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TV by Design

Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television

While critics have long disparaged commercial television as a vast wasteland, TV has surprising links to the urbane world of modern art that stretch back to the 1950s and ’60s During that era, the rapid rise of commercial television coincided with dynamic new movements in the visual arts—a potent combination that precipitated a major shift in the way Americans experienced the world visually. TV by Design uncovers this captivating story of how modernism and network television converged and intertwined in their mutual ascent during the decades of the cold war.

Whereas most histories of television focus on the way older forms of entertainment were recycled for the new medium, Lynn Spigel shows how TV was instrumental in introducing the public to the latest trends in art and design. Abstract expressionism, pop art, art cinema, modern architecture, and cutting-edge graphic design were all mined for staging techniques, scenic designs, and an ever-growing number of commercials. As a result, TV helped fuel the public craze for trendy modern products, such as tailfin cars and boomerang coffee tables, that was vital to the burgeoning postwar economy. And along with influencing the look of television, many artists—including Eero Saarinen, Ben Shahn, Saul Bass, William Golden, and Richard Avedon—also participated in its creation as the networks put them to work designing everything from their corporate headquarters to their company cufflinks.
Dizzy Gillespie, Ernie Kovacs, Duke Ellington, and Andy Warhol all stop by in this imaginative and winning account of the ways in which art, television, and commerce merged in the first decades of the TV age.

Read an excerpt.

402 pages | 52 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Art: American Art

Culture Studies

History: American History

Media Studies


TV by Design is an extraordinary examination of television in specific cultural contexts.  As in her earlier book, Make Room for TV, Lynn Spigel has uncovered—or recovered—details that alter our histories of the medium, especially as related to other arts. For those who experienced it in the years she examines, the rush of memory and the re-placement of images, scenes, and personalities are sharp reminders of why TV became and remains so important.”

Horace Newcomb, editor of Encyclopedia of Television

“Borrowing from French new wave cinema as much as abstract expressionism and pop art, television in Spigel’s riveting account embraced modernism and participated in the taste wars of the 1950s and 1960s. In turn, art museums such as MoMA partnered with broadcast television and artists found employment at the networks; certainly this is the best account of Warhol’s engagement with commercial television.By highlighting the dynamic and fluid relations between network television and modernism in painting, graphic design, and architecture, TV by Design challenges binaries between high and low, mainstream television and oppositional artistic practice.”--Cécile Whiting, author of Pop L.A.: Art and the City in the 1960s

Cécile Whiting

“At the heart of her argument is the need to understand the development of television not just by way of popular programming but also through aspects of TV culture thought of as outliers: network mission statements, corporate-branding campaigns, interdisciplinary educational initiatives, and, especially, early forms of advertising. By seizing on patterns in this larger environment, TV by Design opens the television era up to crosscurrents all too easily neglected or ignored.”


"Spigel demonstrates the deep connections between peoples’ lived experiences of art and how television challenges the binaries between artistic practices and the making of television. . . . Highly recommended."


"Spigel’s narrative offers us an important, and immensely riveting, reminder that the convergence of art and media is always riddled with historical-material struggle."

Nadja Millner-Larsen | International Journal of Communication

Table of Contents



1. Hail! Modern Art: Postwar “American” Painting and the Rise of Commercial TV

2. An Eye for Design: Corporate Art at CBS

3. Setting the Stage at Television City: Modern Architecture, TV Studios, and Set Design

4. Live From New York—It’s MoMA!: Television, The Housewife, and the Museum of Modern Art

5. Silent TV: Ernie Kovacs and the Noise of Mass Culture

6. One-Minute Movies: Art Cinema, Youth Culture, and TV Commercials in the 1960s

7. Warhol TV: From Media Scandals to Everyday Boredom

Epilogue: Reframing Television/Unframing Art



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