Mixed Media

On his 100th birthday, a reappraisal of Marshall McLuhan’s prophecies

allen.jpg

Marshall McLuhan, 1973. Photograph: Mohan Juneja

Marshall McLuhan, 1973. Photograph: Mohan Juneja

Marshall McLuhan would have turned 100 years old on 21 July 2011. His centenary is a good occasion to revisit the work of a thinker who put big philosophical ideas into tiny rhetorical packages, sealed with pop culture. Academia meets advertising in many of his slogans, from ‘the medium is the message’ to ‘art is anything you can get away with’.

Some of McLuhan’s prophecies from the 1960s turned out to be incorrect. Teachers never became the largest employee group in the US. Television works well running in the background, despite his claim that the medium requires in-depth participation. His distinction between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media – respectively, media that engage one bodily sense, like radio, and those that engage many senses, like TV – seems irrelevant. Is a laptop hot or cool? Any smartphone – a telephone plus typewriter, radio, clock, stereo, camera, games console, screen and more – is a lukewarm combination of the media that McLuhan once divided into hot and cool categories.

But McLuhan’s successes outnumber his duds. While he linked computers to quaint-sounding sci-fi terms like ‘automation’, ‘servomechanism’ and ‘electromagnetism’, computers were rudimentary in his lifetime (McLuhan died in 1980, more than a decade before the Internet became an everyday reality). What he called the ‘electric’ age of information replaced the mechanical age of industrialization. For McLuhan, mechanics – from the printing press to the factory assembly line – were fragmented, individualized and sequential, while electronics brought unity, interrelated processes and synchronicity because electricity allows experiences to be independent in space and simultaneous in time. McLuhan cited mass media entertainment; a TV programme filmed in one place can be seen by many viewers all over. Twitter also fits the bill.

Ultimately, the electric age of information created a ‘global network’ comparable to the human central nervous system: the world as a single unified field of experience. If you replace his ‘electric’ with ‘digital’, this network sounds like the web (‘surfing’ is another McLuhanism). While often celebrating the information age, he noted its dangers, too. The Medium is the Massage (1967; a centenary edition is published this year by Gingko Press and Penguin in the UK), his collaboration with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel, links the word ‘you’ with the ‘electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of “mistakes”.’ That sounds like the total recall of Google or Facebook, where stray blog comments or wild party pics can result in a job dismissal.

In McLuhan’s world, art fulfills a special role: aestheticizing the past and anticipating the future. This unique temporal polarization is clearest in his undated preface to the second edition of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). What he calls an older ‘environment’ is elevated to an art form when a new environment comes along. As the machine first allowed nature to be appreciated aesthetically, the new information environment gives aesthetic value to the old mechanical environment. Indeed, digitization is wiping out analogue technologies – an extinction that might revive mechanical arts and crafts like printing and darkroom photographic development, if not fuel a desire for art works done without the click of a mouse. It certainly explains why old 35mm film projectors are often used instead of new video projectors and why many artists and curators are taking a second look at television.

Looking to the future, McLuhan likened the arts to ‘an early alarm system’ that shows us how to cope with new environments before they arrive. For him, art is not self-expressive but prophetic and even pedagogical. By extension, he thought it ‘ludicrous and snobbish’ to offer art as a consumer commodity instead of as a way of training perception. In retrospect, the interactive art works of relational aesthetics from the 1990s do seem like rudimentary forms of chat rooms or social networks, where perfect strangers could meet. Artists used the museum and the artwork to create a connection that would eventually become virtual. Such works challenge the private and purely visual contemplation of art, proper to the mechanical age. For McLuhan, the information age implied in-depth involvement with many senses, especially touch. Already in the 1960s, he believed that young people didn’t want specialized jobs but roles with total participation.

McLuhan privileged not only art but also artists whom he viewed as ideal ‘antisocial’ types: sharpening our perceptions by offering anti-environments or seeing environments as they really are instead of simply accepting them. At the end of Understanding Media, McLuhan argues that automation (read: the computer) frees humans from the specialist servitude of mechanics. Just as cars liberated horses from work and turned animals into entertainment, human beings face a complete and disorientating liberation. ‘This would seem to be a fate that calls men to the role of artist in society’, he wrote, without really elaborating. For McLuhan, everyone suddenly becomes a nomadic gatherer of knowledge, involved in total social processes and instantly relating every human experience. Art may be anything you can get away with, but what you gather and how you share it may be more important.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

Issue 140

First published in Issue 140

Jun - Aug 2011

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018