Unreal TV

Art Life , Op-ed Feb 04, 2011 No Comments

Carrie Miller spent most of the summer break propped up on cushions, watching TV and eating peppermint Magnums, considering whether ‘reality’ TV in its late baroque phase might tell us something about the real world…

Can I Keep up with the Kardashians? Could I be Australia’s Next Top Model? How I would cope being Married to Rock? Do I need an Extreme Makeover? Would my boyfriend benefit from a Wife Swap? How about a trip to the Jersey Shore?

Over the past few months I’ve been glued to pay TV and in particular its ‘reality’ tv shows and documentaries which track the lives of upwardly nubile nobodies, amputee admirers, men who screw cars, women who have relationships with church organs, skanks who wear enough bronzer to mop up a major oil spill and whose fake nails come in handy when they get into drunken scrag fights, and celebrities who end up broke, sloppy and full of self-pity in a luxury rehab centre.

Like all trends, reality-based television programming didn’t evolve in a cultural vacuum – it’s representative of a more general shift in media formats. Specifically, it coincides with an increasing interest in the personal and the everyday in Western culture. The past couple of decades has seen a rise in first-person media of all types. In literature this has manifested in a reinvigorated interest in the memoir. Personal opinion in the form of talk-back has long been the biggest thing in radio, with the internet allowing it to go viral. And confession is the name of the game on TV talk shows from Springer to Oprah.

Media commentators have tended to view this phenomenon in terms of a traditional voyeuristic impulse, albeit one intensified by technological advances such as the domestic camcorder and surveillance video. Such critics see the genre as paradigmatic of the shameless and puerile freakshow mentality that marks contemporary culture. According to this view, ordinary people are caught up in a heartless mass media machine that grinds them up and spits them out once Warhol’s stop watch hits fifteen. But what Christopher Hitchens calls ‘the new voyeurism’ is not merely an intensification of the age-old desire to have a perve, but enables an entirely different relationship between viewer and the object of his or her gaze. Our desire to be seen now matches our desire to look. Audiences aren’t kept at a discrete distance; what they’re gawking at walks right up to the hand-held and fogs up the lens screaming obscenities. Audiences discuss the lives of these people in the way they discuss their own: they make judgments about their behaviour, they gossip about their wardrobes, they have emotional investments in their relationships.

It’s the interactive and participatory nature of reality tv that has meant that not all commentators denounce it as a sign that Western civilisation has been forcibly dragged by the tabloid media, like some helpless victim, into the cultural gutter. Some see it as a positive sign – an emancipation of the medium from the authority of the expert, the pretence of objectivity, and the refusal of pleasure. From this perspective, what critics call Trash TV, is in fact a medium in which bigger issues such as the politics of identity, the limits of cultural difference, the ethics of human relations, are played out through the archetypes constructed by the drama that the genre squeezes out of ‘real’ life.

This trend is also apparent in contemporary art. And while some artists trade in these concerns on a more abstract, intellectual level, or a literalist, political one, some of the most popular and engaging work being made lately is that which takes a more personal approach to representing the nature of subjectivity and the meaning of one’s personal history. Tracey Emin and her unmade, condom strewn ‘Bed’ is the perfect example of this trend.

Of course, artists have mined their own lives and psyches for inspiration long before the past couple of decades. Performance artists, for example, have been particularly good at exploring the psychology of their own embodiment. The difference now is that ordinary people have got in on the act – whether consciously or not – and have countless outlets to express themselves.

Some cultural critics understand this feature of postmodernity to be a sign, if not of the death of art, at least of its increasing irrelevance. But just because the high/low cultural distinction may have been exposed as a fiction and art is seen as one subculture among many, it doesn’t follow that the experience of art is the same as the experience of watching television. One cultural form isn’t necessarily better than the other but that doesn’t make them equivalent.

It’s true that there’s less reason than ever to leave a house full of glowing screens. Yet, despite my addiction to Facebook, Serial Killer Sunday, and weird YouTube videos, I still reckon art is one of them.

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Carrie Miller

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