The unaesthetics of television

By Markku Koski

Does television have aesthetics? Or what are we talking about when we talk about television? Or is television only a domain for communication, popular culture and cultural studies? Can we talk about ‘an art of television’ as we have been talking about ‘an art of cinema’? By aesthetics I mean a specific means of personal expression and by art I mean distinct authors and their works.

Endless reruns of television series have now taught us that television also has a history. But is it an artistic history? In fact there is astonishingly little aesthetic difference between, let’s say, Seinfeld and the Dick van Dyke Show. Maybe their only difference lies in the content, not in the form. Which may be, at the same time, ironically the only original and enduring form television has created. David Marc has even argued in his book Demographic Vistas that the whole point of television is comedy. Maybe the better expression is ‘show’ although we in Finland and Britain are still a long way from calling our news programs ‘shows’.

Where are the masterpieces of television history that can be compared with the undisputed masterpieces of cinema? We have, of course, the work of Dennis Potter, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and maybe some others, but the rest of television fiction is mainly a flow or a wasteland of series. We all remember Roots, Dallas, Dynasty, Hill Street Blues and ER, but not in the same way as we remember Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Breathless. I don't think that television series have changed people's lives in the same way that these films have. Influenced yes, of course, and vastly, but that's a different thing.

I also believe that the most famous television documentaries can't be compared with the landmarks of film documentary. Even nowadays the best documentaries are made independently although the funding usually comes from the networks. Maybe the most unforgettable moments of documentary television have been historical events themselves and not the way they have been realised. The murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy,  the Vietnam war, the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin wall, the Gulf war, the death of Diana, and so on. 

This does not mean that I hate television. On the contrary, I am an educated couch potato and I welcome the renaissance of the thoughts of Marshall McLuhan in The Wired camp. And I also understand that talk about old masterpieces of cinema sounds nowadays very old-hat, because cinema is not the same as it used to be. Susan Sontag is right, the cinema enthusiast of the 1960s is dead and gone although we still have in Finland the thirty-years-old magazine “Filmihullu” (Film crazy). Which takes me to Orson Welles, one of the old masters.

Finnish television showed last summer four very interesting television programmes Welles made for British TV in 1955. Orson Welles and television? Sounds a very unlikely combination, although we have seen him advertising booze and cigars in television and making appearances on talk-shows and TV-series. But the series Around the World with Orson Welles was a different and a genuine thing. In those days, most film-directors showed little interest towards television. Maybe the only exceptions were Roberto Rossellini and Jean Renoir who made The Testament of Doctor Cordelier with television cameras.

Welles’s programmes may look modest compared with Citizen Kane or The Touch of Evil, and he even compared them to “homemade travel movies”. But that's partly the point. He wanted to experiment with the new media as much as he experimented with cinema. He did not approach television as ‘a small cinema’, but also as a continuation of radio and its tradition of storytelling that he, of course, knew very well. In Finland, television was in its early days ‘sight-radio’. The series was made with sound that was then new in television reportage. Welles is often seen in the picture, talking and asking people questions like the journalist in Citizen Kane. The camera-work and cutting is very swift and lively always bringing up small details and linking people beautifully to their surroundings. This is not the ‘cinema-eye’, but the TV-eye, a very different thing. Welles is clearly not coasting here, but finding out what possibilities might lie in a new media. Later he even tried to make a fictive television series in the United States, but for many reasons that did not materialise. We only have the pilot Fountain of Youth that has interesting affinities with his documentary series.

The showing of Welles’s programmes came at the right time because there had been some interesting discussions in Finland about television and its ‘aesthetics’. The author Hannu Raittila wrote in his column in Helsingin Sanomat that television is not a very strong visual media. He thinks that it is at its best in sports, talk-shows and quiz-shows where the visual content is not so important. Television is talking heads and that’s it, provokes Raittila. It is no use making the television picture larger and better because the main attraction is the sound. Like David Marc, he thinks that the most important and televisual fiction is situation comedy.

According to Raittila, television is a home appliance. “You can’t ask a toaster to deliver you art”, he says. “Television is only a media, not an art form.” Raittila has a point here, but maybe the small lesson Welles gave us in his series and later with his wonderful F for Fake was that you can also find artistic potentialities in artlessness. That is not so new in the art-world after all. “Don't start with the good old things but with the bad new things”, was the credo of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.

Markku Koski is a freelance journalist and teacher at the Lahti Polytechnic´s Institute of Design. He has written the books The Lower Arts (1985), Sorsa Diagnosis (1986) and The Beatles – The Story of a Band (1986). 

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