Television has been omnipresent for so long that it’s hard to conceive of a time before it existed, much less one when art and design weren’t inextricably linked to the all-inclusive mess we know as TV culture. But such a time did exist, and the realms of television and art weren’t necessarily fated to be so closely allied.
Charting the way they came together is the aim of TV by Design. Focusing on broadcasting’s formative era, the ’40s through the ’70s, Lynn Spigel, a professor of screen cultures at Northwestern University, upends talk of early television as an empty enterprise and looks instead at the ways in which the new medium got in bed with various disciplines—in the fine arts as well as more utilitarian modes of graphic design—thought to be of higher mind. It’s tempting to regard the rise of television as the start of a cultural decline, and indeed, it has always been viewed as such: The epochal speech indicting TV as a “vast wasteland” was delivered by the chairman of the FCC in 1961 (when there were only three networks in the US), and ambassadors of high culture voiced similar worries almost from the moment the first televised image was broadcast to a putatively unwitting and undereducated public.
As Spigel tells it, the story is not nearly so simple. At the heart of her argument is the need to understand the development of television not just by way of popular programming but also through aspects of TV culture thought of as outliers: network mission statements, corporate-branding campaigns, interdisciplinary educational initiatives, and, especially, early forms of advertising. By seizing on patterns in this larger environment, TV by Design opens the television era up to crosscurrents all too easily neglected or ignored.
Art was one of those currents, and it moved in both directions. As burgeoning networks sought to convey a sense of purpose and noble standing, they strategically engaged artists and art-minded fare. TV by Design chronicles this history, highlighting not just remarkable broadcast specials (racially progressive showcases of such jazz musicians as Duke Ellington, enterprising news reports on painters by the likes of Edward R. Murrow) but also the budding business philosophies that provided their rationales. This latter aspect proves crucial, as Spigel proposes a corollary between the rise of a profoundly commercial visual medium and its audience’s taste for abstract forms. “Television,” she writes, “developed a new aesthetics of ‘everyday modernism’ that flickered across the living room screens in millions of American homes.”
More than mere hired help, the art world shrewdly moved to partner with TV. It’s a delicious fact that the emergence of television as a cultural force happened in concert with the tactical conception of “American art” as an idea. As midcentury TV executives invested in stories of American art in the interest of communicating visual Úlan to viewers and clients, so, too, did museum directors, who were eager to establish a strong cultural identity for America after World War II. The narratives attached to Abstract Expressionism and Pop art owe much of their enduring stature to the attention they were paid on TV.
Graphic design also grew in importance during the television age. One of the most integral figures in TV by Design is William Golden, the corporate designer who created the iconic CBS “eye” logo and helped fashion his company’s prestigious standing as the “Tiffany Network.” Golden’s role extended to every aspect of program promotion and advertising, and his payroll included artists like Ben Shahn, whose austere drawings marketed shows in a competitive environment populated by such designers as Saul Bass and Paul Rand. As networks strove to develop new and discerning looks for themselves, the same impulse trickled down to advertising—so much so, Spigel writes, that “the art world had, by the mid-1950s, already exalted the commercial to the status of the painterly arts.”
And so closes the loop drawn, incisively and instructively, in TV by Design. Valuable chapters survey developments in visionary set design and avant-garde programming (including “silent” broadcasts by comic Ernie Kovacs and provocatively awkward ones by Andy Warhol), but the book mainly focuses on the more general task laid out in its epilogue’s title, “Framing TV, Unframing Art.” “Although broadcast historians aren’t wrong,” Spigel writes, “the singular focus on programs blinds us to the variety of visual experiences that early TV actually offered.” Part of that variety involved simply watching shows in a decidedly modern zoned-out state, to be sure. But part of it helped prod the masses to contemplate what it meant to look, at art and at everything else. Just think of the recent scene in Mad Men in which a young ad exec stares up at a Rothko and says, “Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it.”
Andy Battaglia is a writer and editor for The Onion’s A.V. Club in New York.