Artspeak: Meditations on Medium
Medium is one of those words with staying power. It’s an unresolved and fluid word that has persisted through various art movements for centuries, all the while perpetuating discussion and confusion. Medium is one of those ever-mutating viruses of art-world semantics. It is familiar and seemingly easy to use, but ask enough people what it means and tomes of discourse will emerge. Does medium mean material—or the effect of the material? Is the medium really the message?
Though it has existed for centuries, the term medium came to public consciousness most prominently in the 1960s. Medium had its 15 minutes of fame with Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man. In the first and most famous chapter, “The Medium Is the Message,” he challenges traditional perceptions of “medium” as a facile substitute for “material.” McLuhan states that it is not the medium itself that is significant, but rather the message that is conveyed through it, and the actions of the viewer that are changed as a result. “The content of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech….”1 The seminal example throughout his book is the electric light bulb. Since light is “pure information,”2 the message is not the light itself, but what it allows or disallows us to do.
McLuhan’s premise presaged a revision of the traditional notion of medium to one that considered the onset of the information age and the attendant ubiquity of electronic media. McLuhan posits an understanding of medium that addresses the content of cultural production, the messages that are relayed, and the social relationships that are altered as a result of the restructuring of information that is brought on by the inchoate digital age.
Despite McLuhan’s efforts to encourage a paradigm shift four decades ago, the term medium is still being thrown around as a synonym for artists’ materials and vocations. For example, many university art departments offer a major in New Genres—in spite of the fact that the so-called New Genres are no less than 45 years “new” at this point. New Genres has become a euphemism for work made by artists whose practice cannot be defined by medium specificity.
When used in cocktail party prattle, medium becomes a platitude for artists and non-artists alike. “What’s your medium?” the non-artist might ask of the artist, actually meaning to inquire, “What type of art do you do?” If both conversationalists are artists it becomes a pseudo – astrological pick up line: “So, what’s your medium?” In either case, this question seeks a general answer—a category such as those offered as majors in an art school: painting, sculpture, photography. This question of medium, it is tacitly agreed, applies only to visual artists. Writers, for example would never be asked whether they are ballpoint pen or Microsoft Word authors, whether they type in Palatino or Times New Roman. In the case of writing, the medium is readily acknowledged to be unrelated to the message.
There are a few words—medium, modern, conceptual—that slither duplicitously in and out of the art world, simultaneously sustaining both enthusiasm and contention. They are ambiguous enough to be interpreted for convenience but also indispensable to the definition and assertion of artistic identity. While medium is problematic for its confusing relationship to message and materials, words like modern and conceptual suffer from the noun-versus-adjective problem. Many people throw around these words with promiscuous disregard for whether they actually mean the movement, with a capital M or C, or the adjective.
In lay terms, modern is used as a blanket descriptive for any artwork that is not overtly representational and inherently possessive of Alexandrian ideals. It is often a clumsy and inaccurate substitute for contemporary (another vague term) and the speaker often means new or technological. Conceptual is the dismissive explanation for anything that the viewer doesn’t understand, but assumes to have an academic component. It typically means, “I don’t get it.”
It is interesting to note that the definition of medium that most concerns us here—the 1854 iteration—surfaces at precisely the same time that Modernism (with a capital M) is emerging and laying the groundwork for what will become Greenberg’s famous requisites of art for art’s sake and the purity of the medium. With the onset of the industrial revolution, the spread of capitalism, and the proliferation of academic discourse about the very nature of art itself, Modernism ushered in a profound concern for the medium. The term existed unperturbed in this sense until the very tenet of modernist materiality was pushed aside by the postmodern concerns of site, discourse, appropriation, and intermingling of medium and media across the board.
In the mid 20th century, medium moves from its Modernist connotations of material purity to the conceptual and postmodern biases toward idea and message. There is a concordant shift in the conception of the role of the artist, which is where the 1853 meaning (a person who conveys spiritual messages, such as a psychic) is integrated into the mix. The artist becomes the medium. Instead of merely presenting illusionistic depictions of scenes or objects as in a painting from the premodern era, the artist now uses material to investigate ideas and the representation of meaning itself. The role of the artist as conveyor of ideas could be said to have actually emerged in the 5th century BC, with Plato’s description of the artist.
In The Republic, Plato presents a three-tiered hierarchy for states of being. The top tier contains the object or idea, as it exists in nature. This is the form as created by “God.” It is pure knowledge, the concept of a thing without physical representation. The second level is the material manifestation of the idea, in a singular form. In other words, to use Plato’s example, if the first level is the idea of the bed, the second level is a specific bed made by a craftsman. On the lowest rung of this existential ladder is the artist’s representation of the thing—the painting of the bed.
The artist makes the idea of the bed manifest to the viewer by creating an image of it. If we assume that all things and ideas exist in their primary state as pure knowledge, then the artist’s role, like the psychic medium, is to convey these immaterial truths to the rest of the world. Plato dismissed the artist as a mimic or charlatan in a manner similar to the contemporary contempt for psychics. One must wonder, however, if artists and psychics have been marginalized not because they don’t know the truth, as Plato claimed, but because they do. What if, from the cavernous artist’s studio, or the fortune-teller’s shadowy tent, the artwork or the crystal ball brings us a message that we wouldn’t have received otherwise?
If only there had been an electric light bulb in Plato’s cave.
Artspeak is a regular column dedicated to contemplations of the idiosyncrasies of the art-world lexicon. If you have heard any new words or have art-related words or phrases that you think deserve consideration, please submit your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Micol Hebron is an artist and educator living in Los Angeles.