Back in 1955, when I went to New York on a Ford Foundation fellowship, Marshall McLuhan was trying by his seminal presence to bridge the widest street in America—127th Street, on one smug side of which was Lionel Trilling Land, on the other, Columbia Teachers’ College.
As a Commonweal Catholic, I found media guru McLuhan old hat, for he had tested the temperature of the audience for that magazine with slivers of his first (and best) book, The Mechanical Bride. Later, he pooh-poohed this landmark in humanist consciousness-raising by alleging that he was then still the “victim of linearity.” Blather.
The Mechanical Bride was my baedeker as a cadet teacher among the upper-muddleclass masses of East Lansing High. And it worked: Before you could say “UHF,” I had my 12th-grade students empaneling themselves each week over WKAR-TV under the rubric “Everyman is a Critic,” discussing fashion, movies, stock car races.
Later, as the TV editor of Scholastic Teacher, I devised the “Teleguide” so that other teachers in the boonies could assign a program intelligently before seeing it themselves. There is no more important task than the planned acculturation of young people into Socratic postures with their leisure media.
Alas, what a deformed genie I helped let out of the bottle. The Whitney Museum’s “Image World: Art and Media Culture” (through Feb. 18) is the latest and largest pain in my brain.
Begin with what I call a “crock” video. Young people stand transfixed before this tsunami of images, surfing on its superficialities (a quick closeup of a mons veneris from several angles perking up their short attention spans); pre-MTV generations mutter obscenities and flee—to the show proper, to be assaulted by still images of equal vacuity.
This is the Whitney’s move into the Big Time—and oh, what malarkey moils in their media. The catalog even suggests that the media have not just attained peer status with the traditional forms but that they are now the central forms of our culture, and then poses a series of inane questions:
“Who controls the manufacture of images? [Does any serious person doubt that the military industrial complex controls the mainstream and many of its main eddies?] Who is being addressed? [Consumers with time and income to make profits for some combine.] What are the media’s strategies for seduction? [A hedonistic paganism that, at worst, reduces humans to thought-and-feeling deprived automatons.]
Have the media collapsed time and history into a succession of instants? [This kind of pseudo-philosophical banter suggests how much we can rely on the museum community to extricate us from the lock the combines have on the denurturing of our people—Polaroid sponsors this show.]
What are the effects of image overlord, fragmentation, repetition, standardization, dislocation?” [Short answer: the mess, psychological and industrial, that contemporary America has become with a playpen politics that urges voters to stand tall in their saddles when not visiting Disney World, where they’re supposed to believe everything they see at EPCOT.]
The principal problem of our age is that the media are not the message, but that the media have a message-which is to control the public for corporate purposes. And corporations redistribute just enough of their profits to museums to create this kind of poudre aux yeux.
If the museum community were serious about our crisis, they’d call for a redistribution of income so that ghetto dwellers would have enough family stability to use the leverage of education to get out of the social sewers they are forced to inhabit.
With painful irony, a few corporations are now seeing that if they won’t educate those ghetto prisoners, hey won’t have a workforce in the 1990s. Maybe demography will force us to do what charity and justice ought to have dictated generations ago.
American democracy has been calculatedly two-tiered at least since Jacksonian times, but the detritus and debris didn’t build up to dangerous levels until after World War II. As long as well-paid, well-educated parents are more interested in the SAT achievements of their pampered offspring than in the viability of a decent and humane egalitarian society, just so long will the museums that cater to their guilty, neurotic leisure obscure rather than clarify our art and social agenda.
But I come not to bury the Whitney but to praise two must-see shows in Manhattan—at the Met, a luminous gloss on the early adulthood of photography (before it lost its mind to the narcissists), “The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars” (closing Dec. 31). Paradoxically, in light of my diatribe above, it was made possible by what is believed to be the largest corporate grant ever made to a museum, by the Ford Motor Corporation.
It lets you walk through this history by means of exceptionally well-captioned critiques—succinct but illuminating—of classic photographs, arranged under comprehensive categories that put you in possession of the meaning of this medium’s 150 years of achievement.
The catalog is a pricey $49.95, but be a pal of media ecology and donate one to your local school library for Christmas. If only our children knew the riches of our visual legacy. We have been lying to ourselves that each new generation of immigrant millionaires was the kernel of the American Dream. In an authentically egalitarian culture, every school child would know who Lewis Hines and Edward Weston were.
They would also know who Berenice Abbott is—amazingly alive and thinking pertinaciously in her 90s. You can learn why she is an indispensable American artist (until Jan. 6) at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, in “Berenice Abbott, Photographer: A Modern Vision,” worthy of her genius (but marred by bulbless patches where you can’t even see the prints by squinting!).
I especially like her portraits—she was obsessed by James Joyce, lucky for that Irishman’s images for posterity—and her benignly obsessed documentary series on the New York City of the 1930s, but most of all her science images, which—conveniently enough for my thesis of a new movement to transform mass education—were incorporated into a new science syllabus in the 1960s. If that is not a metaphor for saving us from our meaner selves, we deserve to be lost.
I couldn’t help tarrying before B.A.’s touching photo of Rowena Javits, the photo librarian for decades there, who combined a quiet passion for the images with a tireless searching and finagling to get them in the collection. She was the most impressive mensch I met in my first year in New York.
She and Moe Asch of Folkways. Moe did for the nation’s ear what Javitz did for our eye. Aschophiles will be levitated to learn that the Smithsonian is now releasing each and every disc he produced, on cassette, with an intelligent wraparound commentary at $10 at pop, mail order. Whitney folks, go down to D.C. and learn how to make a cultural heritage accessible.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 20, 1989