A BRIEF HISTORY OF MID-CENTURY PORTRAITURE: TV by Mary di Lucia

When we think of the history of art, the television rarely comes to mind, despite the fact that upon exploration, tv relates to many discourses: architecture, urban planning, the beaux arts, technology, psychoanalysis, and finally, portraiture itself.

A tv in a room with a tv viewer and couch loosely mirrors some aspects of the psychoanalytic triad; that is, the tv, like the analysand, broadcasts a free-associative monologue interrupted by its faithful description of any unrelated images which periodically arise and interrupt the narrative flow of the dominant monologue. We call them “commercials.” The tv viewer, like the psychoanalyst, must remain impassive and silent during the session while he ostensibly attempts to make sense of or “analyze” the wide array of disparate materials generated by the tv. The duration of the session, always a pre-designated period of time, is usually somewhere between 45 and 55 minutes. This number is agreed upon, somewhat arbitrarily, by an external scheduling authority which in fact is merely following socio-cultural conventions whose origins are uncertain. When the television is switched “off” roles are reversed: it is the tv viewer who becomes the analysand and the tv de facto becomes the analyst—performing an exemplary though accidental impassivity— though here, in the presence of the switched-off tv, the monologue of the analysand a.k.a. tv viewer is internal and non-vocalized (except in the most extreme cases). As to the third and essential element of this quasi-psychoanalytic triad (i.e. the “couch”), the relationship between the couch and the history of psychoanalysis has been researched at length; but, astonishingly, it is a fourth element (i.e. “the room”) as an equally necessary component of the psychoanalytic process, which has yet to be studied. Fifthly, the necessity of a house to the existence of the room also remains unexplored, most compelling for our purposes here in a “Brief History of Mid-Century Portraiture, Volume Two: Houses” albeit the possibility of this new branch of research points to the potentiality of a much-needed “Long History &c” thereof. The fact that a rigorous accounting for of the essential roles of the house (and the room) have been overlooked in the history and scholarship of the discourse of psychoanalysis is shocking to say the least, and shameful, to be most harshly frank. In the same way, a rigorous study of phenomenon of the photograph of the tv, either alone as a primary subject, or in its domestic context in the presence of other tv viewers and audiences, seems to be a telling omission from the psychoanalytic literature, and yet in this way, in its omission, it does foreground the importance of omission itself as a component of psychoanalysis; e.g. even in the rare footage of Freud’s tapestried couch, the couch is always in the background as Freud presides over his desk with its many totem objects in the foreground. The couch is present but not foregrounded; the mention of photographs of the tv in context of

What is a tv without a house?

It is an eye of witnessing under bright skies, where the transmissions it bears witness to cannot be activated or even viewed, not simply because of the lack of access to electricity, but because the light of the skies is too bright, both by day and by night.

A tv in itself is a house for images. Any textbook of architecture can attest to the similarity between the two types of structures—tvs, as small houses without doors; houses, as large tvs with doors. The tv antenna resembles a chimney which not even all typical houses possess. The roof of the tv can function as a resting place for static images, either photographs in frames or mass-produced decorative objects of representation, as well as a platform for other, smaller tvs. Televised images, as they flicker behind the glass tv screen, no less inhabit the tv “house” than a family, seen through a picture window, inhabits its particular “house.” A tv can fit inside of the house only if the tv is a tv; the house can fit inside of the tv only if the house is first televised.

A tv on its back, in a pool of water, is a victim of something, a violent act which has nonetheless produced the accidental beauty of the cloud fragmentarily reflected in its shattered screen.

A tv at the bottom of a stairwell, face down, speaks of darker realities, or of the collision between realities, domestic and urban.

A tv, or the remains of one, in a wasteland beyond the limits of a city, far from even a junkyard with the remains of other modern waste objects, half-obscured by tall grasses, presents a puzzle to the stray animals whose relationship to tv, in general, has yet to be studied.

Face to face with its biographer, a tv is an image of the hope of the human spirit. It cannot be fully captured. It meets its brother unblinking. It promises a narrative with all the juxtapositions preserved. It remembers everything, it broadcasts it to the world, but nothing it remembers is its own.

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photographs of families watching tv is neither present nor foregrounded, but conventionally omitted. Also: we have no images of the act of psychoanalysis itself—analysand, analyst, couch, during the analytic session. We have much the same poverty of footage of the interaction between viewer and tv, albeit this omission seems arbitrary, and there are a few serendipitous exceptions, portraits of families engaged in the act of tv-watching. It is not taboo.

2 “Fully captured” by the medium to which it (and its brother) has devoted its whole life; i.e. film.

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One Comment

  1. […] Di Lucia’s work can also be read on The Opiate’s website: “The Great Bear,” “Blindness/Your Brother” and “A Brief History of Mid Century Portraiture: TV” […]

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