Popular Culture and Personal Vision

by Michael Gitlin

Our culture’s dreams of sex, money, beauty, and youth are compressed into explosive little images of desire. The 60 or 30 second commercial is the supreme artistic achievement of television. Action and conflict are continually on view on network series, nightly news, or the game of the week. TV is the hard sell, the conditioned laugh, and the vicarious thrill. Silence is death. Listen and you will hear a perpetual drone of omniscient voices, screeching tires, advertising jingles and mechanical laughter. Commercials having the shortest time span have to be the most aggressive in grabbing model for all of television. It’s the shock theory of mass video. A tired, frustrated and placid public must be jolted out of their apathy every few minutes by every means in TV’s technological arsenal. Obviously this view of television is enormously seductive having contributed to the financial success of the major television networks and having tens of millions of adherents across the nation and, by now, hundreds of millions across the world.

But as seductive as this electronic culture is to some, there are others who avoid it at all costs. For some it is enough to take video and dump it into the garbage can, but there are others, especially those who have grown up in its glow who feel somehow entwined with it. They may not like television, but it is second nature to them; a medium to use, to play with, to create for and to dream in. Now we have other versions of video not tied to corporation expectations or millions of dollars. We can have a contemplative video. After all, the television’s corners are rounded off. Smooth edges do not invite conflict or Eisensteinian montage, but wave-like entrancements full of ghosts, snow, and blurry visions. Slow, almost imperceptible alterations rather than sharp cutting, life flowing by in real time not ritualistically shaped into segments, nor carefully composed because the rounded edges blunt the images, instead a slightly wavering hand held camera.

Of course some who work in video, like guerrilla warriors, prick the huge beast of television by wrenching bits of it free of context and magnifying these bits to the point of absurdity. But television is always ready to leap into the abyss of absurdity, always ready to explode into a parody of itself. Beneath this level of nervous energy lies an alternative mode of communication and expression. Network executives shoot for the largest possible audience by producing an image so homogenized it will offend no one. Opposed to this we have visions so personal that they are seen by almost no one. Ironically, the purer the expression of the vision becomes, and the more all extraneous information coming over the airwaves is disregarded the closer the vision gets to reaching a universal consciousness. As the planet becomes enveloped in this electronic nervous system the potential audience for a purely personal video becomes enormous. The corporate powers will own this system for their own profit but technology has a logic and momentum of its own. Do not be surprised if in the near future there is a mass inversion as the shock theory goes underground and contemplation becomes number one on the Neilsen ratings.

Popular culture
Video art
Media studies
Spring 1982
The cover of BOMB 3