Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Seurat knew a lot about dots...

As a child, I watched as much television as I could.

I grew up in Chicago and mornings belonged to WGN, channel 9, with Ray Raynor who hosted an almost completely non-educational program, Ray and Friends. Featuring Bugs Bunny cartoons and a Goose that danced to Disco Music, this was the ideal venue to numb your mind before going to school while checking on the weather and traffic (seriously, traffic reports from flying officer Jim Cavenaugh). The afternoons, on the other hand, belonged to WFLD, channel 32, which had a wide variety of prerecorded mindless entertainment including Spider Man cartoons and The Monkees. Neither the AM or the PM was remotely enriching, save the expansion of my vocabulary and sense of humor way beyond what the sock puppets at PBS could offer.

In our contemporary world my parents would seem near abusive for their willful neglect of my development on an intellectual level. They let me sit in front of the TV for hours each day with little or no restriction on what I watched. There was one rule, however. We needed to be no closer than six feet from the TV screen. We were told at the time that was to avoid damage to our eyes. In reality, it was likely more for the fact that  three electron guns in the back of the cathode ray tube were pouring out enough electrons to cast an image of our skeletons on the neighbor's house. Seriously, even at six feet, I feel the radiation still reached the nuclei of our brain cells and are probably to blame for why we are all so fat now. 

Before you judge my parents harshly for letting me rot on the living room floor whilst sipping on my fourth glass of Nestle Quik that hour, you must remember one thing. It was because of our decadent, Roman-style orgy of TV pleasure and sloth that commercial television took its first steps toward becoming good for us to watch. I and the rest of my generation were pioneers in the wilderness. Life was hard for us in the developing jungle TV world that provided little in the way of educational sustenance. And don't talk to me about Public Broadcasting and how it was always a source of educational fare. The first naked woman's breasts I ever saw was on the Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW, channel 11, on a Masterpiece Theater drama presentation of,  "I Claudius". No wonder Elmo was inappropriate with those young men. Stick that in your fund raising tote bag.

We sacrificed good grades and test scores to serve as a warning that TV needed to change. Programers faced the dilemma of loosing their young and highly impressionable viewers if something didn't change. They feared that some parents, probably the ones with good educations and high paying consulting jobs, would steer their children away from the Magnavox-nannies and into the fresh air of the outside world if TV didn't teach these kids something. We were the hostages that brought about change. To keep us watching, we needed to learn. The shows stayed the same. The commercial breaks changed.

Of the 30 minutes allotted to a half hour television program, only 22 minutes is programming and the remainder of the time, 26%, is advertizing. Broadcasters agreed that one of those minutes each half hour should be dedicated to programing that would teach these round faced children something that could be repeated to their parents proving they learned something from TV. This was how my much younger self first learned of Georges Seurat.

A French born draftsman and artist, Seurat is best known for his work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It took him two years to create his 10 foot wide masterpiece which depicts all social classes enjoying a peaceful afternoon by the water. It's hallmark is the painting style which incorporates dots of color instead of blended colors. Between episodes of Speed Buggy and Ricochet Rabbit, I saw the painting, the women in skirts with bustles, men in top hats and formal jackets, and one reclining figure in a tank top, ball cap, and a pipe next to a monkey. The narrator ended the minute of education with the phrase, "Seurat knew a lot about dots."

A few days ago, on a day some 35 years after the aforementioned lesson, I happened to find myself in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I lay on the grass, reclining after sharing an impromptu picnic lunch with my family and resting in relief of the long, warm morning. While shaking off the fatigue brought about by sight-seeing, my 15 year old son looked over at me and said, "Hey dad, you look like that guy from the Seurat painting; the guy with the monkey and the pipe." I had taught my son of Seurat, the artist television had taught me about. Living close to Chicago, my son and I had seen the painting many times in the Art Institute. With eyes closed I saw it in my mind and realized he was right.

Here is what my 15 year old son saw, juxtaposed with the actual work of art.

From Mr. Seurat's 1886 work in Paris, to a television screen in 1975 in a Chicago suburb, to a 2013 afternoon in Paris, it all came together. It seems only logical that I may just be that guy, represented 127 years before my visit, somewhat out of place in society yet a center of attention. Most of all I believe I am destined to be in Paris is some way or another.

Thank you television for giving me a cyclic moment in my life and bringing two loose ends, and a father and son, together. You have been and always shall be my friend. Now I would like to watch some Speed Racer and have a glass of Nestle Quik, please.