More than forty years ago a great Marxist critic, Walter Benjamin, said that it was going to be hard, and maybe impossible, for any child raised in the howling blizzard of signals to find his way back into the exacting silence of a book. Benjamin died in 1940, but what he feared from radio, cinema, and advertising, came a thousand times truer with mass television.
The box you are watching has done more to alter the direct discursive relationship of images to the real world on which painting used to depend, than any other invention this century.
This isn’t really a matter of good or bad programming – everybody knows the box is a cornucopia of dung most of the time, but the effects I mean, don’t depend on the quality of programmes, they flow from the nature of television itself.
You only have two choices when you’re watching a movie in a cinema, you can go or you can stay. With television there’s a third – you change the channel.
And so in a chaotic way the dream of the Russian Constructivist film makers and German Dadaists, has come true with television… because whole societies have learnt to see in terms of montage and juxtaposition.
Ours is the cult of the electronic fragment.
Because its so intimate and casual the box worked on us in other ways too. Its images had a weird kind of contradictory kind of tone, they were real, present in the room, but at the same time they were very artificial because their illusion wouldn’t hold. They kept creeping up the screen, or breaking off into dots and lines and jabber – not like film in a cinema.
Their reality was provisional.
Their reality was provisional, but the colour was ultra-vivid. Electron colour. Not the colour of ink or nature or paint.
Television messages get to you in small packets. You don’t scan the screen as you scan a painting, and you don’t inspect it, the way you might inspect a Chinese vase. The fate of these messages, these images, is to get equalised. Catastrophe, Love, War, Soap, they all pour forth in an overwhelming glut. And like radiation which in fact they are, they are everywhere. And they have effected art.