Frank Lloyd Wright? John Mason Brown? Henri Peyre? Fred Allen? Dick Cavett? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most acerbic criticism I have heard directed at TV was attributed to the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright:
Television is just chewing gum for the eyes.
However, I recently saw the remark credited to a drama critic named John Mason Brown. Could you explore this saying?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this vivid metaphor located by QI appeared in a 1944 book by Henri Peyre who was a Professor of French at Yale University. In 1944 television sets were still very expensive, and the industry was immature in the U.S. The metaphor was applied to movies and radio broadcasts instead. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Yet there is no sorrier sight to watch then the vacant faces of those former high school and college students when, at thirty-five or fifty, all their mental alertness having vanished, the spark gone from their eyes, they dutifully chew their gum to keep from yawning, while absorbing the chewing gum for the eyes of the movies or the chewing gum for the ears of the radio.
The same men who once read Shakespeare, Molière, Byron glance at the headlines of their tabloid papers, turn straight to the page of the funnies, to devour them with the same dutiful sense of boredom as they swallow their hamburger at lunchtime and their highball after dinner.
More than a decade later this figurative language was applied to another communication medium. In January 1955 Steven H. Scheur who was a well-known film critic visited the “book-lined New York apartment” of John Mason Brown who was a prominent theater critic. They discussed the quality of the programs broadcast on television. Brown applied the chewing-gum metaphor to TV: 2
Although Brown is generally recognized as our most eminent theater essayist—Saturday Review of Literature—he confesses to a special partiality for TV news shows.
“So much of TV seems to be chewing gum for the eyes. … TV desperately needs more self-reliance and pride in the medium.”
By 1958 the remark was being credited to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1944, Writers and Their Critics: A Study of Misunderstanding by Henri Peyre (Sterling Professor of French at Yale University), Quote Page 291, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1955 January 21, Syracuse Herald-Journal, Ed Murrow To Call on Critic Brown by Steven H. Scheur, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩