The Aesthetics of Television

Tanya DiTommaso
Department of Philosophy
University of Ottawa

Abstract. Since the early 1970s, the TV has been incorporated into the art world by artists such as Nam June Paik and members of the Fluxus group. It is now commonplace within the art world to place a TV in an art gallery and call it ‘art.’ But while the TV has attained this prestigious place within the art world, interestingly, it hitherto has remained an outsider to contemporary circles of philosophical inquiry. Gathering our inspiration from Nam June Paik's Egg Grows, it is indeed possible to form a hermeneutic description of the TV as having an aesthetic value that speaks to our postmodern world: a world where notions of metaphysical truth, being and identity are deconstructed and replaced with an emphasis on flux, becoming and subjective perspectives.

There is very little written on the topic of the aesthetics of television, and what is written is hardly sufficient. For example, the title of Herbert Zettl's article, ‘Television Aesthetics,’ promises a discussion of television's aesthetic status, yet makes little reference to aesthetics; instead, it focuses on a very technical description of light and colour mechanics [25].

Fred Schroeder's article entitled ‘Video Aesthetics and Serial Art’ is another example of an investigation not living up to its promising title. Schroeder compares television with works of art and concludes that ‘television has not only failed to transfer other arts into its form, but television has almost completely failed to find any expressive art which is peculiarly its own’ [18, p.261]. Instead of developing the novel aspects of television, Schroeder can see only its limitations in so far as it offers nothing aesthetically new to the world of theatre. Schroeder's analysis of the merits and pitfalls of television remains at the level of content rather than form.

Horace Newcomb is another author who is preoccupied with and limited by the content of television programming. Newcomb's assertion that ‘it is necessary to concentrate on the entertaining works themselves’ [11, p.274] ultimately narrows his focus to discussing the merits of certain television programs rather than discussing the merits of the TV itself as an art form. In all the articles mentioned so far, what we essentially end up with are those who believe that television is either ‘simply a vehicle’ for broadcasting or that it is only valuable in so far as it adds something to the content of the programs it transmits [22]. In either case, the TV itself, apart from the programs it projects, has not been the focus of discussion in aesthetics.

Instrumental and Aesthetic Attitudes

Why has television been neglected in academic, aesthetic discussion? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the division between instrumental and aesthetic attitudes [9, p.33] and where the TV falls within this division. Let me first briefly outline both attitudes. To begin with, we can describe the aesthetic consciousness, as Gary Madison does, as the perspective where the viewer does not apprehend the object as if it were just some instrumental and predictable thing [8, pp.211-219]. In other words, art is not consumed – it is appreciated. An ‘aesthetic’ experience refers to an experience that is quite different from an instrumental experience [4, p.89]. Our aesthetic experience, as described by Hans-Georg Gadamer, is driven by an openness and readiness where ‘there is no prior knowledge of the right means which realize the end, and this is because, above all else, the ends themselves are at stake and not perfectly fixed beforehand’ [3, p.123]. A work of art points to openness, possibilities and to a plurality of meanings [5, p.454]. In not knowing what meaning the work will reveal, we abandon the practical, pragmatic attitude that we have whenever we deal with instrumental objects (e.g., seeing the toaster simply as an object that is meant to toast bread every morning).

Abandoning ourselves to an aesthetic experience of a work of art (and ceasing to be concerned with it as a practical object for our pragmatic purposes) is the key to understanding what distinguishes the aesthetic from the instrumental. As Edward Bullough explains, a prerequisite for the aesthetic experience is the subject's lack of attention to the practical nature of the particular circumstance. In other words, the viewer is no longer concerned with issues of personal gain or harm. When one disregards the practical context, it can be said that one is in the right frame of mind to be capable of a state of ‘distance,’ and it is only through this ‘distance’ that one is enabled to experience the work as an aesthetic object [1].

Here we can state the very simplistic, yet important, preliminary conclusion: that those objects which induce and promote an aesthetic experience are the very objects that are categorized as works of art. There's no point in asking what the ‘real’ or ‘true’ status of any object might be. The postmodern destruction of objective realities implies that objects are known and classified only in and through, or with reference to, our experiences. To paraphrase Gadamer on this point, an inquiry into the nature of art is ultimately an inquiry into understanding how art encounters human understanding [2, p.103]. More specifically, Gadamer writes, ‘the work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience changing the person experiencing it’ [5, p.92]. The identity of a work of art is not guaranteed by formalist criteria but, rather, is ‘secured by the way in which we take the construction of the work upon ourselves as a task’ [4, p.28]. Indeed, this is precisely what, according to Gary Madison, postmodernism has taught us. On this, he writes ‘if postmodernism has succeeded in teaching us anything, it is this: the values and meanings of objects are inextricably bound to the subject's interpretation of these objects’ [7, p.37].

Now we must return to the question regarding the aesthetic status of the TV. We can answer this question only by addressing the question of how the viewer experiences the TV. Does the experience of the TV involve the aesthetic or the instrumental attitude? It should come as no surprise that the experience of watching television programs (e.g., the news) is manipulated by controlled programming, editing and marketing. Moreover, the viewer often approaches television with a specific and practical purpose in mind (e.g., we turn on the news to see how our stocks are performing or what the weather will be like tomorrow). It has been said that ‘television is not really a medium of drama but a medium of advertising’ [24, p.8]. This all points to the suspicion that watching television programs presupposes an instrumental attitude.

Fighting Aesthetic Elitism

Television's second-class status, however, is not just a result of its instrumental status. In fact, I believe that there is something more insidious that contributes to television's failure to measure up to works of art; namely, an intellectual prejudice. This intellectual prejudice within traditional western aesthetics manifests itself in the belief that art invokes the sort of thoughts, ideas and judgements that only the select and educated few are capable of producing. As a proponent of such aesthetic elitism, Frank Sibley argues that the ability to discern the aesthetic is a matter of sensitivity, training and selective upbringing, for ‘people who exhibit a sensitivity both wide-ranging and refined are a minority’ [19, pp.423, 440]. Television, as thoroughly accessible and understood by all, requires no careful cultivating or use of any sort of refined taste or judgement. Presumably, this aesthetic elitism might have helped to entrench television in a non-aesthetic world.

But here we can ask: is the aesthetic experience really dependent upon such a cultivated taste? We should think twice before we assume that an aesthetic experience necessarily includes an intellectually cultivated judgement. As was explained by Gadamer and Bullough (each in his own distinctive manner), an aesthetic experience, as removed from our practical concerns, is the experience of having the work of art exceed the very categories of use and meaning that we so easily apply to practical objects. With or without words uttered in response, and with or without intellectually knowing what the work ‘means,’ the aesthetic experience remains the same; and that is, it is an experience of encountering an overpowering object, before which we are enticed to release our practical concerns and allow ourselves to become caught off guard and wrapped up in the pleasure of being moved by this object's overwhelming presence. Described in these terms (indeed – these are the very terms that Gadamer outlines) [5, pp.91-96], the aesthetic experience resembles the relinquishing of intellectual judgement rather than the focussing of it.

Content Versus Form

In order to assess whether we can successfully apply the term ‘aesthetic’ to our experience of television, we need to explore some of the less obvious aspects of television, and reconsider the extent to which these aspects might be considered capable of inducing and promoting an aesthetic experience. If we follow the path created by twentieth-century video art and, thereby, turn our attention away from the programming of television and look, instead, at the TV as a medium, then we can begin to understand the TV as something which induces and encourages the aesthetic experience.

While there have been studies on the aesthetic merit of the dramatic shows appearing on television, the medium itself has not had much attention. Most of the authors who discuss television focus on the content of television programming, and, as Horace Newcomb notes, if we simply focus on the content of television, then we are looking at television primarily as ‘communication’ rather than as ‘art’ [10, p.561]. Herbert Zettl, however, is one author who recognizes that the medium of television has been neglected. In his analysis of this neglect, he points his finger at the following culprit:

Firmly rooted in the tradition of literary analysis, we feel more comfortable in discussing the aesthetic merits of content and style than in analyzing the characteristics and potentials of the medium through which such content is communicated. In the aesthetics of literature, the transmission medium – the book – has precious little influence on the message, the literary content and the structure of the work [25, p.115].

While Zettl's initiative is in the right direction – that is, he recognizes the need to focus on the TV as a medium – he unfortunately says little about how and why this medium is aesthetic. It is only in the last line of his article that he finally makes an unexamined and general reference to an ‘aesthetic experience.’

Focussing on the content of the TV is to miss entirely the aesthetic thrill of this fascinating box. Addressing the TV as a medium, on the other hand, is what will resuscitate it from the depths of mundane instrumentality.

Various Video Art Pieces *

Nam June Paik, the father of video art, presents an aesthetic view of the TV that, at one and the same time, raises the TV to the world of art and erases the distinction between the art world and the non-art world. Inspired by the earlier works of Duchamp and Dada, Paik's art pieces seek to break down the barriers between ‘high’ art and everyday life. For example, in his work Egg Grows [12] Paik arranges an egg, a camera and eight TV monitors of graduated size. Starting with the natural object of the egg, this object is filmed and extrapolated onto the TV monitors. The egg, symbolizing both creation and nature, appears as the pregnant origin of the sequence of TV monitors. This piece speaks of vitality, life, becoming, creation and potential, and blurs the distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘art.’

Nam June Paik's <em>Egg Grows</em>
Figure 1: Nam June Paik's Egg Grows © SFMOMA

Paik uses the TV in various ‘natural’ (outdoor) settings to show that this electronic box is firmly rooted in our society and at the point of both becoming and being a part of nature. One of Paik's most interesting and grandiose works is his permanent outdoor installation named Something Pacific. [15] This work combines the use of exterior and interior space, and presents the TV in both settings. Outdoors, the work features several ruined television sets embedded in the landscape; some of them paired with Buddhas. Embedded in the ground, the television sets appear as though they were a permanent and inseparable part of the landscape.

The effect of this piece is to fill the viewer with the sense that the TV is so deeply woven into our society that it can no longer be extracted from our everyday world. The viewer cannot help but see the movement of life that seems to emanate from the grass, from the gaze of the Buddhas and from the mesmerising influence and power that the TV screens project. With this work, Paik makes a strong statement about the penetration, domination and permanence of the TV in our world.

Complementing his outdoor exhibit, the interior part of Something Pacific consists of a lively group of interactive TV monitors where viewers are able to manipulate, by means of a control panel, sequences of Paik's own tapes. Combined with the outdoor exhibit, this work represents two very different experiences of time; one involving silent, prolonged contemplation and the other involving instantaneous action/reaction. In presenting the TV as both static and lively, as both being and becoming, and as requiring and promoting both the viewer's quiet contemplation and active reactions, Paik seems to accomplish the impossible in his art; namely, the blending together of two notions of time: 1) time as a sequence of movements and 2) time as a singular, static point in the present.

The presentation of time as both a flux and as a present, ever-lasting ‘now’ is precisely what makes his work TV Clock [16] exceptionally powerful. With Paik's TV Clock, the viewer is immediately enveloped in an electronic universe where twenty-four TV sets are dramatically set parallel to one another. Fixed beams of light on the television screens are used to represent different times on a clock. This piece shows the measurement of time through the static measurement tool of the TV, and suggests that time, as it is known and measured, has forever changed because of the presence of TV. Here again, Paik seems to accomplish the impossible feat of merging the sense of time as a flux and the notion of time as a static moment.

Paik's statement – that the TV has become a permanent part of our postmodern identity – is supported even more clearly in his recent work Video Flag [17]. Commissioned in 1996, this piece consists of an assembly of 70 TV monitors fitted together to represent the US flag. Stars and stripes, combined with split-second news images, rotating Statues of Liberty and a face that scans through every US president from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton, all blend to evoke the sense that the postmodern, American identity, as fractured and in flux, is inseparable from the TV. Viewers are struck with a sense of the US identity as alive, fluid and dynamic.

Using TV to simulate life and to present movement (the movement inherent in life) is central to Paik's art. His works – Leonardo da Vinci [13] and Piano Piece [14] – are exemplary in their simulation of movement and life through the TV. In Leonardo da Vinci, we see a seated figure whose body is composed of TV sets. In the videos, images of da Vinci's paintings and inventions pulsate, melt and blend into one another. Through the flickering of light, Paik creates a ‘moving’ canvas that is energetic and engaging. In his Piano Piece, Paik has arranged thirteen monitors, video cameras mounted on tripods, a stool and a piano. A computer program plays the music of John Cage while the composer's image appears in the four central monitors at the top of the piano. Paik's hands can be seen playing the piano in the left and right monitors. Similar to his other works, the entire effect of Piano Piece is that of movement and energy.

While Paik eagerly used the TV set as a sculpture, he also tried to express a new way of looking at ourselves through the riveting portrayal of life and movement that TV presents. His works suggest that the TV is embedded in our identity – an identity that rides upon a continual wave of becoming. Ultimately, within the art world, Paik has succeeded in raising the TV to the status of art, and has offered a unique glimpse into our dynamic, postmodern identity.

The Set is Alive

In the shadow of Duchamp, Paik has ushered in a new era where the bare TV box may be regarded as an aesthetic sculpture. But apart from seeing the set placed in a gallery, and thinking, ‘it is in a gallery, so it must be art,’ we find that it is possible to view the box as an aesthetic object without having to rely on an art gallery. We can begin by simply looking at the set itself. We should not ignore that when we look at the TV, we find ourselves already interested in qualities that have nothing to do with its instrumental functioning. For example, do we not prefer the way a television looks in one sleek, black frame over another? We also enjoy a sharp picture and high-quality sound. But these qualities that we delight in have nothing to do with the functionality of the TV. With or without the higher quality picture and sound, we receive the same broadcast. In simply choosing our television set, we have already participated in a preliminary aesthetic judgement about which set is more pleasing. And if we take the easy route – and define aesthetic beauty, as Tatarkiewicz does, as that which pleases [23, p.141] – then we can say that the TV set does indeed enter into the realm of the aesthetic in so far as it produces a sensation of pleasure.

But this is only the beginning . . . the more impressive show has yet to begin. What we have failed to see is that the mere presence of the TV set engages the viewer in an experience of the sublime. By describing our experience of it as sublime, I am stressing how this experience calls our attention to what Ronald Hepburn describes as ‘the greatness or otherness or sense of mystery that exhilarates’ [6, p.149]. Furthermore, in describing television in this manner, I mean to echo Kant's notion of the sublime, and to refer to what Sparshott describes as the experience that ‘moves the mind to awe and exaltation . . . [where] such awe and exaltation may be produced by whatever evinces great size, or great power, or great spiritual force, or great moral strength’ [21, p.78].

While I admit that, at first, our experience of the TV set as sublime is not an easy description to digest, we can accept this characterization as soon as we consider the fact that we cannot fully understand or control the light mechanics behind its operation. The fact that a television even works in the first place is itself amazing. The average person knows nothing of the technology behind TV, and the advanced electrical engineer is still baffled by the task of comprehending why the mechanics of light emission works the way that it does.

What the TV is capable of doing seems to exceed the simple mechanics of the capacitors, resistors and transistors inside the set. From all these mechanical pieces pictures, lights and movements dance before our eyes. Who is not amazed by this dazzling display of light? And what is art if not a superb rendering of light and movement? And is it not precisely this presentation of the movement of light that distinguishes a painting in an art gallery, for example, from the wall behind it?

It is the movement of light in art that is sublime; this movement of light exceeds all of our efforts to understand and/or master it. The life captured in a work of art enraptures us and causes us to feel ourselves at its mercy. Despite all appearances – for example, the static paint on a Mondrian canvas or the static mechanical components in the TV – the television, similar to a painting, seems to accomplish the impossible; namely, the presentation of movement and the play of light – indeed, life itself – in an inorganic object.

To witness the incomprehensible possibility of the play of light and movement in a ‘life-less’ object is to witness the sublime event of life being created. This idea of witnessing the event of creation is, in part, supported by Susan Sontag's apt characterization of television as a ‘deliberate impermanence’ [20, p.266]. Being ‘composed of electrical energy, a rapidly scanning electron beam or a series of beams which we perceive as variations in light,’ television presents an image composed of ‘constantly changing patterns of light . . . whose very existence depends upon the fluctuating energy of the electron beam.’ In other words, television can be described as being ‘in a continual state of becoming’ [25, pp.117, 130].

We simply need to switch on our set to encounter and appreciate this continual event of becoming and creation. Indeed, it is precisely at the moment of instantiation that we become confronted with our aesthetic experience of television as sublime. It is at the very threshold where we turn on the TV, in the moment of tension – where we are consumed with the anticipation of television's capacity and delighted by television's ability to satisfy this anticipation – that we are engaged in an aesthetic experience. We are in awe, if only for a moment, enraptured by the sublime and unthinkable movement of life in an inorganic object. It is this encounter with the TV at the very threshold of instantiation that permits us to think of television as capable of promoting and inducing an aesthetic experience.

Because the aesthetic experience of television does not rely on any particular programming content, we can say that the television is truly a postmodern art form. It represents a view that is not objective; for there is no singular viewpoint to be pinpointed and located. What is more, the question of authorship and authorial intention – a question that is deconstructed and dismissed by postmodernism – is non-existent. We do not ask who is the author behind the flashes of light, nor do we ask what meaning is intended by this display of light. The motion of light is a happening that is independent of a particular author and does not require us to engage in the elusive sport of trying to isolate and specify exact, intended meanings. What makes the television truly a postmodern art form is that at every time life's movement flickers to fulfilment before our eyes, we tarry in that very moment of creation (where origins and ends collapse and continually spiral into one another), and we are able to avoid metaphysical notions of truth, being, objectivity and identity as points of departure for our aesthetic interpretation. With all of this in mind, if we again return to Nam June Paik's Egg Grows we could say that this work represents just this: television as the movement of creation and becoming that collapses genus and telos into each other.

In conclusion, to agree that television broadcasting is mundane and instrumental is to criticize broadcasting in particular, and not television in general, as a medium of light and movement. The TV, similar to other artistic media such as painting, photography and sculpture, succeeds in creating and perfecting the seemingly impossible Frankensteinian feat; that is, to breathe life into an inorganic material. The aesthetic experience of television is available to all who sit in front of the TV, and in the moment of turning on the box, we experience our postmodern identity; an identity that is perpetually in flux.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Canadian Society for Hermeneutics and Postmodern Thought congress meeting at the Learneds, University of Toronto in May 2002.

Crossings is very grateful to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for permission to include the photograph of Nam June Paik's Egg Grows in this paper.


Detailed descriptions of the works discussed in this section are available at the relevant gallery web sites. For more information about Egg Grows, see the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art web site. Something Pacific is featured at the Stuart Collection of Sculpture at the University of California, San Diego web site. There is background information about TV Clock at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. More details about Video Flag are available at the web site of the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian Institution. Leonardo da Vinci is held at the Reynolda House Museum of Modern Art. For more about Piano Piece, visit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery site.


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About the Author

Tanya DiTommaso received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Guelph and her M.A. and B.A. from McMaster University in Ontario. She taught at the University of Toledo in Ohio and currently teaches part-time at the University of Ottawa . Tanya is the Associate Editor for SYMPOSIUM: Journal of the Canadian Society for Hermeneutics and Postmodern Thought and a member of the International Institute for Hermeneutics. Her interests lie in continental philosophy, aesthetics, and philosophical psychology.

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