Marshall McLuhan and the Legacy of Popular Modernism

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    • 00:01

      JAY DAVID BOLTER: My name is Jay David Bolter.And I'm the Wesley Professor in Digital Media at the GeorgiaInstitute of Technology, My articleis entitled "McLuhan and the Legacy of Popular Modernism."It appeared in the April 2014 issue of the Journalof Visual Culture.Marshall McLuhan is a legendary figure today in media studies,

    • 00:25

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: particularly for those who study digital media.But the academic world of the 1960soften reacted negatively to his ideas.McLuhan declared the era of the printing book was over.The era of electronic media had begun.In particular, that television waschanging our culture, the social fabric, even human nature

    • 00:47

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: itself.In the 1950s and 1960s, television was the new medium.And the academic world, intellectuals in general,often regarded television as a great threat to our culture.So McLuhan was seen as a scholar who had gone overto the other side.

    • 01:08

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: McLuhan himself often claimed that he wasmisunderstood in this respect.He was not in favor of the new televisual man.He was himself a scholar who loved books.But he insisted that we needed to look honestlyat the current media culture, where television was dominant.McLuhan may indeed have been more at home

    • 01:29

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: in the world of books, than in the new erathat he sought to describe.Nevertheless, the impact of his writing, as well ashis persona at the height of his celebrity,reinforced a major trend of the 1960s and the early 1970s,the rising status of popular culture and the breakdown

    • 01:51

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: of the hierarchy in the arts and humanities.The term "popular culture" itselfseems rather antiquated today.But in the mid-20th century, therewas still a hierarchy in the arts.Modernism had been the reigning artistic and cultural paradigmfor decades.But now it was being challenged within the artistic and

    • 02:14

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: intellectual worlds by ways of thinking that would eventuallybe regarded as postmodernism.Modernism was also bearing the bruntof another challenge, the challengeto elite culture in general.But modernism did not disappear overnight.

    • 02:34

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: Ironically, McLuhan's theory of mediaclearly marked him as a modernistand put him in implicit dialogue with the modernist arttheory of the time.At the same time, he was a key figurein the challenge to modernist elitism.One authoritative spokesperson for high modernist art

    • 02:57

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: in the period was the critic Clement Greenberg,who championed in particular the American abstract expressionistpainters, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.In the essay, "Modernist Painting"and in his subtle analyses of contemporary artists' paintingsand exhibitions, Greenberg offered the classic vision

    • 03:20

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: of medium theory for art.Three key elements in that visionwere medium specificity, historicism, and a disdainfor popular culture.Greenberg argued that the task of the artist workingin a particular medium, such as painting,

    • 03:41

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: was to develop the area of competence of that medium.Although he later claimed that he had been misunderstood,Greenberg seemed to be prescribing the way art shouldwork in the modernist era.For each art, the goal should be to developthe appropriate medium by exploring and extending

    • 04:01

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: its key quality or qualities.For painting, the quality was flatness.Because, he argued, that flatnessalone was unique to painting.So the abstract expressionists weredoing just what modernist artists shoulddo by rejecting the illusion of three dimensions

    • 04:22

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: and focusing the viewer's attention on the canvas itself.Greenberg seemed to be suggesting a processof historical development.Since the impressionists, paintershave been striving to free themselvesof representing the world using the techniques of illusionperfected in the Renaissance.

    • 04:43

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: With the abstract expressionists,painting had achieved that freedom.This, by extension, was what every art should strive for.Finally, since his 1939 essay, "The Avant-Garde and Kitsch,"Greenberg was understood as insistingon the division between high, or serious art, and the world

    • 05:05

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: of entertainment.Kitsch, for Greenberg, included most formsof popular entertainment, popular commercial artand literature, with their homeotypes, magazine covers,illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics,Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies,

    • 05:27

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: et cetera, et cetera.But this apparent blanket rejection of popular culturebecame harder and harder to sustainas the 1960s brought a reconfigurationof cultural attitudes to the arts.Now, there's no evidence that McLuhan and Greenberg ever met

    • 05:48

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: or even that McLuhan had read Greenberg's essays, although itis extremely unlikely that the two had notheard of each other.Yet McLuhan was, in important ways,a counterpart to Greenberg.Greenberg was working in the establishedworld of elite art, for which he articulated his medium theory.

    • 06:11

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: McLuhan was rebelling against the worldof traditional humanistic disciplinesand seeking to define a new interdisciplinary mediastudies.McLuhan's technique was inherentlycomparative and expansive.He examined media in relation to each other,

    • 06:31

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: both in historical and contemporary terms.Above all, while Greenberg had no interest in popular culture,McLuhan considered popular culture,such as film and television, to bejust as important to his media studies as elite art.In the pages of understanding media,television personalities and TV commercials

    • 06:53

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: are analyzed alongside the works of Shakespeare and James Joyce.But in their foundational thinking,both Greenberg and McLuhan were modernists.Both were looking for essences.Greenberg were seeking to locate the essence of each art.McLuhan also sought to define the essence of each medium

    • 07:16

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: or technology.And his definition of medium was so broadthat it could include almost all technology.Each medium has a set of characteristicsthat determine how it extends the human sensorium.The linearity and exact reproducibilityof the printing press defined the rational typographic man

    • 07:39

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: with his sense of individualism and autonomy.The televisual image now gives uselectronic man, who has more in commonwith the inhabitant of a village in a preliterate, oral culture,than with the urbane inhabitants of, say, 19th centuryParis or London.

    • 07:60

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: McLuhan's instinct to be inclusive,to include all technology as media,to regard popular culture, as well as high culture,as his field of inquiry, did not comport with the purityof Greenberg's high modernism.In this sense, McLuhan's had affinitiesto the earlier 20th century advant-gardes, such as Dada,

    • 08:22

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: or to the nascent postmodernism of the 1960s, whichrejected Greenberg and his notion of purity in art.With his appreciation of popular culture,McLuhan reached far beyond art and the art community, justas he reached beyond the community of literary academics

    • 08:44

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: in the 1960s.He was a formative figure in whatI would call popular modernism."Popular modernism" is my term for the wayin which popular culture adopted someof the key assumptions of high modernism,even as modernism was being rejected within the art

    • 09:05

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: community itself.As the hierarchies of art and high culturewere breaking down, as film and popular music, first jazzand then rock, were rising in their cultural statusto rival their elite counterparts, literatureand classicalism, the new cultural figures,

    • 09:25

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: such as rock stars, film directors,and performative celebrities, wereacting like modernist artists, assumingthe pose of modernist artists.McLuhan was part of this trend, arguingthat the medium of television or filmcould play the same cultural role as the medium of print

    • 09:46

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: had done in the past.For McLuhan, the same inexorable mechanismis at work in the way all media remake us.While Greenberg lost influence in the art communityin the second half of the 20th century,McLuhan has gained influence with the much larger communityof digital media today.

    • 10:07

      JAY DAVID BOLTER [continued]: Digital practitioners and theoristshave largely accepted McLuhan's essentialismand identified procedurality and interactivityas the essential qualities that makethe digital medium unique and uniquely expressive of today'smedia culture.Popular modernism has outlived modernism itself.

Marshall McLuhan and the Legacy of Popular Modernism

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Abstract

Jay David Bolter discusses his article that appeared in the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Visual Culture. Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas were disdained by 1960s academia, claimed that the era of the printed book was over, and that television was changing people and society. A modernist, McLuhan's work and persona reinforced the rising status of popular culture and the breakdown of hierarchy in the arts.

Marshall McLuhan and the Legacy of Popular Modernism

Jay David Bolter discusses his article that appeared in the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Visual Culture. Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas were disdained by 1960s academia, claimed that the era of the printed book was over, and that television was changing people and society. A modernist, McLuhan's work and persona reinforced the rising status of popular culture and the breakdown of hierarchy in the arts.

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