Thuistezien 132 — 29.12.2020

Marshall McLuhan and the Arts
Medium is the Message

Many musical artists have an overplayed hit that everyone knows, that yet misleads casual listeners into thinking they understand the essence and breadth of that artist’s work. You might have a much-loved artist with such a work, and you can’t help but roll your eyes when people tell you that they love that artist after only hearing that one work. In many ways the phrase ‘The Medium is the Message’ holds the same place in Marshall McLuhan’s oeuvre.

Yet, as our world seems now fully immersed in the digital era and in the unfaltering grip of social media’s influence, it is impossible not to think that these information conduits and communication tools are deeply affecting our lives. This makes it all the more tempting to look back to the McLuhan’s ever re-surfacing aphorism. McLuhan’s texts, an exploration of media theory and popular culture, social criticism and philosophy, are at once as greatly influential in our contemporary way of thinking, as they are contentious amongst academic circles. And although the ever-recurring slogan is one that was explored several times in McLuhan’s work and is often casually considered the ultimate encapsulation of his work, digging deeper reveals the more nuanced and often changing meanings the phrase took in his texts.

Letting loose the slogan amongst an international panel as part of the symposium symposium ‘Feedback #1: Marschall McLuhan and the Arts’ with media theory scholars, writers, art professors, artists and art critics, elucidates at once the varied interpretations, analyses and criticisms of the aforementioned phrase. It also brings to the fore many overlooked aspects of McLuhan’s life and beliefs that had a profound effect on his work and which underpin many subsequent examinations of his work. We hear discussions on McLuhan’s political beliefs and how they might fit into a Capitalist or Marxist way of thinking, the influence of his Catholic beliefs, his thoughts and predictions on the digital era as it was slowly forming in the 60s and 70s, as well as debates on the question of how McLuhan’s work holds up today in light of critical analysis. This symposium was organized by West and took place in 2017 at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. The central question is also how McLuhan saw the role of art as a pivot in transitions in society and how his thinking can influence the development of art today.

One way or another it seems always enticing to bring up McLuhan’s aphoristic number one hit, one which can sprout off conversations into many fields of academia and thinking, and one which sparks endless debates about a wide array of subjects. Following this conversation, we dive into a large pool of complex contemporary questions, one which excites a desire explore the works of the speakers and the thinkers they refer to and to dig deeper into McLuhan’s work – or at least a bit deeper than just a slogan.

The speakers in the video as seated left to right: Baruch Gottlieb (CA), Dmytri Kleiner (CA), Ganaële Langlois (CA), Jasper Bernes (USA), Geert Lovink (NL), Garnet Hertz (CA), Willem van Weelden (NL), Florian Cramer (NL) and Josephine Bosma (NL).

Text: James Alexandropoulos - McEwan