Marshall McLuhan and the paradigm shift in Art

ladder
the ladder

Once in a while I tend to experiment with digital medium.

I find it especially useful on the go for some quick visual notations that keep me alert for the beauty of the ordinary forms that surround us.

I mean, it is not always very practical to pull out your watercolor gear when waiting for a bus or in line in post office. True, I could pull out my sketchbook which is always ready in my bag pack and do some quick pencil sketches but I find that the wide range of options allowed by the digital applications that can be used with any smartphone today is truly exiting and besides, is a great fun.

Interestingly enough, the advent of the touch screens and the use of the fingers to smear directly on the painting surface has brought back that wonderful feeling from childhood when we were allowed to smear our paint with abandon without worrying about results. At least for those of us who were lucky enough to be allowed or even encouraged by the adults in charge which many times was exactly the opposite.

Of course, there is a big difference in the tactile feel when smearing real paint onto a paper or a canvass but there are definite advantages in messing around with digital paint and still keeping our hands and clothes clean.
As far as I am aware, the artificial controversy around the digital versus real painting is almost over but frankly I do not follow it very closely. I believe this debate is somewhat misplaced in that it is a superficial dichotomy between the “real” and the virtual.

Personally, I rely on the Buddhist world view that makes no distinction between the two and view all reality as a virtual construct flowing from the projections of Mind.

I know that some of my colleague artists, of my generation, still have a great disdain towards anything that is digital and virtual.

Anything that requires a different look at the very concept of what is art, how it is made and what is the role of art in the new digital age which is upon us, makes them feel uncomfortable and defensive about the traditional ways of making art.

There is nothing wrong of course in the traditional, classical mediums of expressions but it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the implications of the fact that our cultural context has moved into an era where the medium has become the message with all it’s implications.

The medium is the message.

It is not my intent here in this short post to go into lengthly explanations of this term coined by Marshall McLuhan but I do think that it is worth exploring his ideas about the role of the

artist in the new digital culture we all live in.

In Robert K. Logan’s book on Marshall McLuhan’s immense contribution to our understanding of our day digital culture, there is a chapter about the way McLuhan saw the role of the artist in our society.Here is a quote from that book:

Whereas the ordinary person seeks security by numbing his perceptions against the impact of new experience, the artist delights in this novelty and instinctively creates situations that both reveal it and compensate for it.

The artist studies the distortion of sensory life produced by the new environmental programming and tends to create artistic situations that correct the sensory bias and derangement brought about by the new form.

In social terms the artist can be regarded as a navigator who gives adequate compass bearings in spite of magnetic deflection of the needle by the changing play of forces.

So understood, the artist is not a peddler of ideas or lofty experiences. He is rather the indispensable aid to action and reflection alike.”

My interpretation of this statement is that most serious artists in all times have always took advantage of the changing environment with introduction of new technology.
I am sure there were many artists who didn’t embrace the new medium of oil painting at the time and in fact there was a transitional period between medieval tempera technique into the new medium of oil painting.

I can personally envision a time in not too distant future where artists will be using three dimensional screens like the ones in Steven Spielberg’s film, “ Minority Report “ where Tom Cruise is shifting trough vast amount of data moving three dimensional screens with hand gestures.

Tome Cruise in Minority Report
Tome Cruise in Minority Report

 

As much of the science fiction anticipates future scientific developments so is the technology that was used in this film is apparently is already available and in use in some specific industries.

Imagine an artist in his studio standing in front of these kind of virtual canvasses using unlimited virtual color pallets based on frequencies of light instead of muddy pigments with creating shimmering images of beauty that radiate light from inside adjusting themselves to the different light conditions, independent of outside light source.
I know that many artists will understandably argue here that nothing can replace the “real” feel of “ real” paint as it is mixed on the palette and applied with “ real” brushes.
I believe this argument is based on lack of information and imagination as to the ability of the technology to supplement the touch and feel of our tactile senses.
Again, this technology is already here in early development stages but as we already know, the pace of advancement of this kind of research is usually surpasses the ability of most people to comprehend the incredible speed with which the results of the research roll out of the lab into the everyday use. Remember the shock of unveiling of the iPhone touch screen by Steve Jobs?

To counter this shock and disorientation caused by the new technologies is precisely where the McLuhan’s teachings can be very helpful for the artists in transition to creating in the Global Village. Given the fact that most of McLuhan;s concepts are presented in a non linear jazz like fashion it is not an easy task to decipher the meaning from his revolutionary ideas some of which quite prophetic in anticipating the age where most people on Earth will be connected everywhere, all the time.

The many implications resulting from such a condition can be quite disturbing for many artists that are still cling to by now obsolete world view in which making art is still tied up with clear distinction between the figure and the ground.

Since we live now in the age of total connectivity and instant communication, this kind of separation and clear cut division is obviously not possible anymore and there is a great advantage for artists that can make this shift in consciousness to include both figure and ground in the context of making art that is more then just repetition of the past ideas and visions.

To quote McLuhan once more :

Art at it’s most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it. (McLuhan 1969)

The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception. (mcLuhan 1964,33)”

Looking from a bird’s eye view over the procession of many art forms of the past, it is obvious that Art is tied up with the culture and the norms of the time creating the different mannerisms which we later call the history of art. At the same time we can see just how non linear this progression is.

The cave art of Altamira is not that different in style and eloquence of expression from that of Matisse in spite of being separated in time by some eighteen thousand years .

This mean that our sense perceptions do not change so much in time in spite of a constant expansion of consciousness and this is what I believe that McLuhan has meant when describing the artist as an agent of and early warning system who’s understanding of the World is acquired trough sense perceptions that are at the same time are concepts no less reliable then that of a scientist or a philosopher.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I hope that traditional techniques of doing art will always persist along with the newer experimentations of digital and virtual art emphasizing the importance of inspiration and creativity over trite and banality.

In this age of great cynicism in the Arts with money replacing artistic value, it is important to articulate the new paradigms that would provide the basis for true appreciation of the Arts allowing artists to extract themselves from marginalization and exploitation by culture gone mad with greed.


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