NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale's latest exhibition, Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television is "the first exhibition to explore how avant-garde art influenced and shaped the look and content of network television in its formative years," from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s. During this period, "the pioneers of American television adopted modernism as a source of inspiration. Revolution of the Eye looks at how the dynamic new medium of television in its risk-taking and aesthetic experimentation, paralleled and embraced cutting-edge art and design," as stated on the museum's website.
New Times caught up with the show's curator, Maurice Berger, to discuss the evolution — and revolution — of the great entertainer that is television.
New Times: The premise for this exhibition is so prescient, as we approach a new era wherein television once again reigns supreme as a forum for many aesthetic and conceptual platforms that are shaping contemporary culture. Can you elaborate on how this new Golden Age compares to that of yesteryear.
Maurice Berger: To my mind, television has experienced several Golden Ages. The first occurred in the 1950s, the first decade of the medium’s active growth and experimentation. The next in the 1970s, a period when the networks and public television pushed the envelope, far beyond the initial experimentation of the 1950s. I’m thinking of artistically rich and socially conscious programs like All in the Family, The Mary Tyler More Show, The Great American Dream Machine, An American Family, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Since the late 1990s, we have witnessed another Golden Age — from profound dramas such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Good Wife (to name a very few) to remarkably artful reality shows, like Project Runway and Top Chef.
Back in the '50s and '60s, television was in many ways without barriers — the explosion of the sexual revolution, pop culture, Ed Sullivan, and other variety shows spotlighting music and humor that broke many taboos. Can you delve further into some kind of these groundbreaking programs and their impact on society then, and in some cases, lasting decades?
A good deal of TV in that period was also conservative, both aesthetically and politically. The Ed Sullivan Show was one example of a forward-thinking program, not just for its vanguard stagecraft, influenced by cutting edge art movements of the day, but also because of the role it played in advancing the cause of civil rights. The show’s determination to support the best acts of the period — regardless of race (and keep in mind, people of color were largely off the air in the 1960s) — altered the complexion of mainstream culture. Each week, black entertainers, the equals of white performers who also appeared on the show, made their way into the living rooms of millions of white viewers — demonstrating their brilliance and, act by act, helping to change prevailing attitudes about African-Americans. Even more important: the continual appearance of these acts instilled pride in African-American viewers, defying the corrosive and pervasive stereotypes that were blunting their progress and undermining their egos.
Were there particular programs that inspired you especially as you conceived of curating this exhibition? If so, which ones and why?
I was particularly struck by influence of Dada and Surrealism on two dynamic and artistically rich programs of the 1950s and early 1960s: The Twilight Zone and The Ernie Kovacs show. The aesthetic and conceptual quality of these shows was, in a number of ways, equal to that of the avant-garde. Both were visually daring. But their brilliance and originality went beyond form. Like the work of Dada and Surrealism decades earlier, they challenged the social and cultural status quo — from The Twilight Zone’s dissection of the anxieties of Cold War America to the innumerable ways Ernie Kovacs defied the conventions and limitations of broadcast television.
Many of the iconic television series you've referenced are unknown to today's younger generation. How do you think this audience can be enriched by viewing the exhibition?
Revolution of the Eye introduces younger viewers to the early history of television. It explores a cultural era of great experimentation and vitality, a period not so different from our own time. It looks at how a nascent medium, during a contentious and tenuous political moment, struggled to find its voice and its audience, much like the Internet has done over the past twenty-years.
Newer shows like Empire and Mad Men have showcased bona fide works of art on set. Which series were most notable for that practice during the nascent years of TV?
Virtually the entire roster of programs and networks explored in Revolution of the Eye were notable for adventurous design and art direction, even if they did not specifically feature actual works of art. The 1960s, in particular, were an exceptional time for television design and stagecraft. This experimentation accelerated when the networks went to an all-color primetime lineup in 1966. But if works of art were not specifically featured, avant-garde visual artists were. From 1950 to 1970, scores of visual artists were interviewed or profiled on television — on national network programs such as The Today Show and CBS News shows and specials to local affiliates and public television stations. Alas, we do not see much of that today.
What has the reaction of those in the entertainment industry been to the exhibition?
The exhibition has received a lot of enthusiastic and positive press coverage, in mainstream, art, and entertainment venues. TV folks have been particularly enthusiastic. I’ve personally heard from many actors, writers, producers, art directors, and network executives. It was particularly heartening to hear from the families, estates, and archives of some of the show principal subjects, including Ernie Kovacs’ archivist, the widow and daughter of Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, and the grandchildren of Ed Sullivan. My sense is that the industry has long waited for the museum to validate and recognize its best and most adventurous work. Revolution of the Eye breaks the longstanding taboo against the medium in American art museums, ironically by affirming the early relationship between TV and avant-garde visual art.
How, if at all, is current programming lacking as compared to the earlier shows in terms of pioneering art forms presented?
I do not think the best of today’s television programming is lacking aesthetically. If cutting-edge art and design inspired the pioneers of the medium, it continues to do so today. But the influence now goes both ways. So much of the best TV programming today is as adventurous and dynamic as vanguard visual art, without necessarily being influenced by it. Indeed, today we see the unmistakable influence of the former on the latter, with artists like Christian Marclay, Candice Breitz, and Alex Bag actively appropriating television content, forms and sensibilities.
It was just announced that the highly unique show H.R Pufnstuf will return anew to the small screen after 45 years. What are your thoughts on having such beloved shows recreated? Is there any show you would appreciate seeing redone?
It’s always interesting to rethink a television program from an earlier era, to recast it through contemporary eyes. But my greatest wish for TV is that it continue to look forward and expand the boundaries of the medium itself. It’s fine to look backward, but the best programs of our present-day Golden Age, even when they are about the past (such as Mad Men) move the needle forward with regard to writing, direction, acting, art direction, and stagecraft.
Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television
Currently on display at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale until January 10, 2016. Visit nsuartmuseum.org.
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