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Article Title: Counterblast: Marshall McLuhan and the sphere of Art

Author name: Josu Baruj Gordon G.

Author Adresses: Cerrada Paseo de Francia#26 Lomas Verdes Tercera Seccin, Naucalpan,
Estado de Mxico. C.P. 53125. jgordon@itesm.mx, josue7bis@hotmail.com

Author Biography: Graduated in Communication Sciences and Master in Visual Arts.

Works for the department of Communication and Digital Art, of ITESM Mexico State
Campus. As a researcher works with issues related with Photography and Cinema. As a
producer his main supports are photography and video..


This essay explores the relationship the Marshall McLuhan has with the sphere of modern
and contemporary Art. Some of his ideas are explained under the logic that the sphere of
Art held during the 20th century modernism, as they are represented by Wyndham Lewis.
McLuhans 1954 edition of Counterblast presents itself as a valuable tool for this analysis.
The contemporary art scene is quickly analyzed through a contrast between Paul Virilios
view on contemporary art and some of McLuhans comment on the role of Art and the
artist. The concepts of clich and archetype are used for this enterprise.


Art, modernism, Counterblast, probe, clich, McLuhan

McLuhan and Art: the medium.

Marshall McLuhans book Counterblast was published in 1969, the book that was printed
was a reviewed and added version of his original 1954 Counterblast text. The latter edition
is a publishable, book-format-friendly version of a ludic, a-logical, almost poetic first
version. Although in general terms the central thesis of both is the same I consider that the
format and way of distributing the 1954 text makes it a more eloquent source than the
second, more ordered, lengthier, version to understand McLuhans approach to the world of
Art, and the notion and function of the artists. In the foreword for the 2011 published
edition of the 1954 Counterblast text, W. Terrence Gordon informs us that that McLuhan
distributed sets of handmade mimeographed pages, all stapled together (McLuhan 2011).
This form resembles a lot the raw type of productions promoted by Dada to such extent that
when we have a look at the pages of this first version it becomes clear to which extent the
European avant-garde movements had influenced the 1950s McLuhan. On the same line, a
very important influence for McLuhan was Wyndham Lewis, whom was a recognized
figure of the modern European art scene and an important representative of Vorticism; he
greatly influenced McLuhan with his avant-garde1 approach to Art and Literature. This
stimulus is clearly established by McLuhan words in his introduction of both versions of
Counterblast, and becomes even more evident when you analyze the form and content of
his 1954 text, even the name is in direct dialogue with Lewiss 1914 avant-garde work
Blast (McLuhan 1969).When we have a look at the 1954 Counterblast we are confronted
with a total of 18 pages, title included, 9 of them are constructed solely by a varied number
of newspaper-like headlines. Three to four headlines fill each page, each one of them
propose a concrete, telegraph-like, idea that is self-referential, but that in design and
meaning it could work in relationship with the rest of the headlines found in the text. These
are evocative of Lewiss work in Literature and Art: straightforward experiments on the
limits and possibilities of language and the printed medium, in case of literature, and of
painting in the case of Art. McLuhans enterprise is, overall, a modern artistic effort.
Modernism in art can be understood as a critical moment in the Kantian sense, in which
ontological explorations are held inside specific spheres of production.

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a
discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to
entrench it more firmly in its area of competence. Kant used logic to establish the
limits of logic, and while he withdrew much from its old jurisdiction, logic was left
all the more secure in what there remained to it.

(Greenberg 1987:5)

The modernist theoretical approach will establish, in Art, the search for the definition of the
nature of the artistic enterprise as the nucleus of its concern. The answer to this inquiry
would resolve around the notion of medium: which elements are specific to each artistic
activity (Gonzales Flores 2005). In this sense modern painting will be concerned with those
elements that are specific to its own medium: pigments and a flat dimensional surface,
which helps to explain the loss of mimesis and perspective that modern painting
experienced. This turn towards the medium and its specificity is generally understood as a
unidimensional reduction in which the medium deals with that which is essential to its
medium. The 1954 Counterblast is an example of this, being the printed medium with its
multiple fragmented headlines the object of McLuhans critical analysis. This concern
about the printed medium or the Gutenberg technology is present in McLuhans concerns.
In From Clich to Archetype McLuhan comments

The Gutenberg technology of imposing and impressing by means of fragmented and

repeatable units was the cue for all succeeding mechanization for the social an
educational and political establishments. As various technologies have succeeded
print, it has become more and more the home of the Archetype.

(McLuhan 1971: 119)

The above description of the printed medium contrast with its use in the 1954 Counterblast,
where McLuhan is using a medium he understands as fundamental for the establishment of
social institutions in order to criticize them and the medium itself: BLAST[] THE NEW
YORKER whimsical sycophant of CREAM PUFF culture[] (McLuhan 2001:1).
Revealing, in the process, something very important about the modern thesis regarding the
medium: the fact that when it has become modern, the technique, or tekhn that was used to
produce it becomes free of the medium itself, and therefore can move to instances beyond it.
Art that is art, but, is also something more than art (Rancire 2006). Art explorations
become specific, but at the same time they also expand the reach of arts sphere. Lets go
back to Counterblast, where McLuhan is not just examining the press medium, but is also
dealing with issues of society, education, politics, economy, and mass culture while doing

If we analyze McLuhans work under the light of this specific modern notion many of his
ideas, and the form in which he articulated them, suddenly gain a very clear meaning,
which, of course, goes way beyond the words that built them, I am thinking specifically in
his famous one-liner the medium is the message. If we read this one-liner under the
logics of modern art its meaning becomes crystal solid. In the classic pictorial tradition the
theme was determined by the content: a family of three, composed by a mother, a father
and a baby child (in classic tradition called motifs) would be the content, which all together
determined the theme, which in this case would be the sacred family, as well as the
meaning of the painting. Inscribed in the modern tradition (where, because of the loss of
mimesis the motifs could be missing and therefore the theme) Clement Greenberg
establishes a difference between theme and content when he approaches painting. Content
is, for him, the meaning, while the theme is what is represented (what is seen) (Gonzales
Flores 2005). This is very helpful when approaching paintings where mimesis is absent.
The meaning is not in just in the visual themes, in the message, but is in its content which is
fundamentally linked to the medium, to the support, in the modern logic; let us remember
dripping inside action painting.2 The medium is the message is a modern approach to the
understanding of media in general and mass media in particular. It explores the media
signifying possibilities, understanding that the final meaning of a message (let us say, of a
theme) rests not only in itself, but in the medium, because, as the chosen bridge to articulate
an idea, determines the meaning of the deployed messages.

This logic can be used to explain McLuhans interest to understand the new supports, the
new mediums instead of just focusing on the messages.

All new media, including the press, are art forms which have the power to imposing,
like poetry, their own assumptions. The new media are not ways of relating us to the
old real world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old
world at will.

(McLuhan 2011:13)
The medium is the message, he seems to be suggesting as early as 1954.

McLuhan and Art: the artist.

McLuhans view on the artist and its role is also heavily influenced by Lewis. If we read
the latters Blast manifesto he states artist of the modern movement is savage (Lewis
1914: 33) a savage is someone outside the normal established culture, yet he is exposed to
his own contemporary world, and has to work with it we believe that Art must be organic
with its time (Lewis 1914: 34) in the present case we would be talking about the
mechanized world present in Lewiss time. But this mechanized world regarded as positive

But our industries, and the Will that determined, face to face with its needs, the
direction of the modern world, has reared up steel trees where the green ones were
lacking; has exploded in useful growths, and found wilder intricacies than those of
nature (Lewis 1914:36).

In Lewiss terms an artist is someone inside a specific socio-historical environment that

works with it but within a distance.
Mechanization is seen here as something to work with, not against. Finally the role of the
artist is concerned with social change; art as something else: The nearest thing in England
to a great traditional French artist, is a great revolutionary English one. (Lewis 1914:42).
This general posture is very similar to McLuhans view on the artist: an individual that is
capable of exposing himself to the new technologies and their implications, assuming that
they make and that reshape the world. After doing so the artist finds himself not only in a
position of understanding but also in the possibility to direct social awareness towards
them: An Eliot poem is one instance of a direct means of experiencing, under conditions
of artistic control, the ordinary awareness and culture of the contemporary man (McLuhan

Like Lewis, McLuhan is also interested in expanding the realm of Art beyond its borders
and he does so through the figure of the artist. In Understanding Media he defines it as a
person in any field, scientific or humanistic who understands the implication of his actions
and of the new knowledge, and technologies, of their time (McLuhan 1964). Although this
view could suggest that McLuhan is simply taking borrowed the concept of artist to use it
for his own ends in spheres of production, or knowledge, other than art, in order to, perhaps,
be able to say that anyone can be an artist, e.g., a sociologist could be an artist as long as he
is aware and conscious of the milieu surrounding him, I think his intentions are otherwise.

I would like to propose that McLuhans idea is more akin to the notion that an artist may
come from anywhere. The expansion of Art, detonated by the modern thesis above
explained, also implied a movement of this sphere towards people that are were not
professionally instructed in techn, people who could and would make art that was not
inscribed solely in the tradition of Art. We only need to remember the part of Tristan
Tzaras Dada manifesto To make a Dadaist poem:
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is
charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

(Tzara 1920)

What Tzara is doing here is giving a technique that requires no skill in order to produce
literature. The final point expresses and here are you a writer, the idea behind this is to
turn anyone into a writer, an artist, but not that anything that anyone writes, in any way,
could be considered literature. The spheres of production are respected.

In this sense, how could a sociologist producing an environmental aware study but
publishing it in the normal press-friendly format be considered an artist? We have to
remember that the medium is the message, and said medium is no different from other
studies. Therefore, how could said study be considered artistic? I think there is some
affinity between this ideas and McLuhans work in the 1954 Counterblast. McLuhan takes
the format of an avant-garde art manifesto in order to achieve something. In Counterblast
McLuhan is being an artist, this is observable in the form of this text. He didnt write all his
books in this manner, which could imply that the objectives of those texts were something
different than the one in Counterblast. Although McLuhan makes art in Counterblast not
all his texts are art. Art is not reduced to a categorical medium, but is still a visual or aural

This point is important because the role that McLuhan has given to the art and to the artist
is fundamental for society:

the role of ever-new art and literature in creating new perception for new
environment. Such environments are invisible and invincible except as they are
raised to consciousness by new artistic styles and probes.

(McLuhan 1971: 175)

This view is modern by excellence: Surrealism, Constructivism, Futurism, assign the artist
not only artistic importance, but also social-revolutionary relevance. Probes, as explained
by McLuhan in From Clich to Archetype, are socio-cultural forms, or clichs that have
the effect of liquidating or scraping preceding clichs (McLuhan 1971: 118). In this sense
Counterblast, in its edition of 1954 is a probe for newspaper headline archetype, which is a
social structures created after clichs (McLuhan 1971: 118) and maybe a probe for
literature and language themselves. The Counterblast of 1969 is a probe for the book

The probe function in art is fundamental for the McLuhan modern scheme, yet this function
seems to be absent in some instances of contemporary art, the next part of this work will try
to explain why.

Marshall McLuhans probe and Paul Virilios accident: Art.

Paul Virilio is an academic that shines for his critical view. Acute analyst of a wide range
of phenomena, such as speed, war, militarization, technology, globalization in later years
has directed a series of commentaries towards the sphere of art in its modern and
contemporary phase. Although at first hand Virilio would seem very different to McLuhan
there are many points in which they are similar. Virilio worked with Braque and Matisse,
and is well versed in the world of modern art. McLuhan worked with Wyndham Lewis and
Ezra Pound, to give just two examples. Virilio is also acquainted with contemporary artists,
such as Orlan and Stelarc, being a close friend of this last one (Lotringer and Virilio, 2005).
Virilios general understanding of the world of Art is that it has suffered a terrible accident
as the result of the two World Wards held in Europe, and the horrors that are linked to them.
Talking about the art of the 20th century he says: It has been devastated by the two World
Wars, by the Holocaust, by techno-nuclear power, etc. (Lotringer and Virilio, 2005: 14).

The sphere of art is in crisis, and the main concern about this, according to him, is that it
has not recognized itself in such a situation:

Art is the casualty of war[]the most contemporary thing about contemporary art is
crisis[]The day contemporary art recognizes itself as a casualty of war, we can
start talking again.

(Lotringer and Virilio, 2005: 17)

Art has lost its way. After the great European tragedies of the twentieth century the artistic
enterprise has been trouble defining its nature and its role. This problematic has evolved
into a charade, art continues to exist, but in a dwarfed, impotent state::

the vision machine and the motor have triggered an accident of the arts in the 20th
century. And they have not learned from it. On the contrary they have profited from
it. They are on top of the word. When you look at Christies or Sothebys auction
prices Rembrandt comes after Warhol, Manet after Duchamp. [] they have
masked the failure of the accident with commercial success.
(Lotringer and Virilio 2005: 64)

This damaged art has fallen in control of different heavily established institutions, such as
the market and the academy. We only need to look at the proliferation of official museums
and the surge of art biennales everywhere to observe this (Lotringer and Virilio 2005). The
problematic that such an institutionalization of art possess speaks again about the
mentioned failure of art, but, this time, the denouncement could come from the mind of
McLuhan. Such a regulation in the sphere of art talks about a professionalization, and this
process nullifies the anti-environmental (probe-as-clich) function of art.

Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti-environmental.

Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment.
Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the
critical awareness of the ground rules of society

(McLuhan and Fiore 1967: 93)

Observing the contemporary art world through this argument, it is obvious that its probing
functions have in most cases ceased. The artist needs distance in order to fulfill his job. He
is amongst the few individuals conscious of his time, ahead of its time, yet, contemporary
speed in communications seem to have made this distance almost impossible.
Representation, reality mediated through Art, is no longer possible because our technology
and the speed of information are so fast that we are only left with presentations (Lotringer
and Virilio 2005), no distance is available to be able to represent things.

This landscape is very similar to one that McLuhan describes in his 1969 Counterblast

Throughout previous evolution, as it were, we have protected the central nervous

system by outering this or that physical organ in tools, housing, clothing, cities. But
each outering of individual organs was acceleration and intensification of the
general environment until the central nervous system did a flip. We turned turtle.
The shell went inside, the organs outside [] Thats our present state. But when an
organ goes out, it goes numb, for survival, i.e., we enter the age of the unconscious
with electronics.

(McLuhan 1969:42)

Virilio sees an accident, product of a mechanization of life, and contemporary speed which
destroy the possibility of using art as a focus point and denying artists distance to mediate
reality as to give representation to society. In McLuhans electric age we can explain this
phenomenon through the professionalization of the art field, the transformation into
environment of a sphere that should be anti-environmental, and the numbness of society in
order to survive contemporary life. The result in both cases is a sterile art.
Probe and Archetype today

Virilio has no trust in the possibilities of an art visual probe, Its all a spectacle
(Lotringer and Virilio: 47) he says of art today. He estimates the arts of the body and the
reintroduction of the tragedy as the few things that may revert the ubiquity of presentation,
allowing a return to representation. He also calls for an ecological approach to art, where its
functions are analyzed recognizing its polluted dynamics. McLuhan doesnt claim a cease
in the power of art, but what is true is that the artistic landscape of today, while read under
his ideas, seem barren. I believe that McLuhan would still claim for a Counterblast. His
notion of clich-as-probe allows us to overcome the most vicious and perverted archetypes
and environments. Through the clich-probe we can blast the sphere and perhaps rebuild it.
Examples of this can be found in the art of Jeff Wall, of Nara Yoshitomo, or in the
important works of Krzysztof Wodiczko. These artists operate under the paradigm of
clich-as-probe, presenting pieces that nurture from the anesthetized archetypes from either,
the art, advertising, mass media or Historical spheres in order to denounce them, to put
them off-balance and make the active readers of their work conscious of the moment and
place they live in.

In addition to this the contemporary world allows for the production of new archetypes-as-
probes. Internet allows the production of new archetypes of Art, either in the form of digital
image or audiovisual production. The creation of new ways of using and relating to the
image in its digital form, with all its interactive implications, should be a central concern
for the contemporary artist (Ritchin 2009). Today, more than ever, the possibilities of
creating probing-archetypes and working with the clich as probe are huge, and are
especially powerful, due the degree of dialogue and interaction that Web 2.0 allows.

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Lewis, Wyndham (1914), Blast, Harlesden: Laverige and Co.

Lotringer, Sylvre and Virilio, Paul (2005), The Accident of Art (trans. M. Taorima), New
York: Semiotext(e).

McLuhan, Marshall (1969), Counterblast, Oxford: Pitman Press.

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------ (2011), Counterblast 1954, California: Ginko Press.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore (1967), The medium is the Massage. New York:
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Rancire, Jacques (2006), Lo que medium puede querer decir: el ejemplo de la

fotografa (trans. B. Gutirrez), Le Milieu des appareils colloquium, Paris, viewed 7
May, 2014, <http://www.interiorgrafico.com/edicion/decima-tercera-edicion-abril-

Ritching, Fred (2009), Despus de la Fotografa, (trans. L. Albores), Mxico: Fundacin


Tzara, Tristan (1981), Manifesto on feble love and bitter love, in R. Motherwell (ed.), The
Dada painters and poets: An Anthology, Boston: Harvard University Press, p. 92

Avant-Garde is here understood as an artistic movement that wishes to change society, not only the Art
sphere. Futurism, Surrealism, Constructivism are examples of avant-garde movements, in which their ideas
aim to produce a change in all societys function. Cubism, Impressionism and movements of the sort were
only interested in restructuring the Art world.

Dripping and Action Painting are examples of this. More than what they represent, Jackson Pollocks
paintings construct specific meanings in function of the way in which they were done. The action of letting
paint drip from the brush into the canvas (and never outside it), refer to weight that paint, as well as support
(canvas) have in modern Paint. Here we also find a comment on the role of the modern Painter, which
doesnt deals anymore with notions of perspective nor drawing, and whose hand is not virtuous in the
classic sense.