“The media are not toys; they should not be in the hands of Mother Goose and Peter Pan executives. They can be entrusted only to new artists, because they are art forms.” Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast (1953)
Don’t let new media fall into the hands of managers of big companies and their marketing departments. New media are safe with artists, because new media are art forms, media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote in his seminal manifesto ‘Counterblast’. At that time McLuhan still was professor of English literature at the University of Toronto, but the imagination of the possibilities of new media pushed him with firm hands towards the slowly emerging media science.
Media as extensions
According to McLuhan new media — radio at that time, the first steps of television and budding pop culture — were meant to liberate mankind from the yoke of the literate society. From the media, emerging during the enlightenment, that enslaved us: typography and the printing press. To grasp the full meaning of the ideas of McLuhan it is important to understand his definition of media: extensions of a human faculty. Meaning almost everything made by mankind being a medium. A car, for example, is an extension of the foot, a book of the eye.
Especially television, McLuhan thought, had a revolutionary character. Because of the capability of the medium bringing the world into the living room, eventually there would be a global change. Electric media, as McLuhan called the new media of his time, the 1950s and 1960s, were able to establish a network around the world and connect everyone to everyone. Resulting in a redefinition of our social relationships, bringing us together in one universal tribe which he calls the global village. Away from the suffocating reality of the individualistic society dictated by objective rules.
In the early 1990s many recognized the emerging internet as an important new medium in the vision of McLuhan. In his own time, McLuhan was mostly dismissed as an eccentric academic thinker who’s ideas had more to do with popular culture and storytelling and were based on opinions rather than facts. His non-linear way of thinking, without beginning and end, was way too complicated. Just read the interview Playboy had with the Canadian professor in 1969. The interviewer understands little of the ideas of McLuhan who himself makes it even more complicated by not directly answering his questions. Well, obviously an interview is a dialogue in ‘acoustic space’ and ‘truth’ is constructed during the interview itself, McLuhan would argue.
It’s interesting to read his work almost fifty years later, because it now makes a lot of sense, maybe even more sense. Storytelling has become a key idea for artists and designers. Seeing technology and culture as one instead of two separate things, is becoming more and more accepted. Nearly all contemporary media theorists are referring to McLuhan, either in a positive or negative way. To fully understand how our current society is changing or how it has already become a network society, we simply can’t ignore his work.
The same goes for his idea of the changing role of art. McLuhan is convinced that the idea of ‘art’ belongs to the modern literate world. In that world, there is need for a group of people looking at society from the outside and reflecting critically on it. Inherent to the artistic process is the sublimation of changes that are taking place in society. Therefore the artist is best in recognising the essence of new media and in using them to show society the future. Or, to be more precise, the now. The role of the artist is an important one: showing the changes new media bring about to non-artists. The latter are obsessed with the past while using new media in the same way they are using old media.
The way Andy Warhol sublimated the new emerging consumerism in his work, is a good example of what McLuhan saw as the new role of art. First of all Warhol saw the now. He observed new developments and drew his conclusions: the commodification of everything was ineluctable, as Herbert Marcuse also described so beautifully in his book ‘One-Dimensional Man’ (1964). Secondly Warhol took the old unworldly artistic approach to the grave. The new artist is no longer an outsider, but is standing in the middle of the world. New media create involvement and commitment. Both Warhol and McLuhan understood that.
Television and politics
McLuhan saw television as the best example of the essence of new media. Television brought the atrocities happening on the other side of the globe to people’s own living room and left them in shock. Distance, like time and place, no longer mattered. Thus strengthening our sense of being part of the global tribe, to blend in and be part of the world. Politicians became involved tribal leaders instead of detached experts. In his book “The Medium Is The Message” McLuhan praises the amateur and the nonconformist, calling them anti-social in a good way. New media let hierarchy implode, because knowledge is available to everyone through the network.
The amateur understands, the professional doesn’t.
The latter is stuck in old structures of specialisation, tends to put everything and everyone into boxes and uncritically follows the rules of his profession or area of expertise. Amateurs do not suffer from this. Therefor easily discovering the emperor’s new clothes. In the network society we are all amateurs, McLuhan states. New media give us no choice: we all see that the emperor is naked.
The new artist
To be honest, that took a while. Still, the world hasn’t changed that much since the 1960s. Hierarchy and specialists haven’t vanished, artists still keep their distance. Nevertheless, the vision of McLuhan keeps popping up. First, in the early nineties in Silicon Valley, where internet entrepreneurs were inspired by his work. Then about five years ago during the hype surrounding Web 2.0 and now with the advent of social media, co-creation, the participation society and glocalisation.
And the artist?
As a creative entrepreneur, as a linchpin in community art projects leaving the critical position or, how old-fashioned, as a critical outsider. The artist as McLuhan had in mind is an oddity. But that is changing rapidly. The difference between arts and design has become blurry. More and more designers are making art or are using elements of artistic research in their work. Furthermore there is a noticeable shift from thinking in target groups and client needs towards trying to design a new world.
Slowly designers are taking a more artistic stance: what is the impact of media and how do they change our daily lives?
In a world that is changing so rapidly — actually ‘accelerates’ — like ours, reflection and distance is a luxury we can’t afford anymore. Designers and artists should shake hands. Both have to dare playing a leading role in the redesign of our current world, thus creating the society of the future. Giving the artist, who is by default able to think outside the box of our existing society and see the potential of new media, a leading role once again. Crucial if we want to leave our existing troubled world behind.
It’s like McLuhan said: media are not just toys.
Thanks Willow Ritchie (@WillowRitchie) for helping me out. The original version of the text was published in Dutch at FRNKFRT and spoken during the opening of Robin Rimbaud’s (Scanner) exbibition at Melkweg, Amsterdam.
This text is written for the seminar Culture 3.0: Prosuming the Art Academy at the Royal Academy Of Art The Hague on march 27 2015.
McLuhan, Marshall. Counterblast. Berlin / Berkeley: Transmediale / Gingko Press, 1953 (reprint 2011).
McLuhan, Marshall and Fiore, Quentin. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Penguin Books: London, 1967.
Norden, Eric. “Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan,” Playboy, march 1969.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial societies. Beacon Press: Boston, 1964.