The Couch Potato Pioneers:
An Appreciation of The Television Project

Deborah Kass, Six Blue Barbras (The Jewish Jackie Series), 1992, screenprint and acrylic on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York Gift of Seth Cohen, 2004-10

We’re living in a golden age of television. Critics have been saying so for years. And as curator Maurice Berger shows through the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition series The Television Project, TV is an art form of modern life.

This hasn’t always been the popular opinion. Traditionally, TV has been something of a bane for the high-browed. Consider T.S. Eliot, who observed that television “permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome”; or Woody Allen, who quipped that “In Beverly Hills . . . they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.” Consider your parents, who said, “Turn off the television and do your homework.”

Such criticisms make the 1981 establishment of the Jewish Museum’s National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting all the more significant and forward-thinking. The archive was started to document and preserve depictions of the Jewish experience, years before the advent of critically acclaimed programming such as Breaking Bad or Mad Men.

The National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting now holds more than 4,000 works of radio and television. The Television Project, premiered by the Museum this past September, draws from the massive catalogue and features related works of art, artifacts, and ephemera in order to explore TV’s cultural and artistic significance. At the centerpiece of each exhibition is a clip compilation produced by Berger, bringing the representations to life.

 “I have always viewed television as a significant artistic medium of popular culture and as a powerful reflection of the society in which it is produced and experienced,” explains Berger. “My study of the medium, aided greatly by the archive, has allowed me to understand how dramas, situational comedies, variety, reality, and news programs have contributed to a critical examination of the Jewish experience, and how mass media has addressed issues of religion, ethnicity, and diversity.”

Curator Maurice Berger and artist Deborah Kass. Installation of the exhibition The Television Project: Picturing a People. The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo: David Heald.

The Television Project began with the exhibition Picturing a People, on view through February 14, 2016, which considers how Jews have been portrayed and have portrayed themselves — from Barbara Streisand in her premiere television special, to Krusty the Klown of The Simpsons. Next on the Television Project rotation is Some of My Best Friends: Opening March 18, 2016, the exhibition examines the ways in which television and pop culture have engaged with the subject of anti-Semitism. Future shows will feature Jews and the advertising revolution, Jews and comedy, and depictions of Jewish men and women, each through the lens of American television — a veritable treasure, no matter what your mother thinks.

 

— Casey Dalrymple, Marketing Editorial Intern