Can American TV, and ER, Be Art?

Dear Kathryn,

Wednesday nights (when ER is on) begin with skepticism and end in rapture. I can’t believe that the program is going to meet my art-critical standards, but it does. The traumas and dramas, the jokes and intimacies of County General Hospital emergency room–the ER in question–sweep me up. The series knows its limitations, but it is art of a very high order indeed.

I don’t have to take sides in the elite versus popular culture wars to champion ER. It is enough to draw attention to its excellence. It has evolved a distinctive aesthetic, a distinctive feel and vision. It moves through a wide array of moods–from farce to romance, from pathos to high drama. Sometimes it is clever–witness the allusions to Reservoir Dogs in the episode directed by Quentin Tarantino. It flirts with kitsch, it dabbles in parody, but it knows when to stop.

Characters like Romano or Jerry may come close to caricature, but art has a place for this–and here they are brilliantly done. And the central characters, with their all too human foibles, their imperfect beauty and life-saving zeal, draw us in. The minor characters, too, are invariably played by the strong character actors so common in the United States. ER takes us out of ourselves and, like the best fiction, gives us contact with a heightened reality.

You have written about George Eliot, and I would hesitate to compare ER to her infinitely subtle novels. Yet the series has some of the qualities of the 19th-century novel. Both have dramatic plots, comic minor characters, and keen social observation; and both are marked by moral seriousness. Didn’t Dickens’ novels first appear in serial form? If ER is sometimes sentimental, wasn’t he?

America is a funny place. It can be the crass, corrupt, and unfeeling country depicted by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities, where rich and poor live in separate worlds. But it also remains in many respects the most democratic of countries. Status counts for little. This is the aspect of American life expressed in ER. It depicts men and women, black and white, working together; and it sets out quite consciously to drive home certain lessons–about health and violence, but also about fairness and respect. In the United States, where broadcasting has become ghettoized, it is almost the only show watched by blacks and whites. Blacks don’t watch Friends, whites don’t watch Moesha, but both tune in to ER.

The interesting question is not whether ER is art–obviously it is–but how it comes to be such old-fashioned art. We are told that we live in postmodern times. The real has given way to the simulated, grand narrative to little stories. ER, though, does not fit this scheme. Its leading characters labor together, united by an old-fashioned work ethic. In the emergency room all the divisions of American society are overcome. Doubtless Dr. Anspaugh takes home rather more than Nurse Hathaway, but we aren’t reminded of that. Socialist artists–Charlie Chaplin, the painters Fernand Leger and Diego Rivera–would have understood ER.

Of course art does not have to serve progressive causes. But it adds to its power when it does. George Eliot’s novels condemn the subjection of women and Jews, they take aim at religious cant, moral hypocrisy, and commercial greed. In the end, Middlemarch and ER move us in much the same way.

Yours, Ben

Dear Ben,

I share your disbelieving rapture that television could ever get this good, but is ER art? Well, no. It’s a magnificent achievement, but it does not do the specific and important work of art. Unlike George Eliot’s novels, which you cite as a paradigm, ER neither extends nor explores the limits of its own genre. When Eliot put the “working day world” into her novels, she was doing something revolutionary. But when the producers of ER chose to set their drama in the workplace, they were staying firmly within the parameters set by Steven Bochco in the mid-1980s with Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. With good reason: setting a series in an office or police station provides a central, socially stratified setting from which story lines can be compactly generated. And using an accident and emergency setting is hardly breaking new ground.

You say that ER is “old-fashioned art” and that its emphasis on shared endeavor and grand narrative represents a heroic rebuttal of postmodernism, with its small, whiny stories (were you thinking of Ally McBeal?). But ER places itself entirely in relation to other television narratives, and spends too much time playing postmodern games. Take that Tarantino episode. The allusions to Reservoir Dogs (itself generated from a web of references to other movies) undercut what little relationship ER had with social reality. The sight of Dr. Lewis and Nurse Hathaway in wraparound shades broke a trust in the storytelling process that took several episodes to repair.

I agree that if Dickens were around today he’d be writing TV drama. As you say, ER is stuffed with the kinds of caricatures he liked. Kerry Weaver’s tics–the unexplained crutch, the management-speak–is a prime example. But Dickens, like the directors of ER, was not producing art. George Eliot, by contrast, was–and the proof lies in the absence of stereotypes in her work. Even her minor characters have lives that seem to have begun before the novels open and continue long after they have ended.

By contrast, when the characters in ER are taken out of context, they crumble into dust. Remember the episode when Peter Benton went to work in the Deep South? Or what about the two hours we were forced to watch Mark Greene return to his hometown and look after his ailing mother?

Another mark of Eliot’s artistry is that she didn’t create idealizations either. She demanded that people look like people, with potato heads, bad skin, and odd sniffs. You say that the main characters have an “imperfect beauty.” But I can’t see much that is imperfect about them. They look like a team of gods and goddesses descended from the sky, who have decided for some reason to don surgical gloves. ER scarcely pushes back the boundaries of what television drama demands aesthetically of its main players.

Art is often ugly, usually difficult, sometimes boring. It doesn’t care whether it pleases, and indeed it would rather not. It refuses to give up its meaning without a fight, and insists that we work hard to make some sense of what is going on. ER is brilliant television, but it doesn’t have the power to make up the world in a new way. I love it, but it isn’t art.

Yours, Kathryn

Dear Kathryn,

You say that I offer George Eliot as a paradigm. Nothing could be further from the case. You evidently see her as such, which is why you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge ER‘s claim to art. But to do so is to take a very narrow–even, I am afraid, stuffy–view of art.

Art comes in many forms. Sometimes it is a collective endeavor (the Gothic cathedrals), sometimes intensely individual (Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia). It can appeal to a small group (Schoenberg) or to a whole people (Greek tragedy, Elizabethan drama). You say art is “usually difficult, sometimes boring.” But it is, just as often, easy (Oscar Wilde’s plays), and sometimes thrilling–ER. When you refer to “the specific and important work” art does, I hear echoes of all those guardians of high art, sure on a priori grounds that art cannot be too popular and cannot exist in a modern medium.

You are forcing “art” into a narrow mold, implying that it needs to “break with tradition” or at least “explore and extend the limits of its own boundaries.” But you underestimate the role tradition, convention, and genre play in art. You complain that the producers of ER set their drama in the workplace, like other shows, but was Shakespeare less of a poet because he “stayed firmly within the parameters” of the sonnet?

In any case, ER does “extend” and “explore” its own genre. Look at its lead characters. They come in as types, as they tend to in any narrative: Elizabeth Corday the troubled Englishwoman; Benton the angry, driven African American; Carter the dissatisfied WASP. In time, however, these labels fall aside to reveal real people. And because it is a series, they are given time to breathe. You say that Eliot’s characters have lives seemingly real enough to exist outside her novels. It seems to me that ER‘s characters have just this “real” quality. Art has to meet certain standards–it has to be technically expert, relatively self-aware, enduring in its appeal. But it does not have to have all the qualities you think it requires.

Yours, Ben

P.S.: The idea that Dickens was not a serious artist is absurd. You were joking, I presume?

Dear Ben,

You’ve got me wrong. I can’t abide the sniffy attitude that just because something is popular or pleasurable it must be second-rate. As someone who started her working life on the fashion pages of a glossy magazine, I know what it feels like to be the casualty of other people’s intellectual insecurity. Women, I recall, were the worst offenders.

So I was delighted when in the early 1980s the cultural studies revolution transformed the way in which we were allowed to think about, and admit to liking, popular culture.

But now, like most insurrectionaries, I wonder if the revolution hasn’t gone too far. I gave up glossy magazines, retrained, and now teach university students. The 20-year-olds I meet in the seminar room have received their entire education in the postmodern age. I am shocked by how little discomfort they can bear in confronting a difficult text. I long ago gave up expecting all but the very keenest (often mature) students to get through Middlemarch. Mostly they watch it on video and hope for the best. I am besieged for advice about which courses involve the least reading.

So you see why I am edgy about elevating ER to art. It bothers me that a work as comfortable, regressive even, as ER should be given the status you claim for it. For if ER is allowed to bask in this central cultural space, then what place is there for the difficult, uncomfortable, or downright odd piece of work?

I do not, as you suggest, assume that anything that appears in a “modern medium” cannot be art. There is, in fact, an American import (now canceled in the U.S.) that might qualify as art. Homicide: Life on the Street is on the face of it a formulaic cop show. But it does things that ER only pretends to do–it makes the everyday and the real its subject matter. Homicide once did a whole episode on what happened when the station lavatory flooded. The main characters spent their time tip-toeing on planks, trying not to gag. That, it seems to me, is taking risks. That, indeed, is art.

Yours, Kathryn

Kathryn Hughes is the author of George Eliot: The Last Victorian (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999). Ben Rogers is the author of AJ Ayer: A Life (Chatto and Windus, 1999).

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