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About halfway through the Jewish Museum’s Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television, you can watch a curious short video circa 1952 directed by Sidney Peterson. Peterson was the co-director of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Television Project, which launched in 1952 and petered out by 1955. The video, “Architectural Millinery,” was created as a pilot for the project’s proposed series of “short experimental commercial films.”
“Architectural Millinery” — not much longer than a typical TV commercial — is about the similarities between hats and roofs. “A man originally covered his head to keep the rain and sun out and the heat in,” Peterson explains in voiceover over shots of hulking New York City buildings, “and he covered his house for the same reason.” The clip was intended as a sort of guided tour of New York City’s overlooked art — found not in “glasses cases” in museums but “right out in the open, where everyone can see.”
Peterson might as well have been talking about television as an art form — not the kind of art you have to visit a museum to appreciate, but the kind of art that blares out of all our rectangular screens and is so pervasive we take it for granted. The kind everyone can see.
“Architectural Millinery” never made it to broadcast. According to the museum plaque, MoMA felt the video “lowered the institution’s ‘intellectual level.’” Revolution of the Eye is full of such reminders of the low rung that TV occupies on the ladder of Art, a disappointing tic that betrays the exhibit’s lingering lowbrow/highbrow anxiety.
The exhibit places emphasis on TV programs devoted to the study and celebration of modern art. A glass case contains a 1967 TV Guide article titled “Preserving Our Artistic Heritage,” which lauds the growing archive of TV documentaries featuring artists such as Marc Chagall, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. “The value of such films to future generations can be estimated if one imagines what he might have if similar TV documentaries had been made 500 years ago,” the article proclaims, citing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling as an example.
But this is a defense of the value of painting, not television. Revolution of the Eye showcases an impressively vibrant era in which the blatantly commercial world of television merged with the realm of fine art and design. Yet considering today critics and viewers are appreciating the art of television with a renewed vigor — and increasingly recognizing that TV has always left more room for aesthetic nuance and social critique than we’ve given it credit for — it’s disappointing that the Jewish Museum’s exhibit seems to regard TV less as art itself than as a vehicle for more traditional modes of art.
The exhibit seems determined to undermine TV’s status in the art world, even as it celebrates that world’s enriching influence on TV. There’s one small screen devoted to “The Rise of Video Art,” which plays segments from a 1969 TV program called The Medium is the Message — a show that the exhibit lauds for its celebration of “artists whose work embraced TV technology while transcending its corporate and commercial motivations.” The idea that a television show could be appreciated precisely because of the commercial restraints of the medium is largely ignored.
The TV writers and creators featured in the exhibit — and the many who aren’t — didn’t just disseminate their work through television; their work was television. The section that comes closest to validating television as art in and of itself features two shows of the 1950s and ’60s: the classic mind-bender The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) and the lesser-known (and brilliant) variety program The Ernie Kovacs Show (1952–1956). In a 2011 Artforum article, critic J. Hoberman called Kovacs “a comic for whom TV created its own reality.” The exhibit quotes Hoberman claiming that Kovacs was one of the first to use TV as a “true medium … capable of being conceived and applied in a variety of ways.”
Considering its repeated knocks against television’s “commercial motivations,” it’s ironic that the exhibit devotes far more wall space to modern art’s influence on the networks’ advertising campaigns and marketing strategies than to artists like Kovacs and Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone. In the end, Revolution of the Eye is not a celebration of the art of TV, but art on TV. But then, you don’t need to visit a museum to appreciate the art of TV. That’s right out in the open, where everyone can see.
Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television (1109 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) continues at the Jewish Museum through September 27 and will travel to the NSU Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale (1 E Las Olas Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, Florida) October 24–January 10, 2016.
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