Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 15. 1964.
Art and TV
Art and TV
Owen Leeming, educated at Canterbury University and now a TV producer and writer, has had much overseas experience in this field. Now with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, his chief interest this year has been the programme "Focus". In 1963 he produced the play "Lysistrata" for the Victoria University Drama Club.
To a traditionalist, one whose aestheticism has been formed by great paintings and great music, a necessary ingredient of 'art' will be the quality of permanence. Works of art transmit the insights of the past to the modern mind; to qualify as 'art', the modern work itself must have the potentiality of transmitting insights to the future. When my English masters tried to define the word 'classic', they always came back to the concept of permanence durability.
A contemporary mind, stocked with experience of cinema and jazz, might question whether permanence was relevant to art. The intensity of the moment in which insight is transmitted has probably become the only important criterion of art. The fact that the work itself may be destined to be destroyed or never again repeated does not affect its artistic validity. The word 'classic' applied to cinema or jazz has no connotation of permanence. Instead of having to pass the test of transmitting similar insights to a succession of human minds, the work of art will be valid if it transmits insight to a simultaneity of human minds. The actual nature of this transmission is arguably the same, whether the work be drama, poetry, music, painting or, yes, the cinema.
This leaves the door open for television to be considered as an art form.
Television is the epitome of transience. Very few programmes are ever repeated. It is also a mass medium whose accepted task is to entertain a majority of the population. It does not aspire to the creation of art. It is a tremendous absorber of the energy of those who work in and for it. It provides none of the solitude or thinking time which are the normal sources of artistic creation. It is easy to dismiss television as being the antithesis of art.
At the receiving end of television as well, many factors detract from the Intensity of the moment of experience. It is interesting to compare it in this respect with the cinema. When you watch television, you are presented with the end of a cathode-ray tube which is being excited by electrons. The quality of the light from this tube is such that it Is advisable, for your eyes sake, to have another source of light in the viewing room. This diffusion of light sources is the first enemy of intensity of experience. In the cinema, the screen is lit and you are in darkness. You are forced to concentrate on the single source of light.
Then there is the size of the image. In television, the eye grasps the total image. I think this gives a person a feeling of superiority over the image. But in the cinema, the image is the size of a wall. You have to select from it and are subjected to it. The accompanying sound is liberated in a large space whereas the television sound usually issues from a wretched little loud-speaker at the side or even at the back of the set. TV equipment, unlike cine equipment, cannot cope with extreme contrasts of tone, with dazzling light or the absence of light. The TV picture Is less black and white than grey. Its definition and depth of focus are generally poor compared to the cinema. There is no large participating audience surrounding you with television, everything militates against participation. It can hypnotise you, but that is hardly the same thing. For participation and intensity, even cinema cannot compare with the live theatre. So television is literally a third-rate medium for art. Its conditions of work discourage artistic creation and its viewing conditions discourage artistic response.
Everybody admits that good work is done on television. Unfortunately, good work is not necessarily art. It may rather be a matter of craft. Craft is workmanship. It denotes how a work is made, rather than what the work is. Craft can serve and shape and intensify art but it is not strictly essential to it.
Now, to put a television show on the air is the height of craft. Camera plan, camera script, rehearsals lighting, sets, graphics, visual grammar, the actual recording or transmissio n—a normal human being can be at full stretch merely setting up a quite unremarkable and unthrill-ing piece of mediocrity. Unlike a film director, a television director is in a poor position to breathe art into material which is not art to begin with. He must rely heavily on the initial excellence of his script.
A television script is not a literary form. You do not write for television so much as you see for television, and make a record of what you see. So, if there is to be art created through television, it will normally be the art of the script writer and not, as so often in the cinema, the art of the director.
The director's main role, In creating art through television, relates to the passiveness, the non-participation of the viewer. Somehow the director must triumph over the visual limitations; he must force the viewer to look at the work—instead of just looking. There are a number of devices at the director's command. A good opening caption sequence is important—eye-catching design, insinuating sound, sharp and attractive title. Then, the first images are crucial. They must Impose themselves. A device which still keeps its effectiveness is the use of well-lit close shots of facial reactions. A close-up gives a head roughly life size on the television screen. By serving up this life-sized moving head, a director stands a chance of imposing the character's feelings on the viewer. A writer who does not give his characters scope for reaction, and a director who does not sensitively record it, are throwing away one of the few real assets of television—its ability to brood and concentrate on intimate feelings. The other great puncturer of the membrane of viewer indifference is unexpectedness in all its forms. A viewer may not knowingly register the judicious visual and aural shocks which he is being dealt, but he will be held and affected.
To me, art is essentially a dialogue, a transaction in which an artist entrusts his apprehension of a truth to a work; the work then becomes available to the experiencer as the vehicle of the artist's apprehension. On this basis, there is no Inherent reason why a television work should not act as art and therefore, be art. The exciting point is that it stands most chance of acting as art when it is most television, most itself. A work designed for the special immediacies and techniques of television will act more cleanly on the experiencer than a televised film or adapted play ... on television these always seem muddied and scaled down.
I should say that the greatest obstacle television raises against art is its current insistence on representationism, particularly in drama. If this century has done anything, it has driven a wedge between art and strict representationism, But once again. I do not think this limitation is inherent in the medium. It is more a conventional block due to television's youth and its administrators' ages. Old men in charge of a young medium is a bad combination. But this is changing. Young TV playwrights, such as David Mercer in Great Britain, are already beginning to exploit a range of possibilities well beyond strict realism.
Finally, back to television as the servant of a mass public. We are constantly being told that the public knows what it likes and that it is the business of the entertainment industry to give the public what it likes. Certainly, until a country can afford the luxury of at least two non-competing television services, there is not much chance of the medium being able to indulge minorities. Meanwhile, it is largely a question of administrative courage. Two forces may be simultaneously at work. One is the ball and chain of the lowest common denominator. The other is the gradual but powerful standard raising and enlightenment which television can accomplish.
Can the catharsis of art ever be popular? I am not sure. I have seen a cafe full of French soldiers and their girl-friends hushed and rapt for a television screening of Cocteau's "Orphee." British commercial TV screened "Medea," in Greek to an appreciative public. I personally have experienced many moments of artistic poignancy in the course of watching TV plays and documentaries. In spite of all the odds. I have hopes that the end of a cathode ray tube may eventually become a vehicle of art.