Thursday, March 31, 2011

McLuhan, M. (1956). New Media in Arts Education.

AN ADDRESS GIVEN AT THE MARCH I956 CONVENTION OF THE EASTERN ARTS ASSOCIATION. New York City (1956)

In his book MUSEUM WITHOUT WALLS Andre Malraux faces up to the modern situation with respect to the art of painting. He asks us to consider the effect on painters of having before them the art of many other painters. Less than a century ago the painter tended to be acquainted with a very limited range of paintings. He would have had to travel to many places to see any appreciable number of paintings by one painter. His ideas of the work of a whole period were necessarily of the sketchiest. Today the reproduction of the art of men and periods is such as to permit the detailed knowledge of the styles and techniques of all periods of western pointing. In addition we know the painting, sculpture and architecture of dozens of other cultures in far greater detail than we once knew the art of our own time.


Quite recently, within the past six or seven years, we have all experienced a parallel occurrence in the world of music. Long-playing records have done for music what the Skira type of enterprise has done for pointing. Whereas we had been accustomed to a very limited orchestral repertory—a few composers and only a few of their works LP has suddenly opened up the music horizons to include the music of many centuries and many cultures. The Folkways series brings us the song and dance of the world. For the composer this means that he writes now for an audience altogether different in its experience. His own experience has also been profoundly modified. He can no longer accept nor expect others to accept a dominant musical style, fashion, or convention. Our music now includes the music of many periods and cultures in a vital and living relationship. And this had never occurred before in the world since there were no means of making a present which included so much and excluded so little.

The same situation exists in poetry. There have been great periods of poetry which grew from the discovery of other kinds of poetry which could be translated and adapted in order to develop new forms of experience in one region or country. It could he argued that great periods are always periods of translation. In the Elizabethan time English was enlarged and enriched by a large influx of foreign styles. Printing mode available, suddenly, and to a large audience, the styles of many Greek and Latin poets who were swiftly adapted to the resources of English. Older English poetry was available as well as French, Spanish, and Italian styles. And all of these got onto the popular stage in various modes and degrees.

Twentieth century poetry has absorbed the styles of Irish and Welsh bards, of Japanese and Chinese, and of many native cultures. Earlier, the Romantic poets had very consciously gone to the old ballads and to popular folklore in a search for new effects and new experiences which would release the human spirit from the chains of conventional perception. The discovery of rural landscape and of natural scenery they felt was a principal means of leading the spirit in the paths of self-discovery and meditation. And towards these ends they incorporated not only the old ballads and verbal incantation, but the art of painting as well. From Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard to Blake's Tyger or from Blake to Scott, Wordsworth and Byron, the poets were avid technicians of pic-turesque painting styles using the external scene to flash upon the in-word eye precious knowledge of the symphony of nature. They used the external scene to distinguish and to explore the wide range of passions and feelings and to discover new mental states. To arrest and fix these fleeting states by means of carefully delineated scenes was their aim and ambition, as, indeed, it also was of the pointers.

By the time of Baudelaire and Rimbaud the use of pointing as a means of fixing a mental state had been pushed very far. Suddenly the visual boundaries yielded to music, and the symbolist poets discovered the acoustic space of the auditory imagination. Let me say of once that this break through from the visual world into the acoustic world seems to be the most revolutionary thing that hos occurred in Western culture since the invention of phonetic writing. To understandl the human, social, and artistic bearings of this event is indispensable today whether for the reacher or the citizen. Most of the cultural confusion of our world results from this huge shift in the geography of perception and feeling. Let me repeal that the artistic developments which we associate with the Romantics in painting and poetry, hod consisted in the impressionistic use of external landscape as a means of exploring and defining mental states. When these artists came to the frontiers of visual landscape they passed over into its opposite, as it were, namely acoustic or auditory space. This unexpected reversal or translation of the visual into the acoustic happened again when the silent movies became sound pictures and again when radio was suddenly metamorphosed into TV. And the consequences of these shifts between sight and sound need to be understood by the teacher today since they turn the language of the arts into a jabberwocky that has to be unscrambled to be understood. When the arts shifted from sight to sound, from visual to acoustic organization of experience, the tempo and rhythm of cur culture shifted as though an LP disc were suddenly shifted to 78 speed.

The difficulty which most people experience with the poetry of Rimbaud, Mollarme, and Eliot or Joyce, or the difficulty they imagine to be present in the work of Picasso or abstract art is exactly the difficulty a listener might have in trying to listen to a disc played at the wrong speed. Here is a poem of Rimbaud which may help to illustrate these matters. It is entitled "Dimanche" or "Sunday":

When homework is done, the inevitable descent from heaven and the visitation of memories and the session of rhythms invade the dwelling, the head and the world of the spirit.
A horse scampers off along the suburban turf and the gardens and the wood lots, besieged by the carbonic plague. Somewhere in the world a wretched melodramatic woman is sighing for unlikely desertions. Desperadoes are languishing for storms, drunkenness, wounds. Little children are stifling curses along the rivers.
I must study some more to the sound of the consuming work which farms in all the people and rises up in them.

The organization of experience here is orchestral or acoustic rather than visual. Yet the various units of experience are visualized. There is a landscape, but it includes more than one space in its space and more than one time in its time. It is a simultaneous order such as music readily offers. A merely visual landscape, however, can offer only one space at one time:

Behold her single in the field
You solitary Highland lass
Reaping and singing by herself
Stop here or gently pass

The sort of landscape which Rimbaud presents is a kind of interior landscape of the mind. But it also began to be common in the newspaper fifty years before pnets took it over.

Today it is most necessary to stress this kind of occurrence when confusion causes people to lush out at the swarming new farms of popular culture which are obviously so upsetting to established conventions of culture. To get at Rimbaud and modern art it is not merely desirable but quite necessary to study the effect of the telegraph on the press and of both on poetry, painting and music.

The newspaper page upset book-culture and the book-page pro• foundly. The Romantic poets took courage from this upset to revolt against book-culture. (Read Hazlitt's essay on George Crabbe in The Spirit of the Ago.) The format of the hook-page offers a linear not a picturesque perspective. It fosters a single tone and attitude between a writer, reader and subject. Whereas the newspaper breaks vp this lineality and singleness of tone and perspective, offering many book-pages at the sortie moment. Now the telegraph gave instantaneity to this picturesque news landscape, (the telegraph was the electrification of writing not just the mechanization of writing which print had been.) The telegraph turned the news-sheet into a global photograph or world snap-shot. The press become a daily experience of all the cultures of the globe. It becomes a space-time landscape of many times and many places given as a single experience. With the arrival of photography this verbal landscape shifted to a pictorial one. With radio it become verbal again but not the printed word. With TV it becomes both. But by 1870 when Rimbaud made his verbal landscapes (which he called "Illuminations or colored plates") the newspaper format had revolutionized poetry. Nobody so far as I know has commented on the relation of Richard Wagner to the newspaper, but his esthetic program for including the whole of the human nythic post in a simultaneous musical present doesn't need much explaining. It was an obvious consequence of the above considerations. It remains the cultural situation today.

I have said that the Romantic break-through from the visual into the acoustic dimension was os great a revolution as that brought on by the development of the phonetic alphabet by the Greeks. Let me explain this o bit more in order to show you what has been happening to the arts and to all of us in the twentieth century. Today it is easy to know what the effect of writing was on culture because we have detailed knowledge of many cultures that have no writing. We have also watched them undergoing the impact of writing and print. Pre-literate mon has no experience of vertical or horizontal planes in visual perception. He does not use his eyes in the some way as a literate man. He cannot recognize the contents of photographs until instructed. A movie to him is not o picture at all, but a blur. He lives in on auditory or acoustic world. Let me spell that out a little. Pre-literate or acoustic man lives to a considerable degree in a verbal universe. Words for him are riot signs or symbols. They do not refer to something. They are the thing itself. We understand this easier in relation to music. We know that music need not refer to something. A phrase or melody defines itself and evokes an attitude or a state of mind instantly. But the phrase or melody does not refer to such attitude or state. It is the state and we are the music. This is the preliterate attitude to language. The word "tree" is tree, because it has the power to evoke tree. Acoustically considered a word is a complex set of harmonic relations. These relations are dynamic. They are simultaneous, and they ore set off by silence. The set of harmonic relations constitute a field entity which experimental psychologists refer to as acoustic space. If visual space is greatly dependent on our habits of seeing, acoustic space is entirely structured by our hearing. Psychologists tell us that acoustic space is spherical because we hear simultaneously from all directions. It has no lines or directions. It contains nothing and it is contained in nothing. It has no horizons, no boundary lines. All its relations are simultaneous, and it is a physical entity defined by these dynamic relations. In fact the more one says about acoustic space the more one realizes that it is the thing that mathematicians and physicists of the past fifty years have been calling space-time, relativity, and non. Euclidean systems of geometry. And it was into this acoustic world that the poets and painters began to thrust in the mid-nineteenth century. Like Coleridge's Mariner, they were the first that ever burst into that silent sea. This was the world of experience emerging to Keats when he spoke of "magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in foerie lands forlorn." It was to be a world in which the eye listens, the ear sees, and in which all the senses assist each other in concert.

Now from one point of view words themselves are a kind of symphony of the senses. Words arc a cinematic flow which includes all of our "five and country senses" as Dylan Thomas puts it. Writing meant o translation of this many-layered concert into the sense of sight alone. Reading and writing in this respect represent an intense degree of specialization of experience. Writing meant that the acoustic world with its magic power over the being of things, was arrested and banished to a humble sphere. Writing meant the power of fixing the flux of words and of thought. Writing permitted analysis of thought processes which gave rise to the divisions of knowledge. With writing came the power of visually enclosing not only acoustic space but architectural space. With writing came the separation of music from the dance and of both from words. And before writing ell these divisions were merged in a single knowledge and a single rhythm in which there was no present but all was always now. The Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot ore a complete guide to our own recovery of acoustic modes of knowing our own and past experience. The Finnegans Wake of James Joyce is a verbal universe in which press, movie, radio and TV merge with the languages of the world to form a Feenichts Playhouse. I am saying that modern technology which began by a visual recovery of the past in print has now come to the point of acoustic and visual recovery which installs us once mare in the heart of primeval consciousness and experience. If the Romantics pushed at the walls of vision until they yielded and became a shell of sound, we have all of us pounded on the doors of perception until they admitted us to a world which is both an end and a beginning. In our time we are re-living at high speed the whole of the human past. As in a speeded-up film we are traversing all ages and all experience including the experience of pre-historic men. Our experience is not exclusive of other peoples' experience but inclusive. That is why I have referred to it os symphonic and orchestral rather than linear or melodic. This gigantic flashback may sound like a collective version of that movie of o man's past life that is said to flash on when he is drowning. We may be drowning. But if so, the flood of experience in which we are drowning is very much a part of the culture we hove created. The flood is not something outside our culture. And so it is not catastrophic. We can turn it off if we choose or as soon as we wake up to the fact that the faucets of change are inside the ark of society, not outside.

In that break-through from the visual to the acoustic that transformed the visual world also, there occurred a revolution in art which still puzzles the twentieth century. The new music, poetry and painting that came in were not intended as entertainment any more. The arts for centuries had been speaking pictures to instruct and entertain. After the middle of the nineteenth century the arts become means of spiritual exploration. They became a radar screen to guide and plot the progress of the human spirit. And the technological world of the new media took up the role of entertainment.

But this division of functions I have already suggested was more apparent than real. And it is just as true to soy that the older arts are now areas in which one can readily discern the real meaning of events in the popular arts. Because the popular arts of the new media have been at least as full of artistic innovation as the older traditional arts.

Having now anticipated some of the conclusions that seem to me to lurk in the material we have been considering I should like to go bock to Rimbaud and to acoustic space as it has emerged in the world of the arts today. In a recent essay of "Space Concepts of the Aivilik Eskimos" (Explorations, V. pp. 131-145), E. S. Carpenter gives a very complete account of acoustic space as it dominates every level of primeval experience. In the Arctic: "There is no middle distance, no perspective, no outline, nothing the eye can cling to except thousands of smoky plumes of snow running along the ground before the wind--a land without bottom or edge ... when travelling by boat along the coastline in o heavy fog, a navigator relies on the sound of waves arid the direction of the wind. Without seeing light or land, and without any stars, he is still able to find his course by checking the wind and listening for the sound of the surf."

"Sometimes Aivilik artists take on old engraving and, without cleaning off the earlier work, simply put new engravings on top of them. To us, but not to the Aivilik, the results appear sloppy and confusing. We react similarly to their habit of sketching until a figure reaches the limits of the ivory, then turning the tusk over and completing the figure on the reverse side. Or they may complete a unit such as a dog-team on an-other horizon."

Siegfried Giedion, the Swiss art historian who has done so much to provide a grammar for the language of vision, has been reconsidering and revaluing the world of the cave paintings. In an essay on "Space Conception in Prehistoric Art" which is to appear in Explorations VI, he says:

I soon discovered that the existing photographic reproductions of primeval art were quite insufficient for the demands of modern art history ... However, I was not just hunting for photographs. I was above all striving to come to a closer understanding of the fundamental human experience which goes by the name of "art" . Prehistory is the pre-architectonic state of human development. As soon as architecture was evolved in Egypt and Sumer and became dominant over sculptures and paintings, a new space conception was developed, which, with many variations, existed until the building of the Pantheon in Rome. From that time on a new phase came about -another spoce conception—which lasted until the 19th century. A third architectural space conception set in around the turn of the twentieth century.

Needless to say, this third space conception of today is much like the primitive one of the cave painters. Giedion approaches this position carefully, since he is well aware of the prevailing opposition to his view. The standard notions of primeval painting is that it "lacks all order and control and is without any talent for combination and composition/' Giedion goes on to show that primeval men did not regard the caverns as architecture to be decorated: "Secret signs and figurations are placed in positions that are extremely difficult of access and at the uttermost ends of coves, where the walls narrow to a mere crack. In those cases it is clear that prehistoric man was more anxious to hide his artistic creations than to expose them ... From the unfettered imaginative power with which prehistoric man tackled his rough rock surfaces we con deduce his attitude towards them.

"Only a few examples can be referred to here. On the damp clay ceiling of the so-called Salle des Hieroglyphes in the Cavern of Pech-Merle which measures about 10 by d meters, generation after generation in Aurignacian times drew with their fingers the outlines of suppicalory figures, superimposing them upon one another; mammoths, bird-headed goddesses and certain ports of other beings . . the designs upon this ceiling, which dote from the earliest beginnings of art, are suspended above the void. It is, therefore, clear that there was no question here of space decoration.
"Many millenia later the same phenomenon appears upon the ceiling of the cavern Altamira, which represents the apex of Magdalenian art ... It was not mode to be seen as a whole, nor to adorn a space; it was created to work magic, and there its purpose ended."

One might observe here that the parallels with our culture are perhaps mainly to be found in the much larger caves of modern advertising. The rationale of modern advertising brings forth all the artistic resources of our culture but it does not exist to adorn space but to work a magical change in the minds of the consumer.
Giedion proceeds to analyze the approach of the primeval artist to the surfaces he worked on:

"Freedom of approach to all surfaces, regardless of horizontal or vertical direction is a basic principle of primeval art."

The parallel is in Joyce's approach to words. His outrageous puns: "The yung are easily freudened" are a free modelling of existing contours to reveal the secret powers within words just os the primeval painter sought to evoke the animal powers not by pictorial statement but by evocation of the animal form from the natural form. And Giedion concludes:

"The reason that we con now slowly understand the space conception of primeval art is due to the work of contemporary artists. Painters like Kandinsky and Klee have opened cur eyes to the realization that the composition of a picture is not dependent upon a constant vertical orientation but that there can also be a free ploy of the elements of the picture quite independent from it.

Giedion is approaching the nature of acoustic space from an art historian's viewpoint. My own approach began as a literary one. But study of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot did for me what Klee, Kandinsky, and Picasso did for Giedion—They revealed a primeval world within the materials of traditional study. In the same way the new art of linguistic anthropology employs linguistic art as an approach to the inner dynamics of cultures past and present. So that instead of an outer or descriptive view of things we are centered at once inside them. Simultaneity of inner and outer, above and below—this is normal to our culture today in approaching past or present problems and experience.

The moment one detaches himself from any particular medium of expression and considers the nature and ends of communication as such, he begins to develop that simultaneous sense of cultural unity and of the orchestration of the media, written, oral, sculptural, musical, and pictorial. Harold Innis in his Bias of Communication began this type of study in this decade. He pointed out some of the obvious effects of the mechanization of writing that was print. It isolated the learner. It fostered vernaculars and nationalism. It greatly intensified warfare. It depressed the status of painting, music, and architecture. This is all very shocking until one begins to look into the matter. Then it becomes very exciting and illuminating. In fact, today, when all the means of communication, new and old, are modifying one another at great speed, when the book is alternately depressed and boosted by radio and TV and almost extinguished by it at the same time, when photographs alter painting style and also act as a substitute for painting, in the midst of such a vortex we have no choice but to understand the process. The eternal qualities we had imagined to inhere in specific media have dissolved and reformed before our eyes in a single decade. A educators committed to the processing of information flow we have no choice but to teach the new languages through the old and the old through the new. The cinema students of Miss Cecile Starr at Columbia say to her on learning the language of film: "If only we had known this in high-school, how much more we would have enjoyed our literature courses." And if students of literature, painting, and music knew the profound interrelation between the technical innovations in these arts in the past century, if they were even prepared to notice the deep roots which the fine arts always have in the forms of the most vulgar and popular entertainments, they would be less alienated by formal instruction in the arts today.

In his "Theory of the Film," Balazs notes that "the discovery of printing gradually rendered illegible the faces of men. So much could be read from paper that the method of conveying meaning by facial expression fell into desuetude." He continues:

Victor Hugo wrote once that the printed book took over the part played by the cathedral in the Middle Ages and became the carrier of the spirit of the people. But the thousands of books tore the one spirit, embodied in the cathedral, into thousands of opinions. The word broke the stone into a thousand fragments, tore the church into a thousand books. The visual spirit was thus turned into a legible spirit and visual culture into a culture of concepts.

I have already suggested that the break-through from the visual into the acoustic and musical composition of the varieties of media and experience today can become a means of recovering our wholeness and integrity. It would seem to be a natural tendency of our technology which has great relevance to the class room and to traditional studies. Languages are mass media which control the thoughts and feelings of whole populations. The new media, on the other hand, from writing and printing to TV are new languages which profoundly modify spoken languages and oral culture. And the media since the telegraph which employ light and electronics instead of mere machinery, are ways of getting many new insights into older media, including verbal languages. In the electronic age the media are forced into the same kind of truce as nations. The old free-for-all in which the various arts and sciences engaged postulated a stability of culture and a personal security which no longer holds. Today the boundaries between the arts and between the arts and sciences, have simply disappeared. The boundaries between art and commerce are going. The old separation of art and nature we now see to have been based on an ignorance of nature. So that art today we apply to cities and to whole regions. Art is no longer for the few nor for the studio. And the learning process and the creative process which we had once reserved for scholars and geniuses we now know to be a character of all human perception.

In the same way, as teachers, we have had to recognize that education is no longer a monopoly of the class-room and that the young are learning as much outside as inside the classroom. Moreover, we ourselves have to face new facts and new media which are as novel for us as for our students. We have, as never before, to shape the learning process with them.

In this way, my theme about the orchestration of the media in the teaching of the arts today has many dimensions. The stage of development of the media of communication today is such that it invites a reassembly of our senses of perception. The mechanical media have helped us to rediscover language as itself an orchestration of our sense experience. And this discovery has in turn carried us back to the kind of integral awareness possessed by primeval man. But today we can share his awareness without sacrifice of our specialized advance. Today we are beginning to sense the possibilities of unity and harmony in the entire human family. But that sense is not separate from our sense of the possibility of unifying all the kinds of human knowledge. What we have hitherto called "subjects" in our schools and colleges may well undergo a very great change in the direction of unification. As our society becomes more conscious of its unity and interdependence, and as tradition and novelty enter into fruitful marriage we shall discover how to penetrate and to impart various kinds of knowledge in ever speedier and simpler ways. The awareness today of the close parallel between the modes of sensuous apprehension and the modes of the creative process have begun to abridge many tedious processes. Learning and creating are becoming very near to each ether. Just when it scorned that we had created an intolerable amount of knowledge for future generations to preserve and diffuse, we have discovered how to apprehend it swiftly from within. Harmony and ease among the many kinds of knowledge, among the arts and sciences, between living and learning and between learning and creating—these are only o few of the kinds of perception and activity available today through a wedding of the traditional arts and the new media.

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