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23 March 2017
Morning Sedition

"Art is Anything You Can Get Away With."

Cover for The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan

Art is anything you can get away with.

— Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, 1967

Art is Anything You Can Get Away With

Someday when I have some time, I'll have to write up why Marshall McLuhan not only continues to matter, but matters more now than ever. In the meantime, I thought I would share some of my readings into McLuhan's views on art, a subject near and dear to my heart. I'll start with his view on pop art:

When the industrial and mechanical environment first enveloped the old agrarian world, Nature became an art form for the first time. So did all the old crafts, the yokel, and even savage. The parallel, earlier, was the uplifting of the hunter to a snobbish, aristocratic status when the agrarian world took over as environment and the old hunting grounds became the "content" of new technology. When the industrial and mechanical age became environmental, the arts and crafts acquired a new snobbish, amateurish quality. They became the content of the mechanical age and were accorded the usual upgrading of status. When the electric technology enveloped the mechanical one, we were plunged into the world of machine as art form. Abstract art and functional architecture took over as mimetic repeats of old environment. Pop-Art is part of the same technological fugue.

The message and impact of the new environment is quite at variance with the content of new technology. The content is always the old technology, just as the novel was the content of the film when it was new. Now as film is processed by TV, the story line of the book form tends to disappear. The movie form now begins to acquire the nonnarrative structure of a Symbolist poem of a century before. There is thus no direct means of environmental awareness to be won from the consumer approach to such "art" activity. Indirectly, it is possible to construct the characteristic bias of the new environment from the current stock responses...

— Marshall McLuhan, Art News, May 1966

Cover for Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan then advanced into the art as a means to understand technology's impact upon society:

If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists? Or would they begin a careful translation of new art forms into social navigation charts? I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties.

— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures. He can correct them before numbuess and subliminal groping and reaction begin. If this is true, how is it possible to present the matter to those who are in a position to do something about it? If there were even a remote likelihood of this analysis being true, it would warrant a global armistice and period of stock- taking. If it is true that the artist possesses the means of anticipating and avoiding the consequences of technological trauma, then what are we to think of the world and bureaucracy of "art appreciation"? Would it not seem suddenly to be a conspiracy to make the arust a frill, a fribble, or a Milltown? If men were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all become artists? Or would they begin a careful translation of new art forms into social navigation charts? I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties. Would we, then, cease to look at works of art as an explorer might regard the gold and gems used as the ornaments of simple nonliterates?

At any rate, in experimental art, men are given the exact specifications of coming violence to their own psyches from their own counter- irritants or technology. For those parts of our selves that we thrust out in the form of new invention are attempts to counter or neutralize collective pressures and irritations. But the counter- irritant usually proves a greater plague than the initial irritant, like a drug habit. And it is here that the artist can show us how to "ride with the punch," instead of "taking it on the chin." It can only be repeated that human history is a record of "taking it on the chin."

Emile Durkheim long ago expressed the idea that the specialized task always escaped the action of the social conscience. In this regard, it would appear that the artist is the social conscience and is treated accordingly! "We have no art," say the Balinese; "we do everything as well as possible."

— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

The reference to Emile Durkheim is particularly telling. Durkheim was a 19th century sociologist who wrote about such topics as the effects of industrialization upon society, including the division of labor upon the nature of meaningful and rewarding work and how a lack of meaning led to suicide. (I covered his concept of "anomie" in an earlier entry.) Without going into too much detail here, Durkheim labelled the values and behavior accepted by society as "normal" as the "collective conscience". (Jung reformulated this for his conception of the "collective unconscious." Which is where the NYC group Unconscience:Collective got its name.) I believe McLuhan is paraphrasing the concept into "social conscience." Anyway, occupations, according to Durkheim, falls into two types: homogenous (low skilled and generic) and heterogenous (specialized professionals). In this case McLuhan seems to be saying that artists define the social conscience, which, at first, appears to be outrageous. After all, just about every avante garde artist is labelled as deviant. And yet, without a short time, their work is mainstream. Go figure.

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.

— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964

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