written on May 8, 2002
For all the warnings that watching too much of it will fry your brain, no other art form has had the impact on civilization that television has had. There are over 99 million households with TV sets in the United States alone. According to the Nielsen ratings service, the average American watches 120 hours of television per month. Currently, if not including the Internet as an art form, no other medium of art has the ability to reach such a broad audience as television. No other medium has such potential to bring about social change. Unfortunately, its potential has yet to be realized. Television has rested for the past forty years as the art medium that is waiting for someone to transform it into a form of humanitarian propaganda. It is waiting to be taken advantage of for the sake of bettering society.
A case was made for the importance of art by a group of Western Marxist thinkers in the 1920’s. Out of this intellectual development came Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. In Marxist theory, every society rests on an economic base, out of which rises the superstructure, which consists of the polity, the law, and the arts, part of what Gramsci calls the hegemony of society. Capitalists control not only the economic base, but the superstructure as well. Capitalist hegemony manifests itself through the arts and political institutions. But since the superstructure still has a degree of independence, Gramsci suggested that it is not necessary to wait to transform the economic base in order to transform society. Revolution, change are found in the arts. The superstructure can be the vanguard of change. A cultural revolution would anticipate any economic or social revolution.
This cultural theory came to lie forty years later, when sit-ins by students were accompanied by the folk songs of Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, and Joan Baez, all heralding social change. But these same students quickly recognized the best medium of art of eliciting change: television. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) would plan its demonstrations so their events would be televised on the 7 o’clock news.
Thus, the 1960’s legitimized television. Marshal McLuhan, a professor in the mid-1960’s at the University of Toronto, under the direction of his mentor Harold Innes, declared that the world had finally entered into the greatest cultural revolution since Guttenberg’s printing press. Television had created a world culture, both macro and microcosmic, at once universally embracing all and deconstructing borders through its expansive form, while also presenting itself in highly personal terms. The phenomena to change culture now rested on changes in the media. The avante-grade could be reborn on the TV screen.
But the forty years that followed McLuhan’s revelation have culminated into a sort of visual and audio pandemonium. The television praised by Innes, McLuhan, and other 1960’s intellectuals has evolved into a box ceaselessly showering out a barrage of never-ending images and noise. In his recent book, Media Unlimited, public intellectual Todd Gitlin confronts this problem of the attack on our senses by our media. Modern intellectuals are haunted by fears of standardization, fears of mass conformity, and fears of having finally reached the end of culture. But Gitlin recognizes no solution is readily available. The two main functions of television, as a news source and an art form, seem to have failed to bring on any greater social change. Gramsci’s theories of a capitalist hegemony reassertion itself through culture have materialized, specifically in the use of television for news. As for entertainment in television, one has simply to turn on their TV set and flip channels to see the quality being put forth. CBS’s Vice President for Television Research recently told Gitlin, “I’m not interested in culture. I’m not interested in pro-social values. I have only one interest. That’s whether people watch the program. That’s my definition of good; that’s my definition of bad.”
Fault is not to be found in the medium itself. It is up to our society to resuscitate our culture. One does not have to be a Marxist to take the advice of Gramsci and the political ideologists of The Frankfurt School, who sought to use art as a medium of social change. Progressive artwork, here through TV, is not simply an idea of socialists, but a means for any party or platform to achieve social reform. Television is waiting to be taken advantage of for the right reasons. As Gitlin proposes, maybe the best thing for us to do is to step back for the frenzy for a moment and recognize what force we have at our hands. And then, as he suggests, “we will know what we want to do about it besides change channels.”