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Dieter Daniels
«Art and Television—Adversaries or Partners?»

Is television an art?

Television began in the Federal Republic of Germany punctually on Christmas Day of 1952. One year later, some 10,000 viewers were able to tune into the programmes transmitted every evening by the country's only TV channel. This development was comparable with that in the other European states where television was concurrently being established as a public institution. In the USA, the medium's influence grew more rapidly due to the commercial television networks; by 1960, up to 10 colour programmes were available all day and families were spending some 5 hours daily in the front of the TV set. German viewers were not offered a choice of programmes until 1963, when a second public service began transmission. From 1964 onward, television reached practically the entire West German population over 10 million TV sets, every one of which served, in statistical terms, 2.5 viewers each.
Television had in the course of a decade become the mass medium with the widest distribution range. During this period it had also become, as one chief producer complained, the «favourite whipping boy of German cultural critics». (1) Theodor Adorno summarized in 1953 the ingrained scepticism widespread among intellectuals about the compelled triviality which resulted from the mass dissemination and their even deeper distrust of the medium's powers of manipulation: «The medium itself, however, fits into the comprehensive scheme of the cultural industry and, as a combination of film and radio, advances its tendency to surround and intercept from all sides public consciousness. Through television one comes closer to the goal, that dreamless dream, of having a reproduction of the entire material world in an image that penetrates all the organs, and at the same time one can inconspicuously smuggle into this world anything that one considers becoming to the real world. » (2) Adorno had adopted this far-seeing attitude on the basis of his studies of commercial TV in the USA. Most of the writers who placed their hopes in the cultural role of public German television lacked Adorno's viewing experience; as if the notion of art were a universal weapon to combat a sceptical view of the media, they seldom omitted the signal word «Kunst» from the titles of their publications. (3) In a mood of purposive optimism one such author wrote in 1953: «Television is already an art today. Undoubtedly, it will be the art of tomorrow. » (4)

Artists and television

Artists' concepts might even have had a chance of being considered in the founding days of television. The «Spatialist» group led by Lucio Fontana was invited to make a TV appearance when transmission began in Italy in 1952, for instance, but it was to be a one-off event. For the occasion the group wrote an emphatic manifesto welcoming television as «an artistic means for which we have long been waiting». (5) When Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell began to work with television in West Germany ten years later, however, the situation was very different: they were among the 10 million recipients of TV in 1963, and instead of shaping TV programmes they could only show on inexpensive second-hand TV sets suggested new modes of handling the electronic picture. They had no share in the dissemination potential of the medium, indeed their aim was to counteract the way television universally distributed uniform pictures. The international parallelism mentioned in the chapter about the beginnings of media art applied also to artistic work with television. (6). In and around 1962/63, several artists working in isolation began to use TV sets in their art-works. Günther Uecker, for example, studded a TV set with nails, while Tom Wesselman mounted a TV set inside a picture, Cesar presented a TV set divested of its casing, and Isidore Isou mounted a template in front of the screen. (7) All these artists were only able to take recourse to television as a «fait accompli» and integrate the unchanged TV programme as an element of an assemblage or object. By contrast, Paik and, to some degree, Vostell were fired by the ambition to overcome a purely receptive attitude to television. Modest as their possibilities of implementing this aim were, the modified TV sets of either artist staked a claim for everyone to autonomously compose the electronic picture in protest against the uniform diet of scheduled programmes. This reversal of the principle on which the «broadcast» medium was based was in the tradition of Brecht, who in the 1930s had called for a transformation of radio «from distribution apparatus to communication apparatus». (8) It would take several decades for this universal access to the electronic image to become part of everyday life in the age of the Internet and multimedia. Television's Big Brother role as inevitable counterpart for any subjection of the electronic image to the artistic will continued well into the 1980s. The differing attitudes of artists to television can be characterized with the words aggression, transformation, cooperation and confrontation, and these will serve as leitmotifs in the below.


It was primarily German artists who converted into practice the cultural critics' assault on the medium. Vostell's principle of «TV dé-coll/age», which carried forward his earlier tearing apart and blurring of posters, led to the disruption and final destruction of the TV picture. His de-compositions could take on the air of almost religious rituals, for instance when a TV set was draped in slabs of meat and carried to the grave with a garland of barbed-wire, or resemble acts of political violence, as when a set with the programme coming through was executed by a rifle in a quarry. (9) The television set that Guenther Uecker covered in nails and whitewashed equally become a symbol – a status symbol at that, since Uecker was filmed by TV cameras while purchasing the expensive item in a shop before subjecting it to his treatment. (1)0 Like Uecker's nailing treatment, Vostell's «dé-coll/age» was a process adopted directly from his painterly work and not addressing the specific aesthetic and technology of the electronic image. Joseph Beuys' «Felt TV» action of 1966 similarly thematized the medium's potential for aggression. Beuys, however, reversed the direction by punching his own face with boxing-gloves in front of a TV screen covered up by felt underneath which a programme is running, thus placing in the foreground the effect on the viewer as opposed to the symbolic attack on the medium. According to Beuys, the superimposition of an auto-aggressive act over the medium's aggression «filtered it away» just like the felt panel did. Symbolic attacks on television as the «damned box» doctored symptoms but not the cause – they punished the bearer of bad news, since the artists were ultimately not yet in a position to change the content.


Electronic music's experience with radio had paved the way for seeing in the electronic image not only the monopoly of the leading mass medium, but also a potential means for new artistic approaches. Paik's progression from music to TV picture therefore led him to draw up expansive plans for the medium's new function as «Participation TV'. Just as John Cage had used radio sets in his compositions, Paik saw television merely as the supplier of raw material for a transformation, but a more radical one which now extended to the alteration of the equipment delivering this material. As the first artist to directly intervene in the electronics of the apparatus, Paik demonstrated different ways of modifying a TV picture on 12 television sets in his show of 1963. (11) Certainly, these demonstrations of altered images were restricted to the purely receptive situation, but they signalled a determination to radically re-arrange the transmitter-receiver principle. His artistic blueprint was ahead of technical developments, and when the first video recorders went on sale in 1965 Paik was among the first buyers, announcing that «a new decade of electronic television should follow to the past decade of electronic music». (12)
Paik worked together with TV broadcasters from the late 1960s onward; almost all his videotapes in the 1970s were co-productions that were likewise broadcast by TV stations. Expanding his concept of «Participation TV» to include a global dimension, he drew up new models for a cultural and political role of television based on a worldwide exchange of programmes as the basis for international communication: «This would strip the hierarchic monism of TV culture and promote the free flow of video information through an inexpensive barter system or convenient free market. » (13) His «Global Groove» videotape of 1973 implemented these visions. He advanced this approach to produce his global satellite telecasts; on the wrapper of the publication that accompanied «Good Morning Mr. Orwell» in 1984, Paik presented the most recent estimated viewing figure of the broadcast – 33 million viewers. He is one of the few media artists who succeeded in walking the tightrope between the elitist art context and the claim to the mass medium.


Although seminal artistic work had taken place with television in West Germany around 1963, scarcely any further developments followed immediately. Partly for lack of the necessary equipment, artists produced no independent video or TV works there until the late 1960s. German television, however, proved to be relatively alert in pursuing developments in the field of intermedia art, covering the «Fluxus Festspiele» in Wiesbaden in 1962, for instance, with a report that was humorous if somewhat patronizing. Direct collaboration with artists took place in 1964 when Joseph Beuys, Bazon Brock and Wolf Vostell were invited to appear live in a feature titled «Fluxus group» in the TV magazine «Die Drehscheibe». (14) All three artists carried out actions simultaneously in the studio; Brock read out an action text, Vostell staged a «Dé-coll/age Happening» in which a TV set was used, and Beuys carried out his action «The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated». Even if the TV crew was in full control of the way the programme was directed, it was a first step in transferring the new art-forms to TV.
The field of literature provided the most important model of co-operation between artists and television. With «Eh Joe» in 1966, Samuel Beckett realized his first television drama for Sueddeutsche Rundfunk, and followed it up with two others in later years. (15) The author directed his plays in all three cases. While there were great similarities between the absolutely reduced formal means deployed in his television dramas and the sparse early video performances of the 1960s, Beckett's path to television was connected not with contemporary intermedia art but the considerably older genre of «Hoerspiel». (16)
It would be 1968-69 before the tentative co-operation between artists and broadcasters begun at the start of decade was continued. It now took a more direct form; two wholly opposing models emerged in accordance with the artistic approach of the respective propagators: the multi-media action art of Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini, and the conceptual purism of Gerry Schum. The broadcast «Black Gate Cologne» by Piene and Tambellini, which was produced and transmitted by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Cologne, in 1968, is often described as the first work of TV art. (17) Based on a live multi-media action previously staged in New York and involving audience participation, the piece was not broadcast live, however, but recorded in WDR's new electronic studio, where the new possibilities of superimposing and mixing the pictures supplied by five TV cameras were used. The visual aesthetics of the broadcast, which was assembled from two shoots and increasingly densified in several phases of editing, were thus the product of close teamwork between artists and TV directors in combining artistic staging and television-specific implementation. Nam June Paik ventured considerably further forward in the USA by simultaneously expanding the technical possibilities of television with a video synthesizer of his own design. The «Paik-Abe synthesizer» was used in the live, four-hour-long «Video Commune» broadcast of 1970, in which Paik cancelled the lines of demarcation between TV crew, artists and audience by allowing the latter (which included passers-by invited into the studio from the street) to participate in the composition of the visual aesthetics via the control knobs on the synthesizer.
Gerry Schum's two broadcasts «Land Art», 1969, and «Identifications», 1970, were the antithesis of the audio-visual overdose ministered by «Black Gate Cologne». Schum's «Fernsehgalerie» («TV gallery») concept took as point of departure the current artistic development succinctly described in Harald Szeemann's programmatic title «When attitudes become form». (18) Schum saw television as a new distribution channel for artistic processes and concepts that had left the object behind them. His starting point, then, was not the cultural deficiencies of the mass medium, but solely the immanent issues of art in his period. His collaboration with TV broadcasters was limited to the aspect of transmission and financing, together with the provision of a gallery-opening-like studio setting prior to the broadcast. The broadcasts themselves were produced by Schum alone, and the individual contributions unconditionally took on the status of autonomous art-works for both Schum and the artists, with whom he closely co-operated. This was one reason why he turned down the requests for more intercession or commentary which the broadcasting company made after the first transmission. On the contrary, he insisted on aesthetic autonomy: «During all the 38 minutes of the „Land Art“ show there is no word spoken. No explanation. I think an art object realized in regard of the medium TV does not need a spoken explanation. » (19) Most of the artists selected by Schum had very little previous experience with television or video, and their contributions placed in the foreground not the medium but the uncompromising transmission of the particular artistic approach. No electronic image processing techniques were used.
«In the TV object the artist can reduce his object to the attitude, to the mere gesture, as a reference to his conception. The art object displays itself as the union of idea, visualization, and the artist as demonstrator, » said Schum in his introduction to «Identifications», his second TV broadcast. Schum himself combined, not unlike his description of the art object, contradictory roles in acting as mediator between the television institution and the artists, as curator of the programme, and as producer of the contributions. His uncompromisingly art-oriented attitude inevitably led to growing differences with television's need for wide viewer acceptance. When his hopes of placing on a permanent footing his «TV Gallery» finally proved unrealistic, he withdrew into the art context and opened a «Videogalerie» that also marketed videotapes as signed and limited editions. In doing so, Schum sacrificed his original vision of the art-work that would exist only on TV, but in an art-world that was geared toward selling originals his new venture was equally unsuccessful.
Schum's case is an unusually clear illustration of the basic incompatibility between the distribution and evaluation structures of television and art. The failure of the «Fernsehgalerie» and Schum's premature death meant that, in West Germany at least, there was another lengthy pause in attempts to link art and television. However, the differences between the two of co-operation between artists and television – «Black Gate Cologne» on the one hand, «Land Art» and «Identifications» on the other – clearly marked the transition from the vigorous determination to break down the barriers between the media in the 1960s to the precise conceptual designs of the 1970s.


In declaring that «The Seventies haven't happened yet, » (20) Jochen Gerz expresses the oppressive weight of the non-realized utopias that determined not only art but also societal issues in the 1970s. As the failure of Schum's ambitions had implied, the relationship between art and the mass media was about to enter a turbulent phase of confrontation. Nevertheless, that air-time could be made available for critique of the television medium time was demonstrated by the artistic interventions conducted in co-operation with Austria's ORF by Peter Weibel and Valie Export in the early 1970s, and later by Richard Kriesche. With the two short pieces entitled «TV Death» in 1970–72, Weibel broke through the semblance of television reality by making the TV set an aquarium in which dying fish floundered as the water drained away, or a glass cubicle incarcerating a newsreader who is on the point of being asphyxiated by his own cigarette smoke. Indisputably, however, the irritation felt by viewers of these drastic features was not art-specific but directed against the medium in general. The most uncompromising execution of this endeavour to trigger self-reflection about their own behaviour on the part of the TV audience was Valie Export's action «Facing a Family», 1971: the uncommentated transmission of a picture showing a family watching TV, it confronted countless homes with a mirror-image of their own situation.
These interventions by Weibel and Export were based on consistent, medium-specific concepts that would not lead to autonomous works relevant outside the context of TV. At the same time, the actions were directed against the medium of television. Possessing a symbolic character derived from performance art, these actions were related to the emergent video art of the 1970s in West Germany, which on the whole saw its work in video as autonomous and clearly separate from the mass medium of television. This self-conception was unmistakably expressed in the sign reading «VT ≠ TV» (»Videotape is not equal to TV») posted over the entrance to the videotheque at the «documenta 6» exhibition of 1977. By then, it was the organizers of the show as opposed to artists who initiated the live satellite telecast of the opening of what became known as the «media documenta» and the showing on TV of a comprehensive programme of art videos. This simultaneously ensured that their concept was present in the media. The hope that «video might replace the principle of institutional TV» was not to be fulfilled than intended by Wulf Herzogenrath, the curator of the video section, when he expressed it. (21)
The monopoly of public TV services was placed in question in the 1980s by cable and satellite TV, plans to license private TV providers, and the incipient growth of home video equipment. The rising technical standard of available equipment meant that artists working in video studios could now make contributions of «broadcasting quality» even without the assistance of television facilities. For many artists, television footage became a raw material they could subject to critical analysis through decomposition and rearrangement. (22) The situation in 1997 makes it clear, however, that the growing optimism in the early 1980s that art would now find a secure niche in the emergent, diverse TV landscape was no less an illusion than the idea of «television art» that accompanied the birth of the television age.

1 Hans Heigert in: Josef Zöllner (ed.), «Massenmedien die geheimen Führer», Augsburg, 1965, p. 179.
2 Theodor W. Adorno, «Prolog zum Fernsehen» in: Rundfunk und Fernsehen, Heft 2, 1953, quotation from: ibid, «Gesammelte Schriften», Vol. 10/2, Franfurt a. M., 1996, p. 507.
3 Herbert Kutschbach, «Das Fernsehbild zwischen Technik und Kunst», in: Rufer und Hörer, vol. 7, issue 8, 1953; Franz Tschirn, «Kunst im Bildschirm», in: Rufer und Hörer, vol. 6 , 1951/52, pp. 574–576.
4 Gerhard Eckert, «Die Kunst des Fernsehens», Hamburg, 1953, p. 102; the primarily aesthetic debates and criteria appear to largely block out the questionable political history of the medium in Germany, where the world's first regular television service began broadcasting in 1935. Encouraged by the immense success of radio propaganda disseminatated via the inexpensive «Volksempfänger» wireless receivers, the National Socialists» determination to use TV for similar ends was obstructed only by the outbreak of WWII.
5 «Manifesto del movimento spaziale per la televisione» in: Enrico Crispolti, «Fontana, Catalogo generale», vol. 1, Milan, 1986, p. 37.
6 See essay «On Beginnings» in this volume.
7 Günther Uecker, «TV», 1963; Tom Wesselman, «Great American Nude #39», 1962; Isidore Isou, «La télévision dechiquetée ou l'anticretinisation», 1962; Cesar, «Télévision», 1962.
8 Bertolt Brecht, «Gesammelte Werke, Schriften 2», Frankfurt a. M., 1967, p. 129
9 The TV burial «Television Decollage» carried out as an action at the YAM festival in New Brunswick on 19 May 1963 and the execution of a TV set in the scope of Vostell's «9 Nein Decollagen», Wuppertal, 14 September 1963.
10 Hessischer Rundfunk broadcast a feature in which Uecker carried out the said action with the TV set during his «Sintflut der Nägel» show in the gallery «d», Frankfurt, 1963. Uecker recalls that he subjected three TV sets and a piano to his nailing treatment, in some cases also to whitewashing, during this period. (Telephone conversation with this author on 20 August 1996.)
11 See «Exposition of Music - Afterlude» in this volume.
12 Nam June Paik, «Electronic Video Recorder», see text in this volume.
13 Nam June Paik, «Videa «n' Videology», 1959–1973, Syracuse, N.Y., 1974, unnumbered.
14 Broadcast by ZDF from its Düsseldorf studio on 11 December 1964. Unfortunately, as customary at the time no recording was made of the live broadcast, meaning only photographic records exist; see Uwe M. Schneede, «Joseph Beuys, Die Aktionen», Stuttgart, 1996, p. 80 et seq.., and «Übrigens sterben immer die anderen», «Marcel Duchamp und die Avantgarde seit 1950», Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 1988, p. 216.
15 «Nur noch Gewölk» («... but the clouds ... »), Süddeutscher Rundfunk (SR) Stuttgart, 1977, and «Quadrat I+II («Quad I+II»), SR Stuttgart, 1981.
16 The particular importance of the «radio play» in Germany from the late 1920s onward is evident by the adoption in English of the German word «Hörspiel».
17 See text by Wibke von Bonin in this volume.
18 Title of an exhibition held in the Kunsthalle, Bern, 1969.
19 Schum in a letter to Gene Youngblood, in: «Land Art», Gerry Schum/Ursula Wevers-Schum (ed.), Hannover,1970.
20 Jochen Gerz in a discussion in the Tate Gallery, London, in 1995.
21 Interview with Wulf Herzogenrath in: Kunstforum, vol. 21, 1977, p. 170.
22 This is exemplified by Klaus vom Bruch's progress from his early, semi-documentary excerpts from TV coverage of terrorist activities in West Germany («The Schleyer Tape», 1977–78) to the increasing complexity of the edited montages he made later.

Source: Rudolf Frieling, Dieter Daniels, Medien Kunst Aktion – Die 60er und 70er Jahre in Deutschland, p. 69–75.