Krushing On Kurtzman...Or Summer Reading For Media Eggheads

The glazed look in my daughter’s eyes is the signal that Dad just slipped back into Professor mode.

“We talking here or are you lecturing?” she jibes, since this routine has been going on now for all of her 21 years. It can be triggered by just about any media moment about which I just have to (have to) give her the entire history, peppered with critical observations.

“Interesting,” she says with a monotone waterlogged by irony. No joke. Dad, then an Asst. Prof. at UVA, used to entertain his infant daughter in her swing chair with endless tapes of early Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

I thought I was cultivating a media critic. In retrospect, she regarded it as "Clockwork Orange"’s Ludovico Treatment but with slapstick. “What did you think you were building there, Frankenstein?” I credit her sarcasm to Bugs Bunny (18 months to 2.5 years-old, Loony Tunes with heavy rotation on directors Avery, Clampett, Jones). It was not for nothing.

Tiresome to friends and family as a lapsed academic (with flashbacks) can be, every once in a while I am asked to pontificate on media history. The intersection of gowns and mad men is longstanding. In my own doctoral dissertation on popular intellectuals between the world wars I had sections devoted to Edward L. Bernays (father of PR) and John B. Watson, (father of behaviorism and eventual executive at J. Walter Thompson). These two embodied a spirit of early 20th-century advertising that saw the institution as an intellectual wing of modern consumer capitalism.

I bring this all up because mobile media is at that great historic moment that film was in 1910, radio was in the late 1920s, TV was in the late 40s. This is the moment when a new medium struggles to locate its unique aesthetic and social components, find a place within our media rituals, and evolve new forms of expression. It is not a bad idea for the people thinking about “mobile” and the larger concept of “mobility” and media to dip back into some of the people of the last century who helped liberate thinking about their “new media” from its predecessors and free it to find its own forms.

This idea comes to mind this week with the otherwise unheralded arrival in digital form of the first 27 issues of MAD magazine on devices via Comixology and DC comics. MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman (also creator of Trump, Humbug and Help magazines as well as Little Annie Fannie for Playboy) is among the most important figures in 20-century popular culture. As the oversized, HD and frame by frame rendering of MAD on the iPad illustrates, Kurtzman gave us a way of seeing modern mass media from a comfortable distance. Interestingly to me, the deep immersion in high resolution versions of this art on a device fairly well mimics a direct encounter with the original art that can be found in the incredibly pricey IDW “Artist’s Edition” reprints of the same art.  But let’s save that for a separate discussion on mobile devices and immersion.   

Kurtzman’s innovations in satire essentially unhooked the entertainment industrial complex and its advertisers from their authority for several generations of artists and consumers. Everything from counter-cultural underground comics to Saturday Night Live send-ups to the frantic pop culture referencing of "Simpsons" and "Family Guy" can be sourced back to this one guy and his corral of brilliant artists in 27 issues of a magazine published across a few years in the early 1950s. One argument to be made about Kurtzman’s importance is not that he deflated pop culture genres and ad pitches by exposing their silliness. He actually challenged everyone to make them better.

The enduring theme of important American pop culture criticism of the last century (or at least the stuff worth reading at this mobile moment) is how democratic thinkers sought to understand a popular craze rather than dismiss it. Vachel Lindsay, American poet, who wrote The Art of the Moving Picture in 1915, took film seriously when few others of his class did. He openly appreciated and located the core aesthetic uniqueness of film in likening it to ancient hieroglyphics and emphasizing the unique sensations of “splendor” it evoked in audiences. The sheer abstractness of his poetic encounter with film is liberating and reminds us how the most important media introduce new sensations and situations that creators need to locate.

Gilbert Seldes, critic, intellectual gadfly and eventual first Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication, is to formal pop culture criticism what Kurtzman is to media satire. All roads lead back to him and The 7 Lively Arts. He took all the modern forms -- jazz, silent comedy, vaudeville, comic strips, dance -- as seriously as he did James Joyce when this same critic helped introduce the literary giant to American audiences. Like Lindsay, Seldes sought the unique qualities and experiences inherent in emerging forms. He also dared to say that Krazy Kat, Al Jolson and a good jazz riff were aesthetically more satisfying than much of what passed for high culture. Most important, Seldes was a genuine democrat. He believed media criticism was the responsibility of citizens. The reason that much of popular culture is trash, even he admitted, was because no one asked more of it.

I date myself in these next two choices, because more recent intellectual histories of media are more prevalent now in academia. Still, to understand how new media forms come into a culture and are shaped by conversations and political power around it, there is no better overview than Daniel J. Czitrom’s Media and the American Mind. From the telegraph to TV, American thinkers have met each new medium with both extravagant democratic hopes (empowering the populace) and fears of mass corruption. Neither happens, largely because industrial and political forces so thoroughly domesticate whatever is liberating or dangerous in the forms. The added benefit of Czitrom’s history is that it covers McLuhan cogently so that you don’t have to suffer through The Gutenberg Galaxy. Extra class credit for pairing Czitrom with Paul Starr’s superb The Creation of Media, which drills into the creation of a political/regulatory infrastructure that directed and limited the creative choices possible in electronic media. Both of these histories are great cautionary tales as we watch mobile platforms take shape. It reminds us that a lot of the early enthusiastic talk about a medium often misses the true and deeper implications of its arrival.       

You want “native advertising?” I will give you native advertising. The long lost but wildly popular humor mag of the 1930s Ballyhoo was a precursor of MAD and among the first to spoof modern advertising. But Ballyhoo also decided at one point to run real ads from sponsors but only if they embodied the spoofery of the magazine content. Ballyhoo staff became the first native ad team, crafting ads for clients that were indistinguishable from Ballyhoo lampoons. As marketers preen about “native” and “content” initiatives, one wonders if any of them would really be brave enough to try something like this now.

History can be as stultifying as it can be liberating. Every new medium, like mobile, needs to find its own native qualities, audience relationships and sensations that are apart from predecessors. As was true with film, radio and TV, we don’t ourselves fully understand yet the nature and depth of our attachment to these devices. But part of that process of reimagination can be accessing those minds that struggled with the problem before. Not only does media have a history -- but the intellectual, social, political and aesthetic struggles over those media have histories too.  

1 comment about "Krushing On Kurtzman...Or Summer Reading For Media Eggheads".
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  1. Demos Ioannou from DCI Consulting LLC, July 18, 2013 at 5:40 p.m.

    What? Me worry? More like befuddlement on my part. I don't know if there was as much attention paid to the yet-unrecognized-cultural-impact of the movie and radio industries in the early 1900's... but mobile?! Honestly, I think the amount of attention being given is stultifying in its own way. Sure, it's the newest and most measurable media we've ever had. The research is exciting, too. However, it is disproportionate to the impact that it is having. So far, it's ability to augment other media has been a tremendous blind spot for advertisers as well. I guess what I would like to see is how mobile works as part of the larger media mix.
    I think this was a great article, by the way...

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