age of TV. You can see it in the way that there are now serious critical analyses of the best shows on TV. In a way, young people have grown up with the conceits of TV, and I also think that artists today are learning a lot from the best of television.
Ebony: What would you say about the distinction between cinema’s appropriation of modern art and TV’s? I’m thinking of Hitchcock commissioning Dalí to create a sequence for Spellbound in 1945, as an example.
Berger: There’s always been a powerful relationship between modern art and film. Since the early 20th century, artists have always made films, or least dabbled in filmmaking. In the 1960s, many avant-garde artists were principally filmmakers, like Stan Vanderbeek, who also did a considerable amount of work for early network TV.
It’s important to remember, too, that Hitchcock was once criticized as being too much of a populist, or too accessible. A lot of critics at the time frowned on his work for those reasons. And, of course, Hitchcock became a television producer himself. But tastes and opinions shift. In a recent poll of film critics, Hitchcock’s Vertigo came out on top.
Ebony: One of the striking things about “Revolution of the Eye” is the way the exhibition is punctuated with unusual artworks of the period. One that stood out to me was the large Herbert Ferber abstract bronze sculpture. He’s a favorite of mine, and underappreciated, I think.
Berger: Ferber was a political person, and socially aware. He looked at latter day Surrealism and acknowledged it as both an esthetic practice and a social movement. His work is very dynamic and somewhat aggressive. Look at the biomorphic imagery that Ferber was so good at manipulating in relationship to “The Twilight Zone,” for instance. Like Serling, Ferber conveyed the anxieties of post-war urban existence and the nuclear age.
Ebony: Could you talk a bit about Ernie Kovacs? You stress the importance of his early TV shows in the exhibition and in the book. I know he was a pioneer, but haven’t seen much of his work, except for an occasional clip or two. Why does he seem to be absent from the lore, and from the early TV canon?
Berger: That’s a very good question. It’s disturbing to me. Kovacs should be the name that crosses everyone’s lips when they talk about early television. He was the first great auteur of the medium. His work relates to Surrealism and Dada, but it’s unique. There were problems. Kovacs’ shows were never ratings hits. And he died in 1961, just before there was any serious reconsideration of TV as an art form.
At the time of his death Kovacs was married to the singer Edie Adams, and she made efforts to preserve his work. Some of the shows are now available on DVD, but I don’t know how much of his work has been lost. I do know that at least fifty percent of early television has been lost forever due to the lack of preservation efforts.
Ebony: “Revolution of the Eye” ends in the 1970s. In the book, you say that TV lost interest in the avant-garde at that time. Why?
Berger: The avant-garde also lost interest in network television. Andy Warhol was an exception; he never lost faith in commercial television. But by 1967, Sony began to market the portable home video camera, and when artists got them into their hands they suddenly had little interest in network television. At the same time, TV came into what many critics, including me, consider its second golden age. By the 1970s, TV was no longer perceived as merely vulgar entertainment. Suddenly, there were a number of significant and socially responsible television shows on the air, like “M.A.S.H.,” “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” PBS’s “Film Odyssey,” and the “Great American Dream Machine” series, among other programs, dealing with important cultural and social issues. TV no longer needed the avant-garde to seem respectable.
Ebony: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Berger: In addition to working on other projects related to television, I’m going to return to my roots as a cultural historian of American race relations and the civil rights movement. My next big exhibition, for the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, is coextensive with my monthly column on race and photography–Race Stories–which I write for the Lens Blog of the New York Times. It dynamically rethinks civil rights photography, exploring the complex and diverse ways it was employed and disseminated in the war against racism and segregation in the United States, from the 1930s through the 1970s. Like “Revolution of the Eye,” the exhibition will challenge received ideas, asking us to reconsider something we think we know in new and unexpected ways.
Maurice Berger is Research Professor and Chief Curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Consulting Curator at the Jewish Museum in New York.
David Ebony is currently a Contributing Editor of Art in America magazine. Among his books are Anselm Reyle: Mystic Silver (2012); Carlo Maria Mariani in the 21st Century (2011); Emily Mason (2006); Botero: Abu Ghraib (2006); Craigie Horsfield: Relation (2005); and Graham Sutherland: A Retrospective (1998). He lives and works in New York City.