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McLuhan & Art History: Take One / Oral Version


To paraphase the subject of this symposium: What follows employs a mosaic pattern of observations and probes. What folíows does not, as yet, aspire to the status of hypothesis.


The Guttenberg Galaxy, shot through with primary referemces to Ruskin, Gombrich, Gilson, Panofsky and Kepes, among others, is testament enough to McLuhan's fluncy 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 cliches matched with an exigests of the various early-50's oddments from advertising, book jackets, cartoons, is expressed in coy hipster lingo remixed with an astute pedagogical form. It is one frantic pedantic semantic antic...and it is among the Concepualist's proto-types, a genuine ur sprache, an authentic original. Thus McLuhan and that subculture identified as the art world are no strangers.


Freud's influence on the Surrealisis, 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 its 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 varience of the medium is the message.


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 those times.


The Surrealist mind's very activity—its picaresque posture and devotional irrationality—is, as if, a manifestation at one with the Freudian concepts of instinct, desire, and the dream. It's stupifying confidence in the liberation of desire and 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 such as hot-versus-cool, perceptual ratios, linear-versus-nonlinear, and media as materia prima premeate, in distinctly opposing patterns, the discourses encircling Pop Art at one end and Greenbergian formalism at the other; 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 semipermeable 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--visual, political, theoretical, and popular.


(One) As to the specifics...or, five probes enumerated:

Pop Art and Popism in general emerge with a staggering blast in the same time frame (circa 61–65) that McLuhanism takes root and begins to achieve celebrity. It is the late twilight of Abstract Expressionism, the preeminent and dominant movement of the prior fifteen years. Televised war in Vietnam is escalating, LSD is founding a subculture, the Beatles have arrived. The distinctions between high and low culture are collapsing. A dazzling discontinuity prevails.


In this dicey midst, nacent contra-stances begin to spring up. Chief among them are Minimalism; that paradoxical amalgam of Neo-Platonic and empiricial 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 coralling all of the above, knowingly or not, into a common arch description of novel terms. Within such terms, these various moves and subsequent countermoves of the 60's are merely the inevitable results of an epic transitive clash. Their recalcitrant differences merely stubborn evidence of that clash's profound, though ironicly received, complexity.


Which is to say that McLuhanism's discourse—with particluar salience on the medium/message equation— provided a fresh, even unexpected, way of encompasing the fragmentary contours of the four main contesting camps which characterized the art world in the 1960's.


(Two) Pop Art's valorizing of the ubiquitous common image or object—best exemplified by Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes—dovetails with McLuhan's explorations of mass media. The mass image, prior to its appropriation by Warhol, Lichenstein, Rosenquist, et al, was initially spread throughout the culture via mass medium advertising. Thus both undertakings' (McLuhan and the Pop artists) share a distinct "family resemblance"...Perhaps it was the zietgiest.


McLuhan's notion of the receeding mechanical age over-lapping with an onrushing electric one is, with a bit of a stretch, analogous to the receeding spirit of Abstract Expressionism and Pop's disarming arrival. McLuhan's actual words are apt here: "The partial and specialized character of the viewpoint, 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 viewpoint." Abstract Expressionism, if nothing else, was and is certainly a specialized noble view point. And with Pop, aesthetic practice is certainly expanded by way of its omnivorous inclusion of all and every sundry mass image.


(Three) Those dual, complementry hegemons, Popism and electric media—software and hardware in current parlance—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, yet central to our present argument.


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 transparancy. Ergo, increasing emphasis on the medium; that is, the physicality and the qualities of surface is registered as liberation from the declared contraints of representation, inference, and pictorial illusion.


Greenberg and his coterie held Popism's worldview in pitiless disdain, claiming that it had enfeebled the demands made upon the viewer; that it was antithetical to the putative rigors of authentic connoisseurship; that it's mimicry of kitsch, advertising, cartoons, et al, was nothing more than a wanton abandonment 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 opposing camps.


In a sense that McLuhan surely would have appreciated, this rambling feud is just one of the more recent manifestations of that ageless contest between demotic and hieratic, vernacular and sacerdotal.


(Four) Panofsky has noted that we actually "read what we see according to the manner in which objects and events were expressed by forms under varying historical conditions." Thus what we read when viewing a classic untitled box—industrially fabricated according to the precise specifications of the master Minimalist Donald Judd—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 the viewing ineluctably includes a reading of those conditions.


In Minimalism our perceptual ratios are rearranged by vertiginous oscillation of attentive focus, swinging to and fro between the qualities of the object's 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.


(Five) Cutting to the quick, Conceptualism is a message without a medium, at least without 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 preceeding its temporary embodiment and/or the record of its having existed at all, usually manifested in photographs, video tape or the detritus resulting from the event.


Thus the installation or 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, ding an sich, as the things themselves; as entities with an existence independent of the installations which caused them? Or does their merit reside exclusively in the reification of phantom events?


I suspect these are questions McLuhan himself would have enjoyed tossing around, inasmuch and since they present the medium / message equation with a peculiar wrinkle.


In any case, the rhizome interconnecting McLuhan's explorations with the zigzaging 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 postmodern 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 possess a serious strength, and their river runs very deep.



Frank Gillette


March 1998 / NYC / Delivered at Fordam's University's Conference on McLuhan


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