McLuhan and Recent Art History
by Frank Gillette
What follows employs a mosaic pattern of observations and
probes. What follows does not, as yet, aspire to the status of
The Gutenberg Galaxy, shot through with primary references
to Ruskin, Gombrich, Gilson, Panofsky and Kepes, among others,
is testament enough to McLuhan's fluency with art historical
ways and means.
In the meantime, the Mechanical Bride anticipates many appropriationist
mix and match methods and technique. Its mix of burnt-out clichés
matched with an exegesis of the early 50's oddments from advertising,
book-jackets, cartoons, etc., is expressed in coy, hipster lingo,
re-mixed with an astute pedagogical form. It is one frantic pedantic
semantic antic. It is among the Conceptualist prototypes, a genuine
Ursprache, an authentic original.
Thus, McLuhan and that sub-culture identified as the art-world
are no strangers.
Freud's influence on the Surrealists, and McLuhan's influence
on American art of the 60's are akin. Surrealism was informed
and fructified by the looming rediscovery of the unconscious
and it contents. While Pop art, Greenbergian formalism, Minimalism,
and Conceptualism were in varying degrees, conscious and otherwise,
wildly antipodean responses to McLuhan's take on the World. Each
response being in main part a variance of "the medium is
Both Freud and McLuhan, while busy frying other fish, provided
ideational, even mythical, backdrops for visual culture, as well
as for art praxis in their respective times. Each is essential
to the descriptive lexicons typifying "art-speak" in
their respective times. And both reputations have endured and
survived a high variety of caricature, misattribution and debasement
regarding their role and stage presence in their time.
The Surrealist mind's very activity ñ its picturesque
posture and devotional irrationality ñ is, as if, a manifestation
at one with the Freudian concepts of instinct, desire, and the
dream. Its stupefying confidence in the liberation of desire
and the exaltation of freedom is grounded in, and bracketed by,
an outright catachistic embrace of psychoanalytic theories.
Likewise with McLuhanism and the mind-set of the 1960's; where
notions of hot vs. cool, perceptual rations, linear vs. non-linear,
and media as materia prima permeate, in distinctly opposing patterns.
The discourse encircling Pop art at one end and Greenbergian
formalism at the other ñ with Minimalism and Conceptualism
allied as a counterforce to both.
But whereas Freud's influence was direct, McLuhan's was decidedly
osmotic, passing through the art-world's semi-permeable membrane
like some unacknowledged solvent. It was received within the
art world's precincts as a particular strain of the overall "eschatological
heave" (Mailer's coinage) which branded every aspect of
60-s culture ñ visual, political, theoretical and popular.
As to the specifics: or, five probes enumerated:
Pop Art and Popism in general emerged with a staggering blast
in the same time frame (circa. ë61-'65) that McLuhanism
takes root and begins to achieve celebrity. It is the late twilight
of Abstract Expressionism, the pre-eminent and dominant movement
of the prior fifteen years. Televised war in Vietnam is escalating,
LSD is founding a sub-culture, the Beatles have arrived. The
distinctions between high and low culture is collapsing. A dazzling
In this dicey midst, nascent contra-stances begin to spring
up. Chief among them are Minimalism, that paradoxical amalgam
of Neo-Platonic and empirical interests, and polymorphic Conceptualism
with its diverse and multiple embodiments of disembodiment.
Like a protractor, McLuhanism's ethos opens out in a 180 degree
sweep, encapsulating while corralling all of the above, knowingly
or not, into a common arch description of novel terms. Within
such terms, these various moves and subsequent counter-moves
of the 60's are merely the inevitably results of an epic transitive
clash. Their recalcitrant differences merely stubborn evidence
of that clash's profound, though ironically received, complexity.
Which is to say that McLuhanism's discourse ñ with
particular salience on the medium/message equation ñ provided
a fresh, even unexpected, way of encompassing the fragmentary
contours of the four main contesting camps, which characterized
the art world in the 1960's.
Pop Art's valorizing of the ubiquitous common image or object
ñ best exemplified by Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes
ñ dovetails with McLuhan's exploration of mass media.
The mass image, prior to its appropriation by Warhol, Lichtenstein,
Rosenquist, et al, was initially spread through the culture in
a mass medium, advertising.
Thus, both undertakings (McLuhan and the pop-artists) share
a distinct ìfamily-resemblanceîÖperhaps it
was the zeitgeist.
McLuhan's notion of the receding mechanical age overlapping
with an onrushing electronic one is, without a bit of stretch,
analogous to the receding spirit of Abstract Expressionism and
Pop's disarming arrival. McLuhan's actual words are apt here:
ìThe partial and specialized view-point, however noble,
will not serve at all in the electric age. At the information
level the same upset has occurred with the substitution of the
inclusive image for the mere view-point.î Abstract Expressionism,
if nothing else, was and is certainly a specialized noble viewpoint.
And with Pop, aesthetic practice is certainly expanded with its
omnivorous inclusion of all and every sundry mass image.
Those dual, complimentary, hegemons, Popism and electric media
ñ software and hardware in current parlance ñ flooded
the collective psyche with the overwhelming force of nature itself.
But success invites rebellion. And such rebellions were rife.
In retrospect, Greenbergian Formalism, or color-field painting,
is rather marginal among these ñ yet central to our present
Cast in predicament, Greenberg's formalist aegis covers a
narrow spectrum of exclusionary attitude, manifest in painting
and sculpture both. Its gist is this: progress in the visual
arts orbits around the core issue of material transparency. Ergo,
increasing emphasis on the medium ñ that is, the physicality
of pigment and the qualities of surface ñ is registered
as liberation from the declared restraints of representation,
inference, and pictorial illusion.
Greenberg and his coterie held Popism's world view in pitiless
disdain, claiming that it had enfeebled demands made on the viewer;
that it was antithetical to the putative rigors of authentic
connoisseurship; that its mimicry of kitsch, advertising, cartoons
et al, was nothing more than a wanton abandon of high motive.
The twisting irony here is, of course, that central and conspicuous
attributes of McLuhanism can and have been implicitly drafted
into the respective causa belli of these two camps.
In a sense that McLuhan would have appreciated, these rambling
feud is just one of the more recent manifestations of that ageless
contest between demonic and hieratic, vernacular and sacerdotal.
Panofsky has noted that we actually ìread what see
according to the manner in which objects and events were expressed
by forms under varying historical conditions.î Thus what
we read when viewing a classic untitled box ñ industrially
fabricate according to the precise specifications of the master
Minimalist Donald Judd ñ are the historical conditions
affiliated with its presentation to the world as a sculptural
event. Otherwise, such a box could reasonably be taken for a
very pricey, very elegant, designer-dumpster. It is the conditions
of its making that assign its' status as sculpture and the pleasure
derived in viewing ineluctably includes a reading of those conditions.
In Minimalism our perceptual ratios are rearranged by a vertiginous
oscillation of attentive focus, swinging to and fro between the
qualities of the objects' physical presence and its idealist
geometric properties. From the eye's mind to the mind's eye and
back, such an object's medium empirical and ephemeral at once
is its message.
Cutting to the quick, Conceptualism is a message without a
medium, at least with a medium in any traditional sense. Its
measure of merit rests in the free-floating character of its
propositions. Evidence of a particular Conceptualist enterprise
usually commences with the diagrams, instructions, or floor plans
preceding its temporary embodiment, and/or the record of its
having existed at all, usually manifested in photographs, videotape
or the detritus resulting from the event.
Thus the installation or the event itself drops off into the
void and we are left with its before and after, with its projection
and trace. Often enough, these traces are fetishized, re-entering
the domain of art objects and, subsequently, the economy of the
art world. But since you can only have your tongue in one cheek
at a time, this maneuver for having it both ways presents a novel
conundrum. Should these photographs, tapes, drawings, debris,
etc., be judged by their intrinsic aesthetic value in the Ding
an sich, as the thing themselves, as entities with an existence
independent of the installations which cause them? Or does their
merit reside exclusively in the reification of phantom events?
I suspect there are questions that McLuhan himself would have
enjoyed tossing around, inasmuch and since they represent the
medium/message equation with a peculiar wrinkle.
In any case, the rhizome interconnecting McLuhan's explorations
with the zigzagging tactics of 60's visual artists, of all vanguard
stripes, is fecund with a shared motif index, logistical repertoire,
and lexical invention. And this fortuitous confluence represents
a critical juncture that, in retrospect, has set the reverberating
tone of our current post-modern climate. For, in Wittgenstein's
signifying phrase, "To imagine a language means to imagine
a form of life."
Hence, through bend of bay and swerve of shore we return to
McLuhan castle and environs once again. Where we fin again, only
to begin again, for these environs posses a serious strength
and their river runs very deep.
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