In Short

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Ernie Kovacs, called the father of video art by some, hailed by critics, misunderstood by audiences, was a television genius. His work has had lasting effects on the television industry. He pulled from the methods of the Dada and Surrealist movements, bringing them to a new medium. Whether or not he had a political agenda was never explicitly stated by him or any of his friends, family or acquaintances, but I believe he did.

If there was a medium that needed to be released from “its role as the stupefying veneer on a society whose values no longer could be sustained,” (Dachy 13) it was television. Kovacs was a practitioner of counter-distinction, the business of blurring taste-lines. His character, Eugene, was commonly used to this effect due to his status as low class, as an ‘every man.’ Eugene would show up in high class settings, like a country club or museum, and mess things up due to his ignorance of high culture. This is clearly an anti-bourgeois tool, because it is used in the destruction of class lines. Kovacs also used this tool in the creation of his vertical montages where he would contrast garish or markedly low class imagery with a high class piece of music, the most famous of which is probably Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. (starts at 1:24)

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This kind of counter-distinction can easily be linked to another, that of famous Dadaist Marcel DuChamp.

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp

The Dada and Surrealist’s had also found an effective tool for defeating the stupefying power of television in reflexivity. Reflexivity pointed out that the medium, television, was a tool for sending a message, whether they perceived it as a good or bad message, and inspired viewers to question what was happening when they watched. This ad for Kovacs’ favorite Dutch Masters Cigars displays several instances of reflexivity including addressing the camera, the introduction of a stage hand and the tricking of the audience at the end.

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This commercial does pose one problem for the argument. Many people believe that commercialism disqualifies a thing from being art, an easy baggage to pick up but a hard one for an artist to carry. The Dada’s would definitely agree with this sentiment, but I feel that the Surrealists had no problem with art making money. While the Dada’s were trying to fix society with a tabula rasa, the surrealists had accepted the end of the bourgeois world and became concerned with what was next. I don’t think money would’ve been such an important issue to them, anymore. It also may be seen as a necessary evil to gain access to the medium. If commercialism is required to work within a particular medium, does that still disqualify it from art-hood?

Now, to end the show, Ernie Kovacs:

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It’s been real.