IT'S the stuff of dreams and nightmares: A solid bank of 300 television sets of various sizes, all blasting forth streams of alternating individual and collective images. It is real, however, as one discovers on entering the Whitney Museum's latest exhibition: ``Image World: Art and Media Culture.''
This television extravaganza makes an apt introduction to the show, especially since the exhibition's purpose is to examine the ways artists have interpreted the mass media's effect on post-war American culture.
Responsibility for determining what the effect has been and how it operated was assumed by the show's three curators, Lisa Phillips, Marvin Heiferman, and John Hanhardt.
In their introduction to the catalog, they state: ``The exhibition proposes that the overpowering presence of the media has produced an `image world' that has arguably become the most important single stimulus to the development of new art forms....
``Artists have been forced to negotiate a relationship with media culture, exploring its ideological power and seductive aesthetics,'' the continue.
The curators have assembled more than 100 works by 65 individual artists and collectives, including a number of pieces created specifically for this exhibition and seen both inside and outside the Whitney's walls.
Nam June Paik's multi-television installation, ``Fin de Si`ecle II'' (described above), is one of these. In addition, a program of over 250 films and videos spanning the last 30 years is on view.
One gets the feeling the curators have included anything and everything that had the slightest bearing on their theme, from the early photo-silkscreen paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to works demonstrating the use of the media in public places by younger artists. Billboards designed by Chuck Close, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Lorna Simpson, and Gran Fury are on view at 10 sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens through Dec. 20. And 300 single-sheet posters relating to the exhibition will be displayed on subway-platform advertising panels throughout Manhattan in December.
The result is often as perplexing and challenging as it is impressive. Considerable patience is required for this exhibition, not only because of the enormous variety of the works, but because one is frequently bombarded with more visual and aural information than can be absorbed. While that, in itself, says a great deal about the media's effect on culture, it also creates a kind of resistance to some of the better pieces.
``Fin de Si`ecle II,'' for example, is a beautifully orchestrated show in itself. Its complex, rapidly changing imagery is both specific and ``abstract,'' with more recognizable scenes than one can possibly list here and with more subtle and stunning kaleidoscopic effects than one would think possible on so huge and varied a surface.
It's a very successful piece, but unfortunately it has been placed in too confrontational a location: Many viewers, stepping off the elevator on the museum's fourth floor, are so startled by it that they move on immediately, without giving it a chance.
ALAS, even an hour in front of its carefully programmed succession of images isn't enough, because the sequences become truly effective only when viewed contrapuntally, one against the other, as well as sequentially. True, one can dip into ``Fin de Si`ecle II'' for five or 10 minutes, leave, and then return for more, but that isn't nearly as effective.
Since the same is true of other pieces in the show, it is only fair to warn potential visitors that this exhibition demands close attention over an extended period of time. But the rewards are great.
The show is often quite arresting: Points are made; ideas elaborated, and issues raised in new and often provocative ways. My only objection is that it occasionally becomes a bit too preachy and too obvious in the pursuit of its objectives.
And yet it deserves to be taken seriously. For it indicates how profoundly television, advertising, and film have affected and informed our art and culture. It presents us with a blueprint of the way things may be in the next decade. And it provides significant clues as to how that influence can be better directed in the future.
What it cannot tell us is whether or not mass-media values, attitudes, and ideas will dominate the art of the 21st century.
At the Whitney Museum through Feb. 18, 1990.