The Idea of a Medium
240 | CCN: 31858
The concept of a “medium“ (painting, poetry, photography, film, etc.) and medium specificity have been central concepts in aesthetic theory and have a long history. But that concept seems to have become increasingly fragile with the advent of digital media, not only due to the notion of convergence (the idea that all media will be subsumed by the digital—photography, television, film, literature, etc.) but also by the seemingly accelerating dematerialization of the media. From painting to photography, we already witness a move from the concept of a materially grounded original to infinite reproducibility and the loss of the location or verifiability of the original. However, one can still touch a photograph as one views it. With the advent of projection in film, there is an apparent increase in dematerialization and the digital sometimes strikes us as doing away with materiality altogether (this is the “fantasy of immateriality” associated with the digital—a repression of the hardware).
We sometimes forget that the concept of a medium is not that old. The emergence of an interest in differentiating media by their special and unique properties is usually traced to Lessing’s Laocoon, written in 1766. This text is a benchmark in discussion of aesthetics and medium specificity and leads to an increasing philosophical/critical interest in the boundaries of the arts and their separate teleologies. Art History is perhaps the discipline that has historically had the greatest stake in the concept of a medium. (the labeling of paintings, art works in museums—identified through medium, artist, date). The notoriety of Clement Greenberg is linked to his insistence on the association of value in aesthetics with fidelity to the medium of the work of art, to its materiality and the limitations of that materiality. The medium is often associated with classic concepts in aesthetics including form, value, beauty, limits. In the first part of the course, we will examine some of these classic texts and the debates surrounding these issues. As many have noted, the concept of a medium cannot be reduced to materiality, but neither can it be divorced from some notion of materiality and the restraint/constraint/limits of the real.
Photography seems to throw a monkey wrench into the midst of these debates and definitively change their terms. By undermining the concept and importance of the notion of the material object in its uniqueness and originality, by the ambivalence surrounding its acceptance or rejection as an “art,” by the question of its place in the museum. Hence, much of the theoretical work on the concept of a medium takes place in the context of a discussion of photography. After photography, with the advent of multi-media, intermedia, etc., the concept of a medium undergoes further problematization. One of the questions we will be asking is whether or not the concept of the medium continues to have relevance and usefulness, or whether we indeed inhabit, as many have claimed, “a postmedium age.” There will be readings in Lessing, Greenberg, Panofsky, Fried, Cavell, Bolter and Grusin (Remediation), Didi-Huberman, Rosalind Krauss, McLuhan, Jameson, Galloway and others. Screenings of films by Godard, Bresson, McCall, Resnais, Jarman, etc. Installations by David Claerbout, Broodthaers, Joe Campbell, Acconci.