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From Gustave Courbet to Jerry Springer

Presented at the Conference of the Northeastern Popular Culture Association

By Keith Miller

When I admit to my enthusiasm for the Jerry Springer show, I am usually met with looks that range from disgust to confusion. I suppose there were admirers of Gustave Courbet who felt a comparable sense of frustration. The fraternal relationship I feel with the fans of Courbet stems from the similarity I see between the painter and the talk show host.

Both Gustave Courbet and Jerry Springer scandalize by creating a ‘realistic’ portrayal of real life. But it is not the real life of the beautiful, holy or royal seen throughout western painting. Nor is it the heroes and heroines so numerous on television. Instead it is the dregs of society that are granted the communication format par excellence of their time, thus legitimizing an inherently illegitimate underclass. Represented in monumental canvases and "unscripted" shows on national television, these people —trailer trash, adulterers, racists, workers, libidinous and obese women, among others— receive a voice which, in a sense, is taken from those accustomed to it. Both Springer and Courbet work with similar tools: ‘low’ culture, shock and realism. The manifestations of these parallels are not necessarily so similar, but many of the details are, as well as the ideas behind them. With these similar points of departure, the reaction of their audiences —with 150 years to separate them— bear a strange resemblance.

For both Springer and Courbet, the first element of their creative endeavor consists of the shock value of realistic portrayal of ‘low’ culture. In that sense Courbet, the founder of Realism, is an obvious precursor of his American TV counterpart because he, as well as Springer, "search for the squalid and depressing as a means of life-enhancement" (Linda and Peter Murray, "A Dictionary of Art and Artists"). Although it might seem tawdry and intellectually insulting to some, scavenging the emotional and social trash of a society is, in this case, an attempt to bring some good to light. The hope is that by revealing the societal underbelly one might more clearly see society. This revelation, though, does not come about by blankly looking toward the ugly side of the world but by deliberately choosing and framing situations that will therefore illuminate the viewer.

The implications of Courbet’s major paintings, as well as the Jerry Springer show, can be easily overlooked due to their apparent connection to tradition as well as their apparently mundane quality. They are transcendent and revealing not despite this wretchedly quotidian nature but because of it.

In that sense Courbet’s oeuvre must be seen in light of the most important event in the life of France in the 19th century: the optimism of the revolution of 1848. Similarly, Springer must be seen in the shadow of the pessimism of late capitalism. The contradiction, and therefore inherent difference between the two and their time, can explain the difference in tone manifest in the two products. Courbet’s creation of an alternative exhibition space, outside the of the Salon, laid the foundation for the modernist notion of the artist as the misunderstood hero, needing to create his or her own forum due to the hermetic nature of conservative society. In a society that neglects or even denies the voice of the underclass, the Jerry Springer show offers a visible forum to prove the contrary. By giving voice to the underclass he is in a sense setting a standard for the future of electronic media.

The scavenger quality, which makes Courbet's paintings so jarring and seemingly accidental, is the stuff of our time. The throwing together of disparate elements and leaving their choreography to chance, or at least being accused of doing so, was a stroke of genius. Early chaos theory. Who knew what would explode?

It is with a similar chaotic desire that one watches the Jerry Springer show. It is possible that every time you turn it on it will be the great show. The multitude of combinations might not always be explosive but the inherent possibility of the show is that they can be. Each viewing offers the possibility of some new form of shock and sensationalism.

Obviously, Jerry didn’t invent his medium and neither did Courbet. The talk show has existed in various forms since the beginning of TV. Phil Donahue may be the father of the issue-based talk show but Geraldo Rivera is responsible for putting salsa on the taco. Getting his nose broke as he attacked and was attacked by the nazi guests of his show had to have been one of the most comic-heroic moments of "real life" TV.

Before Courbet, art had represented the rabble of society in the many forms of genre painting, since at least the 16th century. However, the difference lay in that the earlier painters had bestowed beauty and humility (in design and scale) upon their subjects that were compatible with their place in society. Hence, the real forebear of Courbet is Caravaggio, who depicted his peers on a grand scale without pretense or beautification. Caravaggio, however, was unruffled by the taboo of representation of his time. His work did not shy away from portraying his class as he saw them without making a spectacle of them and in so doing brought out the beauty he saw within them. The sense of the world he painted was extremely personal and without the overt pretension to shock. His subject was the reality of the people he depicted whereas Courbet focused more deliberately on the reality of the world he envisioned and was willing to exploit his subjects for his own spectacle. Caravaggio was in that sense more ‘accidentally’ subversive: he painted what he knew and treated his subjects with respect and depth; the resultant scandal caused by his work was not the focus of his work, just an inevitable outcome. Courbet’s paintings were about not only the issues of the painting but also the ensuing scandal. If Jerry is talk TV's Courbet, then Phil Donahue was it's Caravaggio.

Before the now famous Geraldo brawl, television was more prosaic, idealistic and, finally, distant from the real life of everyday people. Could anyone relate to Johnny Carson chatting carefree with Lindsay Wagner? Did we see our lives reflected in the deliberately tragic whirlwind of J.R. and Dallas? Daytime TV was filled with real drama which men and women savored as placebos to enrich their uneventful lives (thus the reason men had to deny taking part in the ritual of loving and hating daytime TV characters was that their lives were supposed to be somehow 'more complete'). Melrose Place and ER do not let us in on the realities of everyday people: they are funnier, more interesting, more sexy. In a word: more.

Prior to Courbet, Romanticism, Neoclassicism and Rococo portrayed worlds which could not possibly be connected to the viewers’ world (and were valued for precisely that reason). From Fragonard to David, painters offered a sensuous escape from the everyday or an elevated and sober moral lesson in graceful and elegant visual terms. Their realities were erudite, enriched, lush (in a word: more). The shock of Geraldo's broken nose was not that he was actually fighting or that he really broke his nose (did anyone care?) but that he was in a real situation. That vivid reality had quick repercussions with the networks: real sells. Too often that is taken to mean quasi-documentary style police shows (which seem less real than NYPD Blue). The true followers in the shock of this new verité were the other talk show hosts who saw that real people wanted real things. However, just as the post-1848 Courbet realized, while the people want to see themselves reflected they also want scandal. The "real" should be taken to a higher and more charged level while never losing the grittiness of everyday life. The presentation should be jarring, larger than life, even absurd. If one is addressing an elite, that implies representations of them or at least the world as seen through their eyes; if one is talking to the whole of society, with a desire to shock and even offend that upper class, that must include the ‘low culture’, albeit sensationally represented. Enter Jerry Springer.

The Jerry Springer show makes no pretension to intellectual or emotional purity like so many others in the field. To wit, the sobbing Oprah seemed almost comic after so many instances. The idea that these shows might sincerely deal with contemporary issues is one that makes television only for the emotionally sensitive, leaving out the more crass side of society, and producers know it. The seriousness they cultivate comes across as a mockery to those less prone to tears. Conversely, Jerry swaggers confidently through the audience and lets the lovers and wives do what they came to do: be on TV and be sensational.

There are moments of chaos on the show when the viewer is unable to decipher the various elements participating (the married cousins shouting at the gay brother’s lover...) and then, in steps Jerry. The screaming guests and the audience get emotionally involved until nothing remains but brawling and yelling. The sound is an aural blur of beeps censoring the madness. After the cacophony has built to a climax, Jerry impishly holds up his hand, smiles and shouts "Hellooooo! Remember me?" The chaos clears, the audience applauds and the brawlers sit side by side as the show cuts to a commercial. Jerry has somehow descended beatifically upon the crazed situation which, a moment earlier, seemed completely beyond order. His smiling face assures us that there is order in all of this, even if we, the viewers, feel that only Jerry really sees the big picture.

In the same manner, Courbet offers himself in the center of his enormous "The Studio" to define the terms of the discussion at hand, or at least to give the viewer a clue that it contains some cohesive idea. Even if one is hard pressed to siphon meaning out of this 'real allegory', somehow the central figure of Courbet, carefree, painting a landscape, gives a sense of order to the mass of figures randomly strewn throughout the room. His figure lets us know that there is a broader vision at work there, and we need not get it to enjoy the experience. In fact, looking at the chaos of the canvas one returns to Courbet again and again, just as the viewer is always reassured and somewhat relieved when the camera flashes to Jerry, whether he looks puzzled, indignant or sarcastically amused.

It is these protagonists, painter and talk show host, who give order to the apparent disorder, the cryptic deeper meaning that seems so latent in both the paintings and the show. It is the candid and genuine air of both which legitimizes the seeming illegitimacy they host. The commercial breaks ask us if we are in any number of sordid, strange or otherwise sensational situations, in which case we should "Please call Jerry". The 'please' is so strikingly sincere one can almost hear the young Courbet humbly asking the laborer and his son to model for his "The stone breakers", his first truly scandalous work.

Courbet placed the stone workers in what had to be consciously awkward positions. Their faces hidden, their clothes rough, they are contrary to any beautifying ideals of the painting of his time. He did not 'find' them like that and quickly place them on the canvas. These are models he deliberately placed in those poses and in that setting. That is obvious and in no way lessens the meaning of the painting.

The attempt to discredit the Jerry Springer show by claiming that the guests are coached is also a side issue: these are real people in an absurd scenario who are quite probably coached, but that does not negate the reality of their situation. One cannot doubt the veracity of the interactions. The bodyguards, of course, wait just long enough for the first swings and then gleefully restrain all, letting the tension rise to a well-calculated pitch. At times they even seem annoyed. The participants seem exaggeratedly angry, upset, indignant, etc. So what if they are coached? Are we to believe that those attending the funeral in Courbet's "Burial at Ornans" were ever actually in that position? The dimensions of the canvas (10'3" x 21'9") make that seem highly unlikely. Courbet's work is not about the momentary such as is the work of Degas, for example. It is not about the temporal or the intensity of the moment per se. Instead, it is about the reality of those people placed in the unlikely situation of an immense canvas. Jerry's guests are not supposed to be seen with the ingenuity of a zoo, as if in their natural setting. The reality of both the paintings and the show is not their landscape or their setting but the people seen as individuals: regular people given the space previously reserved for others. Within that context, their ordinariness might very well be offensive, exaggerated, and manipulated by the artist, but we the viewers know that they are "real" people. The backdrop is secondary to their presence. What is of consequence is who we see and how we see them. What is important is that we see them.

The selection process for both Gustave and Jerry is elemental to the meaning of what is portrayed. The shocking and scandalous is significant in both. Even after his artistic peak, Courbet was still able to shock. That becomes clear in the still surprising erotic/pornographic painting "L'Origine du monde"(1886), which in today's post-playboy world would simply be called a beaver shot. Then and now, beaver shots shock. The woman behind the image is never seen as real. Instead she is only as an object of male desire, subject to the male gaze.

Subverting that reality by humanizing the woman/object is unsettling to say the least. While it can be argued that the female nudes of Courbet are set up to be morsels for the male gaze it can also be seen that his images represent the woman in her space of personal pleasure inured to the male gaze. As Jasmine sat calmly with her legs crossed and discussed her recent feat (having had sex with 300 men in one session, thus breaking a "world record" (who keeps track?)), the odd thing was how ‘normal’ she was. Despite a subtext of incredulity and moralizing on Jerry’s part, she seemed more coherent than a male dominated and morally conservative society would have permitted a porn star to be. Despite his moralizing, his show did give voice to her, a person whose voice had been, socially speaking, absent or invisible. Through that public voice Jasmine came out the most normal of all the guests who appeared that day.

Despite Springer’s occasional moral tone, the nature of the show makes it seem obvious that his moralizing is somewhat tongue in cheek. Similarly, Courbet seems to have maintained a constant sense of humor throughout his work. Although he was obstinate and opinionated, he maintains a sense of irony throughout most of his more profound work, such as in his "The Studio, a real allegory of a seven year phase of my artistic life". One might even suspect that both are somehow laughing at everything that occurs within their respective theaters. Both seem to be aware of, and are not bothered by, the ridiculous nature of it all, simultaneously understanding the deeper meaning implied.

Thus it should come as no surprise the variety of reactions I come up against when I profess my enthusiasm for the Jerry Springer show. The repulsion is similar to the reactions to Courbet's paintings in his time. It is not only the shocking, sensational and petty nature of the Jerry Springer show, but also the fact that these scoundrels from the dregs of society (morally, socially, economically or otherwise) are given the very same treatment that might be afforded Helen Hunt or Tiger Woods. According to a tacit agreement in decent society, these cross dressers, porn stars, adulterers or whatever they might be, do not deserve to be treated with such respect, just as the common folk were not worthy of the monumental scale given them by Courbet. It is as if we as a society had agreed that the legitimacy of television should not be used to debase the viewers (or the guests) who see themselves apart, as somehow superior to these ‘others’. The viewing public, presently of television and a century and a half ago of oil painting, accepts the position of privilege proffered them by the distance of the two mediums. That, it is believed, is the luxury of viewing.

In this sense Jerry Springer’s shows and "Courbet's paintings were socially inflammatory not so much because of what they said - they contain no overt message at all - but because of what they did not say" (Linda Nochlin "Realism"): that the people we see are of lesser value than those portrayed before them, i.e., the romantic, the heroic and the extremely melodramatic on television, and the royal, the rich and the holy in painting. Thus the disturbing element of Courbet and Springer, in their social sense, is that they make ordinary people just as important as the elite. More importantly, they make the elite have no more value than common people. For the haute monde it is not upsetting to see the baseness of a society, but it is disquieting to be made equal to it. As viewers we want to be distinguished from the grotesque, regardless of how real it seems or how close to it we might be. The viewer of Courbet’s monumental paintings sees the impoverished bleakness and shies away from their brutish realism and their stark similarity to him/herself. The subjects are repugnant to us but we envy them their transcendent immensity. Likewise, the viewer of Jerry Springer's guests looks with horror and wonders how those people could do what they have done, and even more so, how they could do "it" and then expose "it" on television. We watch with wonder and gawk at the phenomena of the guests and under our breath wonder how far are we from them. Their freakish oddity makes us certain we are unlike them, but the superiority of their forum, national television, causes us to covet and despise them.