This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
—Paul Klee I’ve come to understand that TV is a primal force in the American home. Sealed off, timeless, self contained, selfreferring. It’s like a myth being born right there in our living room, like something we know in a dreamlike and preconscious way. I’m very enthused. —Don DeLillo, White Noise My favorite show is Cops. I like when the police shout “Police! Search warrant!” and bust through a door, and people, screaming, are arrested. A man with a dead hummingbird and tagged butterfly was taken into custody for punching his mother. “They’re just playing dead,” he said. Later, the police found his bottom drawer full of ladies’ wigs and heels. I’ve seen gored arms, bruised heads, disorderly men. I say words like “blackandwhites” and “perps,” and I trust the detectives on TV. “That one, he’s a good man,” I said once. Instead of the news, I watch Cops. Cops is what I call Postmodern television, or pMTV. Postmodern TV differs from modern TV, in that the former is less moralizing, more ironic (i.e., selfreferring), more freeform, and more real. On pMTV, the Huxtables are dispensed with in favor of the antiheroes of America’s Most Wanted and the Simpsons. Predictable plots and twodimensional detectives give way to the dystopic setting of Twin Peaks. Modern television is no longer sufficiently complex, interactive, or fantastic to satisfy the lust for quick gratification peculiar to our younger, twentysomething generation. Television is an analog of culture as a whole. The aggression of the modern era — replete with environmental slaughter, two World Wars, countless political and corporate colonizations of unwilling peoples, and the defeat of the community — is at last making way for a new movement, a new Zeitgeist, a new fall lineup that will better fulfill our needs and hopes. The nature of this postmodern movement is still indefinite, but the trends seem at once communal and iconshattering. It is time to rebuild and redefine our values. This is mostly because people, especially within our generation, have begun to realize that modernism’s focus on the individual (a focus which may have peaked in the 1980s) has left a world and an America scarred by battle after battle for personal gain. We, unique among generations, do not have a brighter future to eagerly await. Most of us do not expect to be more successful than our parents, to escape the
burden of the national deficit, or to avoid terrorism in our cities. Already there is talk that as a result of our economic fate, we are a lost generation. Real life having failed us, good TV is the best available alternative. TV as antidote. We might consider it one goal of our generation to counter our economic sullenness with a renewed cultural vigor by injecting our lives with a new and improved reality, a televisionbased reality. Such an effort would be the perfect tool to approach the postmodern phenomenon Umberto Eco has termed “hyperreality.” We can use TV, and its related technologies to enhance the world around us, without the nagging side effects of drugs, without endangering ourselves at all. That is to say that although people in my neighborhood do not punch their mothers or crossdress, those who do may move into my community (even my living room) via TV in general, and Cops in particular. This makes my life more adventuresome, more glamorous, more real. Although TV is most rewarding when considered as nothing more than deintellectualized entertainment, it has planned and built our global village. As such, TV should not be subject to disdain and snobbery. Perhaps TV seldom fulfills our hopes or expectations, but it does occasionally make us laugh, teach us, and move us. This we should consider a bonus, not a rule. There is a close relationship between our generation (born 19611981) and TV. Two previous generations have grown up with television, but that was when TV was mostly considered a forum for broadcast vaudeville and things that moved. When the elders of our generation were toddlers, TV brought us the visually and morally stunning assassinations of Kennedy and Lee Oswald. Five years later, Americans for the first time watched a war from their living rooms. Both events gained greater pungency as a result of their nation and worldwide broadcast, and TV’s significance swelled with each disaster for the next 15 years. As children and adolescents, we watched the defrocking of the Presidency and the development of the Cold War. Then, in 1982, came MTV. MTV and the avantgarde. From its inception, MTV was the most innovative enterprise in television history. It changed television, the record industry, the way we conceive of music. MTV created Madonna, the Eve of our hyperreal Eden. MTV is now and ever has been entertainment — pure, but not simple. MTV in many ways seems to have connected our generation, to have provided millions of young Americans with a common ground, a refuge from other generations. Our culture, at this age, is defined mostly by the music we listen to and the products we buy, and MTV, for ten years, has heavily influenced both. The imagistic assault of MTV may have reduced our attention span, but with apparent irony and some minor didacticism, it exemplifies the speed and aesthetic sensibility of our generation. It entertains
quickly and well. Antiimperial, communitarian, hyperactive, and often politically correct, MTV is the model of postmodern television. One could further argue that MTV is the model of postmodern culture. Having eschewed the imperialist trends of the past 500 years, fueled the Madonnadriven sexual revolution, and given our generation its first cultural thrust, MTV has owned mainstream American youth culture for a decade and has established itself as perhaps the world’s first commercial (even corporate) avantgarde. Joining corporate economic power with political rectitude and a hypnotic visual barrage, MTV has insinuated itself into many spheres of contemporary America. Its more recent foray into political activism and its attempts to build a community of the young, for example, have had an undeniable effect on the contemporary higher art world. MTV and “higher” artists temulate the other’s visual style and political values. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video, for instance, shares a message and shockvalue with Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Art in recent years has taken a distinctly political tack. It has been confrontational, personal, and occasionally preachy. Only five years ago, artists attacked conventional morality and symbolism with such vehemence, that US Senators loudly berated the National Endowment for the Arts and the individual artists responsible. The controversy continues today, but perhaps with more sensitivity. The incidents a few years ago engaged more people in the discussion of art and politics, and the avantgarde which inspired it has moved slowly into the mainstream. Meanwhile, the young liberals who defended the artists five years ago have now had five years to develop their own longterm, communitybased political agendas in response to the outdated modernist beliefs of their elders. Even with MTV as something of a guide, the political and moral values of our artists and of our generation seem peculiarly elusive and disjointed. This is not because we are the first generation to have an ambiguous moral code, but rather because for the first time people other than white males with media access are engaged in the conversations that will define us. We include men and women of color, of differing economic, religious, and educational backgrounds. From these, we cull an array of values and an unprecedented tolerance and freedom. We make it difficult for academics and pundits in other generations to label us, and names like “the Twentysomethings,” “Blank Generation,” “13th Generation,” and “Generation X” stick briefly, then fall. Our enigmatic identity is a direct result of our diversity, our openness, but many also see it as a defense against the Beats and the Boomers (now largely entrenched in corporate America) as though the inability to name us were tantamount to the inability to market to us.
This may not be the case, however, and our own generation’s proclivity towards consumerism is the one element that seems to prevent us from being wholly postmodern. In the future, perhaps, as we get older and poorer, our avid consumerism will fade, to be replaced by a renewed fascination with elegant simplicity in the midst of a technologicallyamplified reality. In keeping with our precedent, such a movement would ensure a cooperative, progressive wellbeing without issuing a universal mandate of moral behavior. Community ties will be the key to both the aesthetic and ethical value systems of our postmodern generation. We will not be far from the crowd, but of it. The discipline of public art — sculptures in the subways, murals, landscape architecture, etc. — involves interaction with the community and a technologicallyaided return to natural origins. This technique is a cooperative, postmodern one, not an aggressive and devastating modern one. The King Street Gardens Park in Alexandria, VA, for example, is a park designed by a landscape artist, an architect, a sculptor, and an artist, and alludes to the site’s history as a marshy grassland, before modern developments paved it over. The work is a sitespecific place of community. Solitary figures with fragmented identities, remnants of modernism, will gather on benches to admire flora and each other. This effect is now and will continue to be true in public art projects across the country, across the world, and the themes of our art will permeate culture — corporations will replace their hierarchies with new horizontal networks, churches will increase their openness and their spirituality, our heroes will not be tycoons or generals, but communitybuilders and philanthropists. Generations will be evaluated not by their economic helplessness, but by their cultural innovation. Our own generation, schooled in MTV, Cops, and multiculturalism, will open the global community and redefine the postmodern aesthetic. It is a shifting. jump! recently spoke with Bert Kubli, Program Specialist for the Visual Arts/Public Projects Program for the National Endowment for the Arts. His nineteen years of experience and unfailing optimism have both informed and inspired this essay. j!: Lately, there’s been a lot of talk in academia about the defeat of modernism, and the subsequent rise of postmodernism. Art is no longer the exclusive realm of professional artists and intellectuals. Are artists responding to this change? BK: I think they are responding. Public art, for instance, directly involves artists in other aspects of the nation’s life. Artists have developed problem solving skills. They have to ask, How will this piece work in the community? How can I make it sitespecific? How
will people in the area identify with it? At the same time, they educate the neighborhood. The NEA requires an educational process, so the work becomes interac tive on many layers. It is more than just artists and their critics: it is a conversation. The artist considers his audience, the audience understands the artist. Like architects and city planners, the artists are getting used to a dialogue with the community, and everyone stands to gain from the involvement of the public. j!: BK: So the disconnection between artists and the general populace is decreasing? There’s less of a disconnection as time progresses. People are beginning to realize that there is no place, however unsophisticated, that can’t have a spectacular work. If both are willing to dream, the artists and the community can develop the skills to connect. Twenty years ago, the NEA’s panelists bemoaned the American public for not realizing the importance of good designers. The public is much smarter now, and the artists are learning ways to involve nontraditional artists. The Public Art program will fund anthropologists, musicians, and poets to engage in creative planning with the public. j!: BK: And out of this planning, this conversation, comes the work’s meaning? To an extent, but I think time gives the work meaning as well. The first project we funded, in September 1969, was a Calder mobile in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s very abstract — I don’t know what it means. But the city of Grand Rapids has given it a spe cial meaning. Time has made the piece sitespecific. j!: Has the ability to assign meaning to public arts bolstered the general populace’s defense of some controversial artists, even as other members of the community are attacking it? BK: Earlier this afternoon [3 Ag 1993], Jesse Helms was on the floor of the Senate seeking to eliminate funding for individual artists, and of course he’s raised many objections in the past. That he hasn’t won is really amazing. It shows that Americans do support the arts, and are willing to face opposition to show that support. j!: One critic recently argued that many young artists believe if they are spectacularly of fensive, “Jesse Helms might declare them enemies of the state and so rescue them from the pit of anonymity.” Is this truly the motivation behind contemporary art? BK: That’s silly. That kind of analysis is easy and quick to make. The artists I know and have worked with don’t concern themselves with that. Even the shockvalue artists are
more concerned with the experience of viewing the art than with their own fame. Look at the Dada movement, for example. That was pure newness, its use of contrast and discord made it into the Forties, Fifties, Sixties, even into the Nineties. It has evolved over the years, is always in a somewhat sensational context, but nonetheless is extremely interesting. j!: You mentioned artistic evolution. Does that involve progress from one generation to the next? Is the 13th generation building on or improving the art of the baby boomers, or is it slacking off? BK: As I said earlier, both the artists and the audiences are better educated now. And the younger artists are open to anything. They can use feminism, civil rights movements, and most recently, multiculturalism, in ways that have not been tried before. The young are looking for channels to focus their idealism, they are looking to change things. j!: BK: You seem genuinely pleased with the younger generation of artists. The young can accept information from any direction. They can translate the constant flow of information into knowledge. They are not locked into one mode of thinking. The young have fewer blinders than anyone else, and see art where no one else has. Children today are being taught to think about art, to use art in solving arithmetic problems. They don’t get confused, or block ideas — they just increase their skills. When they are older, they will know engineering, math, acoustics, and use it all to create art. j!: Finally, what role has television played in the opening or closing of the younger Americans’ mind, and how does that relate to the art world? BK: I think television has had a very positive effect. Kids gather images and information through TV that I could not as a child, and still can’t today. TV plays a strong role in educating the young; it opens them to new ways of thinking and problem solving. My own childhood was preTV, but I wouldn’t say my appreciation of art or higher culture was necessarily better than that of today’s children. The percentage of highquality experience on television is low, but I don’t see TV as a bad thing. Past generations have been responsible for far worse disasters then television, so why not give this generation something new, a new tool for thinking. My son had trouble in grade school, but I think TV helped him create his own education, and now my fouryear old grandson can read, probably in large part due to TV. TV helps him absorb information differently, more
readily. The same is true of our younger artists, and I have a feeling the result is going to be good.
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