Art for social scientists (and vice versa): why the avant-garde and Media Theory have more in common that you’d think
It was a lovely Sunday morning; the sun was shining and all young urban creatives (aka yuccies) headed to their natural habitat: edgy cafés & networking spaces. We were enjoying a lovely brunch in a company of an art book, when an Agatha Christie- meets- Conan Doyle eureka moment hit us: there is a secret bond linking some rebellious avant-garde artists, a German composer and a certain Canadian social scientist!
Let us introduce some of the key characters first:
Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin - Soviet avant-garde artists. Known for their abstract, sometimes confusing, daring and seemingly not always meaningful works that sell for millions of dollars. You might have come across reproductions of Malevich’s famous Black Square when playing with Paint as a kid, or heard about Tatlin when reading how a Constructivist movement influenced Bauhaus and De Stijl.
Marshall McLuhan- a Canadian-born academic that gave rise to the study of medium of communication in the informational age. Monsignor McLuhan was a real visionary – he called for a thorough research of medium by which any kind of information is conveyed and predicted the rise of WWW long before it was invented. He is also regarded by some as one of the founding fathers of media and communication studies. If you’re a communications professional (hey yuccie!) or a student, this guy is a VIP worth getting to know better.
Richard Wagner – a famous 19th Century composer of a German descent, mainly famous for his operas; believed that “imagination creates reality” and was an overall great role-model for all over-achievers worldwide.
One can ask: “What do avant-garde artists of the early 20th Century possibly have in common with a Canadian philosopher and one of the founders of media theory?” or, “maybe a bottomless brunch isn’t the best way to discover new research areas for sociology of art?”.
Before we dismiss this sensational discovery as some new conspiracy theory of wannabe detective writers, let the facts speak for themselves.
- Clue 1: Medium is the message
Let’s start with the foundation: Canadian philosopher believed that the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” He claimed that each new step in technological advancement bears “personal and social consequences.” In other words, he called for our attention to the side of production and operational of meanings, to the form of a medium that influences how the message is perceived.
Our artistic friends Malevich & Tatlin, in turn, wanted to disrupt previous notions of what art was by putting the medium of an artwork in focus (starting to see the resemblance now?). They were about moving towards a pure abstractionism by focusing on the physical properties of an art work: on its materials, shapes, colours – its medium. Malevich believed that the medium of a painting dictates its form and colour, and not the visual that can be duplicated from artist’s surroundings. Tatlin went even further and claimed that he did not produce artworks, but researched materials!
- Clue 2: Global village
Prepare to be amazed by another shocking discovery: McLuhan’s theory of a “global village” goes hand in hand with Wagner’s and Kandinsky’s vision for the new chapter in art history.
While McLuhan theorised about one medium – electronic culture- re-shaping the world into a diverse electronic village, Kandinsky and Wagner worked around an idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk” – an absolute work of art combining the mediums of music and painting.
In other words, McLuhan believed in the unity of one medium that will absorb other forms of expression, whereas Kandinsky & Wagner aimed to create an artwork that would merge a symphony with a painting.
- Clue 3: Reading signs of their times and writing history
Like many other great artists and professionals in the field, McLuhan, Wagner, Kandinsky, & co had a profound influence on what came after: they were great at recognising trends of social development and creating new forms of artistic expression that would support the trends they believed in.
While McLuhan paved the way to the new dimension in social science and research that added numerous branches to the communication & media studies tree; 20th Century avant-garde artists and a 19th Century Romantic German composer gave rise to such artistic movement like Orphism, Blue Rider, Suprematism and Constructivism.
Consider the case solved.
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Malevich sold for a record $60 mil
Gompertz, W. (2016). What are you looking at? 150 years of Modern Art in the blink of an eye. 2nd edition, London: Penguin Random House.
The Official Site for the Estate of Marshall McLuhan - https://www.marshallmcluhan.com
McLuhlan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. New York: McGrow Hill. p. 9