Theory is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Using at least two of the readings for combining concepts, discuss how developing a theory of media and mediation is essential for understanding how art and all forms of cultural expression can be presented in an interpretive framework or interface.

If there is one theme that arises from our readings this week, it is this: everything changes. Art changes: “By the mere fact of its birth every great art modifies what arose before it; after Van Gogh, Rembrandt has never been quite the same as he was after Delacroix” (Malraux, Irvine 13). Technology changes: “The once-revolutionary industrial obiect… once it is withdrawn from circulation, transmits only pastness” (Debray 54). And most of all, theory changes. In comparing this week’s readings, we see shifts and differences—some subtle, some large—that emphasize that theory is never universal and so, I would argue, not strictly necessary.

Malraux makes the point that, despite the flaws introduced by reproduction—the degradation of a work’s uniqueness, the elimination of proportion, the loss of context—reproduced art still maintains a certain arty quality and contributes to society in a similar way. “Diverse as they are, all these objects… speak for the same endeavor; it is as though an unseen presence, the spirit of art, were urging all on the same quest…” (Irvine 12).

Benjamin, on the other hand, treats reproduction as a sort of numbing force, the new opium of the masses. His treatment of film as an art of distraction is more than slightly disdainful; he refers to it as inviting “the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” (254). (The specific reference to Shakespeare here is laughable, particularly the idea that countless film adaptaions have somehow destroyed the culutral value of Shakespeare more than any other development since 1600.)

Debray, in fairness, calls out Benjamin and the scholars in whose footsteps he follows, writing, “Their humanist diatribes against industrial alienation are animated by a classically instrumental view of technology conceived as the sum of mere props and nonessential tools at the disposal of a cause that far surpasses them” (25). Yet he is nearly as scornful toward the idea of communication.

All of these scholars have, buried in the core of their arguments, the idea that art means something, that art can convey a message and values that were put there by its creator; this is the idea of art as an interface. It is not an idea that demands theory, but rather a modicum of critical thought; though they might not use the same terms, I imagine that many people—most people, even, particularly those with some education—recognize that art is generally not just a pretty picture. And this is something that Malraux, Benjamin, and Debray can all agree on, despite differences in their other attitudes.

Returning to the question at the top of this post, I’ll note that it involves a little bit of circular logic. The idea that “art and all forms of cultural expression can be presented in an interpretive framework or interface” is in and of itself a theory of media and mediation. If the goal is to discuss how a broader, more overarching theory is necessary to understand the more specific theory of art as an interface, then my answer is this: it’s not.