“Will reality match up to the television fantasies this generation has been nursed on? These children are in a peculiar position; experience is exhausted in advance. There is little they have not seen or done or lived through, and yet this is second-hand experience.”
The year was 1956 and the blunting, desensitizing impact of TV was on the mind of art critic, psychoanalyst, and Maurice Sendak’s life partner for more than 50 years, Dr. Eugene D. Glynn. This fear of mass media’s ominous implications seemed to be melting brains everywhere in the 1950s, and it’s one that remains prevalent today—simply transposed to hand-wringing about kids growing up with constant access to the Internet. But Glynn’s casually brilliant essay, “Television and the American Character,” was different.
He discussed the form of television rather than the content, noting the ways in which television becomes an adult’s regressive substitute for a care-giving mother: “Warmth, sound, constancy, availability, a steady giving without ever a demand for return, the encouragement to complete passive surrender and envelopment—all this and active fantasy besides.” Too true, right? It’s a critique that surpasses the limited foresight afforded to the citizens of the 1950s about television’s complex destiny.
More than that, Glynn goes beyond the article’s initial concerns to embrace television’s potential as a positive social force, expanding horizons and destroying provincialism.
“Techniques will have to be worked out for educational television for showing, not a baseball game, but how to pitch a curveball; for sending its audience on nature hunts, into club activity, to the library for books. Being aware of the dependent relationship in its audience, television must look for ways to undo it—the problem of any teacher or parent.”
There’s a whole book full of essays penned by Glynn; ruminations on Norman Mailer, Lucas Samaras, developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, Michelangelo, the history of erotic art, and the ethics of exhibiting Jackson Pollock’s art therapy works (spoilers: it’s unethical). Desperate Necessity: Writings on Art and Psychoanalysis was published posthumously in 2008, liberating Glynn’s fascinating writings from the back issues of obscure art journals and painting a picture of a man who was always just a little bit out of step with his time, tackling social issues with a peculiarly frank clarity. The type of man who just might be the perfect spiritual match for Maurice Sendak.
After reading Desperate Necessity I was a little bit disappointed that “Gene” had never collaborated directly with Sendak. But maybe their whole lives together were a collaboration. Sendak, as a picture book artist, changed the way we thought about childhood. He embedded deep psychological issues under the alluring surface of art for the masses. Would it all have been the same without Eugene Glynn by his side?