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Television and Icons

When we view things in our daily lives, we perceive objects in a certain context. We see things in depth. Even though we may not be concentrating on the background, we are definitely aware of a three-dimensional world surrounding us. There is a certain relationship between the tree in the front yard and the house lying some yards behind it. Within this context we are well able to assign relative values to the objects we see. No one thing assumes an exaggerated importance, since everything is seen properly related to everything else. In short, we gain a balanced view of the world.

On the other hand, one of the most important elements in the icon is what may be called the “hidden” part. Icons do not have a real background, such as we perceive in everyday life and in Western art. There is no horizon, no vanishing point to which the eye is drawn. Instead, there is nothing but a blank area behind the image itself. There is a two-dimensional quality to this part of the icon, easily understandable once we realize that we really cannot know God in all His depth. This part of the icon may be said to represent Heaven itself. From this representation of Heaven, the image flows forth toward the viewer, eventually being absorbed into the very fabric of a prayerful spirit. The lack of background does not allow us to minimize the influence of the image. Rather, the blankness behind the image enhances the perceived power of the holy one depicted. The icon is virtually propelled forward into contact with the viewer by the full force of heaven behind it.

So what does this have to do with television?

Dr. Frederick Wilhelmsen was a Catholic professor of Thomistic philosophy at the University of Dallas. Dr. Wilhelmsen was enormously influential in the Catholic intellectual world of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. In fact, many people would actually credit him with almost single-handedly preserving Thomistic philosophy in America during this trying period.

Among Wilhelmsens’s many philosophical interests was the study of intellectual formation in the age of mass media. At one point, Wilhelmsen teamed with Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian social philosopher who specialized in the study of media and its effects upon modern man.

After exhaustively studying the medium, Wilhelmsen and McLuhan discovered that the television screen presented what they called an iconic image to the viewer. They came to this conclusion after noticing that the background in a television presentation was not much of a background at all. The properties of film and the techniques of focus rendered objects behind the actors fuzzy and indistinct; just as in the icon, there was no way for the viewer to get into the world behind the images. There was no specific context surrounding the actors. With this lack of background, the action on the screen took on an exaggerated importance. Just as happens with the icon, the images in the forefront acquired a power they would not have had in ordinary circumstances. The two-dimensionality of the television medium, by chance or by design, rendered television a sort of secular icon, with enormous consequences for society.

Prayer with icons is noted for a calming quality, quite a natural thing, since the very design of the icon is meant to bring about a passivity and receptivity to God. With prayer, of course, this passivity is a wholesome thing. The more receptive we are to the things of God, the holier we become. The image impressed upon the soul through the icon is specifically a holy image and a thing beneficial for the soul.

Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said of television. The difference lies in the different type of image television promotes to the passive viewer. In its early days, television was comparatively innocuous. The shows presented, while perhaps not of a high intellectual caliber, at least were prone to present healthy family life and conventional Judeo-Christian morality in a positive light.

As time went on, however, producers became ever more keen to present shows which “pushed the envelope” of television content. Gradually, programming became more prone to shock or to titillate. Producers with specific agendas began to demand that shows reflect their own beliefs rather than the commonly held moral code of most Americans. The results are obvious: within just one generation, television went from being a relatively innocent entertainment that perhaps even promoted healthy family life to being a vehicle for promoting various unhealthy lifestyles and thoroughly un-Christian attitudes. Crudity, irresponsibility and selfishness were the social norms projected by the new programming. The background behind the secular icon came under the control, not of God, but of the ungodly. The agenda promoted through the powerful iconic images on the screen has played a large part in our current American atmosphere of violence, consumerism and sexual license. The prayerful receptivity engendered by the true icon is replaced by the sensationalistic passivity of America’s young people.

Wilhelmsen and McLuhan diagnosed a grave disease in the American psyche, but they and the Church still held out some hope for television technology. Clearly, television can be made to work for the moral betterment of society. EWTN is obviously using the medium in a responsible way to promote the values of God; the images impressed upon the young by EWTN are distinctly at odds with those of the average producer. There are, unfortunately, very few Mother Angelicas among TV producers.

Homeschooling parents are aware of the dangers facing their children through television, although perhaps the mechanics of the danger are not fully understood. There is good reason to consider the stance of one parent who commented to the effect that a TV can make a serviceable end table, as long as it remains unplugged.

About Bob Wiesner

Bob earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Christendom College and his M.A. in Theological Studies from Maryknoll School of Theology. His passions include classical music, iconography and history. Meet Bob
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