What Good is Television? | Horizon March 1960

The Storm, Pierre Auguste Cot (1880); Horizon cover art is cropped central portion

This week, I was going to feature the article, “What Good Is Television?” by Walter Kerr. As I began reading it, though, I realized I’d bitten off a bit more than I’m qualified to chew. The sub: “Mostly it has been a funnel for things that stage or screen do better. But in forms like the visual essay it discovers its own nature. A critic warns the spoiled baby of the art forms to quit playing with borrowed gold and make its own creative way.”

After several paragraphs detailing his first claim, he addresses the second, that the visual essay is television’s best identity.

I think some here will really enjoy this–especially as we see it in the rear-view mirror– so I scanned the three-page essay as a pdf. Imagine what is was like to have a “mobile camera” in 1960?


In addition to the TOC as it appears in the magazine, I’ve listed titles with subtitles, or first few lines, below to give you a better sense of content. As always, please let me know if there are articles you’d like me to scan and post here. It’s very easy for me to post pdfs of text, or jpegs of images.

From the Classic Earth. “Last year two laborers were repairing a sewer in Piraeus, the seaport of Athens, when they stumbled on a hoard of masterpieces of Greek sculpture lost since antiquity….” Mostly photos

Man’s Way with the Wilderness. “He has by turns feared it, disdained it, reveled in it, and despoiled it. His arts reflect his varying attitudes to it. Today he is learning to prize what is left of it.” Text & photos

Start of a Long Day’s Journey; The New London Youth of Eugene O’Neill. Text

Tireless Teutons: An Album. “The German faces on these pages seem to tell of a time long past; yet neither the types they represent nor the individuals themselves are necessarily extinct.” Photos

The Imaginary Audience. “Given the science of modern mass communication, we ought to know whether anyone is there to get The Message from the Media. Yet often we do not: the listeners have either disconnected their hearing-aids or stepped outside.” Text

From Salon to Cellar–and Back? “Few styles have fallen so dar into disrepute as the once-prized academic art of the nineteenth century. Bad as most of it was, there are grounds for recalling some of it from exile.” Text and art (lots)

Life on the Educational Frontier. “While the great debate continues in America over the state of public instruction of the young, some remarkable trails are being blazed by educators with what they regard as the “progressive” ideal.” Text and cartoons [I’ll say.]

The King of Instruments Returns: America’s leading organist describes the victory of a noble voice over technological “improvements.” Text, photos, illustrations

Pilgrim to the Holy Mount. “Almost five hundred year ago Friar Felix Fabri set out on an arduous journey to Sinai that few would undertake even today–and left behind a lively chronicle of adventure by sea and desert.” Text and illustrations

Circle in the Square. “In ten years it has become the most famous off-Broadway theater, its record brilliant with the stars it has launched, its director’s triumph, and the great plays to which it has given their due.” Text and photos

Europe’s Brief Flood Tide of Philo-Semitisam. Convinced that Armageddon was at hand, The God-fearing Christians of the seventeenth century turned to embrace the persecuted Jews–until the dream of the millennium had faded.”

An interview with Isamu Noguchi. “‘What is the point of soft without hard, or weight without lightness?’ asks a sculptor-designer whose art, like his own inheritance, combines the traditions of the West and East.” Third in the Horizon series, “The Artist Speaks for Himself,” edited by George Plimpton.* Text and photos

* I find this hilarious, as I know George Plimpton only as a sports writer.

The Alexandrians of Lawrence Durrell. “When Justine appeared three years and three novels ago, most readers were fascinated but puzzled. Now, with Clea, the author completes his revelation of the minds and mysteries of a cast of characters hardly equaled since the Parisians Marcel Proust.” Text

Sociologists at Work. [The question I asked myself as I am nearing the end of this little journey through the TOC is, “Do I really want to wade through this 4-pg harangue?” It looks to be something of a precursor to our own internet snark written by someone who has a decent vocabulary. I note that the word, “wrongthink” shows up in the first paragraph. So the answer is no.] Text and 9×9 table, “A Map of Culture.” I’ll snap a photo if you want to see it.

The Comic History of England. “The Victorians were greedy about history. When they were’t making it, they were reading it–endlessly and, for the authors, profitably. Did Macaulay’s thunderous prose and majestic perspective occasionally pall? The readers happily dropped his History of England for The Comic History of England. … Both [writer, Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, and illustrator, John Leech] were members of the original staff of Punch.”

5 thoughts on “What Good is Television? | Horizon March 1960”

  1. A few more comments from the site where I posted the link.

    “Kerr is renowned for writing perhaps the best book ever on silent comedy, The Silent Clowns.”

    “He actually describes what we now call the Ken Burns Effect of camera slowly panning a still image in a program about Lincoln.”

    And knowing that crowd as I do, lots of discussion on the early sit-coms.

    “I Love Lucy has the same flaw as many other early sitcoms for me, right up to and including the late 70s when Three’s Company took it so far and so hard that it can never be done again – the basing of seemingly every plot on a madcap scheme and someone else’s absurd misunderstanding. But I Love Lucy was still a pioneer of almost everything about sitcoms, and as a kid I watched old reruns of it with pleasure for years, so it’s still pretty good stuff.”

    Now if I could just entice them to comment here!

    1. Not a fan of Lucy, and the other over the top slapstick comedies. Also, too much yelling on those shows. I can just barely tolerate the infamous John Cleese on the BBC Fawlty Towers. I will probably bew for ever stuck with “Spam, Spam, Eggs and Spam…” running through my brain after the Monty Python spoof. Are there any great ones out there today?

  2. Ok, I digress. But I laughed heartily at the fat little hunting dogs in the Punch cartoon of Henery VIII hunting the monk. Why were the dogs drawn to be so fat? I know, not actually anything to do with the subject at hand. But, really, take a closer look at those dogs.
    I had an almost large as life copy of Cot’s ‘The Storm’ in my entry way opposite the front door of my house in Nevada.
    Ok, I’ll try to stay on point. Not that I’m particularly qualified to discuss the issues in this post. I haven’t watched modern American television in many years. Can’t tell you what’s on and who’s in the shows. I think the comedy show heyday was in the 80’s and 90’s. Cheers, Seinfeld, Taxi, Night Court, Fraiser, King of Queens, Raymond etc. Great comedy without the messaging. In fact they were often politically incorrect. And, the stars didn’t feel a need to blather on about their political opinions.
    I’ve never been a fan of the big screen. Damn theaters are dark, can’t talk, can’t read and ya gotta sit there for hours when there’s sooo many other things to do. Really, my only movie theater experience was at the all ranks club in Germany. The base was too small for an actual theater so we got free movies in the club. An excellent movie experience in my opinion. Alcoholic beverages just a barmaid away, comfortable seating at the bar or tables for groups, game of pool over there, maybe a poker game over in that corner. What movies did I see? Can’t remember.
    I watch mostly British TV shows, again 80’s through early 2000’s. Of course, they are geniuses with period pieces, Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abby, Mr. Selfridge, The Grand etc. And some remarkable documentaries. Gardens, Palaces and Mansions, Railroads, Villages, Museums. They have a remarkable way with presenting these shows.
    Of course their comedies are wonderful. From fairly sane to the sublime. The Brits seem be experts at poking fun at their own eccentricities. The village idiot is often a central character. If you haven’t seen Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French… Well, it’s really good for a laugh.
    Lastly, I watched some marvelous reality shows, I guess you’d call them. Centered around life in small villages during WWII. People living in towns and on farms just as they did during the war. But, without the silly drama in American shows. Actually historically accurate and informative. I really enjoyed those and others in the same vein.

  3. Posted a link at another site. Here’s an interesting comment:

    Without praising TV too much, I think it did follow this advice, though all its forms [like those of stage and cinema] have their spectrum of good and bad examples. I’d say the situation comedy is a unique form from TV, allowing writers to combine drama, comedy, character in almost any way they want, and to do so over many episodes or seasons with the same characters and setting in a way a stage drama, stage farce, or movie cannot. Similarly the episodic drama featuring the same characters possibly for years allows for as much development as you want and can write, especially when stories are told serially or otherwise in “arcs”. Full-on serial drama is another, though it harks back to movie serials, a form cinema abandoned. It’s easier now to get people to watch multiple episodes at home than drag out to a cinema every week for a new episode.

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