Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Eighth Art


The Eighth Art: Twenty-three Views of Television Today. Pp. xiv, 269. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962. $5.00.

This volume publishes "twenty-three views of television today" commissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) for a planned quarterly of opinion. When the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences began TV Quarterly in 1961, the project appeared redundant. The titular editor, the superlative television critic and writer producer, Robert Lewis Shayon,seems to have experienced some difficulty in performing his role as introducer, as the articles constitute in his judgment neither an anthology nor a "symposium, aspiring to be an organized or comprehensive collection of opinion on the subject of television. They are an authoritative miscellany of information, inside revelation, technique analysis, reportage, evaluation, and opinion" a mixed bag, indeed. Nor should Mr. Shayon be blamed for the pretentious title: why not, with equal justification, "The Eighth Wonder of the World," or perhaps, "The Eighth Capital Sin"? Nor is the book-jacket blurb "like the medium it dissects, entertaining, eye-opening, and endlessly exciting" any more helpful in describing either the medium or the book.

Perhaps it is graceless to be severe on the remains of so nobly conceived an enterprise, for should we not encourage a commercial network when it "disinterestedly" provides a format for criticismof itself? We should, but only if we are fully aware that such generous gestures are seriously affected by their = conception as public-relations gestures. Like the Ben Shahn brochures sent to mailing lists of "opinion leaders" on the eve of important telecasts, the form of the announcements is usually better than the content of the programs. Similarly, I have found to my growing consternation that the hundreds of copies of Joseph Klapper's excellent The Effects of Mass Communication distributed gratis by CBS are either unread or used chiefly as an "intellectually respectable" way of countering serious criticism of the medium by invoking Klapper's meticulously responsible exegesis of multiple causation. Still, the CBS tradition of honest thought, started long ago by its social psychologist, Ph.D. president, is too important to dismiss because it can be abused. In fact, even the weaknesses of this book are so symptomatic of the parochial ideology of television's creators that a careful consideration of it should be a prolegomenon to any future metaphysics of the medium.

Cawston's "Television A World Picture" immediately destroys the provincial American notion that our system of broadcasting is the way God had it planned on His Drawing Board. It might also make us worry about the ultimate effects of our entertainment programing exports in under-developed areas that cannot afford to be as frivolous as we think we can. Rosten's reworking of his Daedalus piece on why not to expect too mucli from the audience clears the air in a useful way; one wishes he would now finally move on to use his lucid intelligence on the medium of television, in the way that he has, for example, brilliantly developed a new style of art criticism for Look.

Stravinsky's comments ought to be required reading for Leonard Bernstein: "Other than the possible development of a new musico-dramatic form, musical life on television does not interest me. A televised concert is a bore. One sees the timpani and the trombone and the oboe individually as these instruments are played. One watches the players breathe and moisten their embouchures. But seeing a musician play, in this way, distracts from listening to the whole ensemble." And CBS ought to ask itself why it stretched Stravinsky's half-hour composition, "Noah and the Flood," into an hour-long "saleable" musical disaster. And A. E. Hotchner's embarrassingly "inside Hemingway" piece on adaptations makes one, reluctantly, prefer originals even if from the film factories of Warner Brothers.

Walter Cronkite's anecdote about the live cameras covering Gromyko's "dramatic exit" from the Japanese Peace Treaty Meetings in 1951 into the men's room should end for a time the esthetically vacuous myths of live television as the truth and reality medium. Its vaunted coverage of history in the making coronations, Olympics, presidential debates, space shoots is not helping the people understand events. It is turning the world's changes into spectacles. What television needs, and what these articles signally fail to provide, is systematic analysis of the unfinished business of the country and an equally detailed examination of television's formal qualities to facilitate our meeting this agenda. Lawrence Laurent's analysis of what a television critic needs to know and do is a good example of the former; Gilbert Seldes' tantalizingly undeveloped sketch of how television first tried to create its own esthetic is a beginning of the latter. What we definitely do not need more of is the free-floating moral anxiety represented by Mannes, Hadas, Siepmann, and Montagu.

Let the head-wringers address themselves to a specific problem of content or a specific question of form. Big Thinking leads nowhere but to an unearned sense of moral superiority on the part of the critics. Revere's excellent piece on "Television in Courts and Legislatures" also reminds us that sensible policy talk on the medium need not come from paid box-watchers at all. The most ironic omission is an almost total lack of discussion of the commercial dilemmas of the medium. That is basically the misgiving with which this reviewer began.

Beaver College

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