The Medium is Not the Message…But It’s a Big Chunk of the Experience

In his book Beauty, Roger Scruton maintains that meaning in a piece of art is “bound up with, inseparable from” the medium through which that meaning is presented. This means, of course, that the art cannot be reproduced in another medium and have the same meaning.

Although I have already discussed the difficulties I have with art reproduction here and here, two relatively new forms of art have been on my mind recently. These forms really seem to make the case for Scruton’s ideas even stronger.

The first is the lenticular image. For those who do not know, a lenticular is a fairly obscure medium (in which I work from time to time). Lenticulars can be based on photographs or other media; multiple images are interlaced and fused to a lenticular lens to create the illusion of movement or three-dimensionality as the viewer approaches the work. While the lenticular is not new technology, it is a relatively new art form. Many people have never seen one that was not an advertising piece.

The problem with lenticulars is that there is no way to reproduce the image electronically, so they cannot, for example, be viewed on the web. A simulation can be made with an animated gif file, but it is only a simulation and cannot reproduce the experience of walking past an image in a gallery that appears to move or to come out of the frame.

Interestingly, the animated gif is the vehicle for the second form. It is the cinemagraph, and its foremost practitioners are a team, Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg. You can see these images, which have been hailed by The Atlantic, Huffington Post and many others, on Beck’s From Me To You Tumblr. These images are essentially still photographs with movement added in isolated segments.

Despite the artistry involved with cinemagraphs and the stories they tell, they also have a problem. Cinemagraphs require an electronic device capable of displaying animated gifs. They can never hang in galleries unless those galleries are appropriately equipped.

These are just two instances where the art work seems completely inseparable from the medium; there are many.  For example, there are images etched in metal. A photograph of the etched image can be made, but that is a weak representation of the real thing. The same can be said for images printed on glass, another medium that cannot be adequately reproduced.

And there are others: physical collage only works if you can really see the texture of the items being collaged. Paint buildup is an integral part of many paintings that simply does not show up or certainly has less impact in a photograph of the painting. Sculpture defies reproduction in any kind of meaningful way except perhaps as a series of images or a video, which still falls far short of adequate reproduction. The same is true of dance or any other live performance art.

Actually, the same is true for all works of art. We can photograph them, we can describe them, but we cannot fully express the experience of them without reference to the media in which they were originally created.

Scruton, it seems, is correct: the content of a work of art is not really translatable to another medium; the medium is an essential part of the experience of the art work. And with these newer forms that union seems even stronger.

One can only wonder what the future holds.

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Date: Monday, 23. May 2011 1:37
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Communication, Photography

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2 comments

  1. 1

    Speaking of big chunks, what came to mind as I read your post was a big chunk of stone. Marble. And Michelangelo famously explaining that when he created a sculpture, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” His description of his creative choice seems to suggest that, for him, the subject of the work already existed within the medium, and the medium, that piece of marble, held a specific subject and no other. This idea binds the two; the medium and the subject, so that they’re inseparable – two parts of a whole that form a particular work of art.

    If we think of art as having body and soul, like a person, the body is the “what,” the identifiable flesh and bone, the medium in which the artist works. The soul is the “who,” the heart, the mind, the essence of the person, the subject or idea the artist wishes to express. If either one of these parts of a person were to be exchanged and set into the body or soul of another, we would have an entirely different being. So it is with art. The medium that an artist chooses is an intrinsic part of the artist’s idea. Together, they make the art.

  2. 2

    Very well said. You describe the interdependence of subject and medium perfectly.

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