Monday, June 2, 2008

The Fundamental Differences of the Natures of Artistic Mediums

All artistic mediums - literature, visual arts, and music - are fundamentally the same. They are all catharses that spiral out of the soul due to a processing of our thoughts and our surroundings into a new product, that is not otherwise functional except for the sake of expulsion and expression. The failure to realize the ubiquity of the artistic mediums has kept many important ideas from amalgamating between mediums. This is due to poverty of thought, or willingness to accept artistic conventions.

However, there are a few fundamental differences that make each medium unique and seperate, and these need to be understood. When they are understood, one can understand how to appropriately translate certain innovations in one to another, how to combine two, and in what scenarios one is advantageous to another. These may be obvious, or obvious but not taken for consideration, or meaningless except in this comparative context. Nowhere have I seen a direct comparison of these characteristics such as this, and I feel it to be a vital consideration.

The fundamental differing features of each medium, and how each is fundamentally viewed as a result are as follows. The mediums are divided and classed somewhat unconventionally, mostly by the number of physical dimensions they act upon and are conceived through.


This includes all expressions through sound - classical music, musique concret, pop music, experimental pieces, and so forth. A better term might be "sound art".

-This is the only form expressed via soundwave, and therefore experienced with the sense of hearing.

-Being an expression via soundwave, music works within the realm of time, and acts upon no dimension of space.

-When a music piece is heard, the listener cannot control how fast or slow they experience the piece, nor the order in which they hear sections of the piece, as they may with a visual, still artwork.

-Being a medium that works within a time frame, it may be considered as, for lack of a better term, a continuous variable. No specific pinpoint of a length of time means anything; it is 0/x, where x is the whole of the time of the work. This would contrast with a discrete variable, where there is a finite set of divisions that each mean something in relation to the whole, each piece being n/x, where 0 < n < x. This contrasts to any still visual works, and in this manner music is similar to any other work within a time frame (film and dance, for example).

-Since the listener has no control over the experience of the work (how fast or slow he or she percieves it, which parts they percieve in what order), the piece itself dominates and forces the listener to percieve the music in a certain way, at a certain rate, in a certain order. However, in some instances, the listener will have control over specific elements of the music; listening to music at home usually enables the listener to alter volume or bass, for example, but these do not alter the work fundamentally.

-Because of this, the one experiencing a musical artwork does not have to put in any effort to experience it. The piece feeds itself to the listener's ear, and the listener hears it whether they want to or not.

-For this reason, those who are uneducated in the arts (usually the masses), tend to be able to have such a great interest in music, and not in, say, painting, because to understand most painting it requires some form of education and a bit of patience to find things (because the prior point is not true of painting).

-And this is why music suffers the most from conventionalized, watered down popular forms of its art, which are collectively known as, in this case, "pop music". However, there is no "pop painting" in the same sense of the term "pop". This is why people tend to assume wrong things about this medium more than others, why it suffers from the most misguided history, and why many people think they are experienced in this medium when they are really not. This is also what makes dealing with music and musicians so frustrating at times. The same could be said of films, except the situation is even worse in that case. With films and music, even many educated people know nothing of the medium except its popular incarnations, and that is a shame. (How many more people know of The Beatles than they do of Pierre Henry?)

-It is easier to experience something in this medium and not have one's attention fully consumed, as is the case of film, or most visual artworks.

Two dimensional, timeless visual arts. This includes anything such as painting, drawing, etching, photography, etc. Depending on the depth, carvings and certain structures may be considered two or three dimensional visual arts (Rauschenberg's Canyon is one such grey area). This does NOT include anything that works within time, such as film. All of these mediums are fundamentally the same, except for choice of material itself. Most of these points contrast with those of music.

-Being an expression of two dimensional, unalterable forms (lacking the last two dimensions of depth and time), it is experienced with the sense of sight, and is created with a wide range of mediums.

-Because of this, points two, four, and five of music do not apply here. The viewer has control over what parts and aspects of the work they experience, in what order, at what rate, and can even control how much time he or she spends on each. Though visual tricks like "focus points" can draw the viewer to observe certain things before others, this is not powerful enough to work all the time.

-The viewer thus has control over his or her experience of the work: it is not being fed to them.

-And because of this, visual arts take patience and often education to understand.

-Therefore, visual arts do not catch onto the masses as easily as music does. There is little "pop art" in the sense that there is "pop music". This contrasts to point six of music.

-Thus, visual still arts do not suffer from many of the negative conventionalizations of music described in point seven of that section. For this reason, too, visual arts of this class are better respected than those that consume the attention of the uncultured masses.

Three dimensional, timeless visual arts. This is essentially sculpture and architecture.

-Almost everything that is relative to two dimensional, timeless visual arts applies here.

-There is the obvious exception that these mediums involve the third dimension, but not yet the fourth of time. (Exceptions are being made - see the note on Alexander Calder under "Grey Areas").

-Architecture has the added element that it can be experienced spatially within and without, and is also functional. This can also be limiting: architecture usually has to conform to new restrictions that sculpture does not. For example, architecture is always functional, and suffers from constraints that smaller structures do not.

Timed visual works. This includes both three and two dimensional forms, as they share all of the characteristics being listed. This includes films, dance, and performances.

-These works are experienced with the sense of sight, and involve all four dimensions (to contrast, music only involves the fourth, and visual timeless arts the first two or three).

-Many require a great number of performers, or both directors and performers (essentially, the one who comes up with the artwork, and those that carry it out). Many of these works are too complicated to be created AND carried out by one person (though many still works, such as architecture, and certain large sculptures suffer from the same constraints). It is very rare the entire process is carried out by one person. This opens up new implications.

-Many of the restrictions of music apply here (two through seven).

-For these reasons, film suffers the most of all media from popular forms, and is best suited for propaganda and forcing the viewer into thinking within the confines of certain conventions. It is therefore also the most connected with money, capitalism, and the idea of success based on popularity and extravagance.

-It suffers even more than music or literature, because it is much more direct, much more attention-consuming and escapist, and requires little patience on the viewer (in its popular forms).

-Many of these mediums require active, live performances by the performers (plays and dance); others do not (films). This is one of the only distinctions between seperate media in this section.

-These works can combine all the other mediums into one, and are unique in this regard.


-These works are experienced with the sense of sight. It consists of speech in written form. Literature is a bit of an odd duck: in a certain sense, it works within the realm of time; in another, it does not. With these distinctions in mind, it is a bit of a cross between the elements of music and those of visual arts. The content itself occupies no dimensions itself except those it envisions and communicates. It is interesting to point out that Foucault considers Don Quixote a dividing link: previously, all literary work was representational; afterwards, mostly imaginatory, creating its own spaces. (See chapter three, part one, of On the Order of Things).

-Along with visual arts, they are one of the most respected forms (music and film may be said to be the least respected, for reasons already described).

-They are experienced within a certain sequence (read in a certain order), like music. However, the pace that a literary piece is experienced is within the control of the viewer. It is generally inappropriate to experience the piece within any order (except, maybe, in the case of cut-up works), though certain sections can be reviewed (as in music, film, still visual arts, but unlike live performances or recordings).

-It takes patience - an active participation by the reader - to experience a literary work, like still visual works. The work is not fed to the reader, as with music or film, and the reader mostly dominates.

-The smallest units, which are sentences, or even words or letters, can be specifically pinpointed, making it discrete (unlike music, which is continuous).

-Literature may thus be considered a cross between the elements of music (and those it shares with film) and those of still visual works.

Grey areas

Due to the innovations of many modern artists, the lines between mediums are being blurred. New genres and forms are being created. They are little understood, and need to be explored in depth. These grey areas make it hard to marginilize many works into the categories above, and may, if their innovations continue developing, smash down the walls of all these categories completely. (See below).

-Fluxus specifically tried to amalgamate different mediums, even creating a few new ones. It is the most radical and innovative of all art movements in this regard. Art has been traditionally conveyed through the senses of vision and hearing only, because they are the strongest senses in human beings, allowing for the most complex forms of communication, and those forms certainly have that advantage. However, Fluxus has dared to create works that involve the senses of smell, taste, and touch. These forms are new and unexplored. These include Takako Saito's Smell Chess, Ay-O's Finger Boxes, or Alison Knowles' Identical Lunch (and some of her other pieces involving food). Since these involve senses that are less strong and direct in human beings, they are less applicable than those that utilize hearing and sight, though are still worth exploring. This also explains their lack of prevalence compared to works that target sight and hearing, and their relative newness.

-Fluxus events and happenings involve the experiencer more, and often escape the limitations of typical timed visual works, such as films, at least to a certain degree. (Duchamp's Erratum Musicale also does this, by allowing the performer to determine the length of each note and the length of each block of silence, but not the notes themselves or their order).

-Many musical works escape some of the limitations described above. For example, Duchamp's Erratum Musicale escapes the second point, and many of Cage's works (and other random, chance, or cut up works) escape four and five.

-Some even more radical works play upon things that are not tangible, such as by having effects on the psychology or body of the individual. Specific sounds have been able to make women orgasm, for example.

-As Foucault explains, Las Meninas plays upon the untangible space between the viewer and the viewed. (See his On the Order of Things, chapter one). This is a space no medium can touch directly, and involves no real dimensions. Visual works, such as film and Renaissance paintings that employ perspective may be said to do the same thing to a lesser degree - they create spaces in which they do not exist.

-Film and performance combine music and vision (all four dimensions, and both main senses). I have even been to a performance that added the sense of smell and touch.

-Alexander Calder's works are not two dimensional films, yet they move; they also involve objects, not people, as performances do. What are they to be considered? He suggested a new term, "mobile". These might fall under a new category after "three dimensional, timeless visual arts" - three dimensional, timed visual arts. In this case, Calder's works operate within a continuous loop, and not in a specific, finite pattern as do musical works. This should be kept in mind.

-"Sound poetry" and literature that is read live borders between music (sound) and written literature, and shares restrictions and elements of each. They may be considered purely musical under our definitions.

These aspects of the nature of each medium or set of media determines:

-How each medium is viewed in a society (for example, music is less respected than painting, for points six and seven under music).

-Which medium is best in a certain scenario, or the best to get a certain experience across.

-Which medium to use based on cost restraints, if that is an issue, though this is generally very workable if one wills it to be.

-How different media can be combined, or borrow ideas from each other (for example, how to translate the idea of "cut ups" to film from literature).

-How each medium is percieved by people, how they may be differently percieved by the educated and uneducated, and why (be it for ignorant reasons or not).

If these innovations listed in "grey areas" continue, eventually the distinctions of all these media will be broken down. New media are emerging to respond to the three ignored senses (smell, taste, and touch) and artists are finding ways to get around the limitations and specific qualities of the others. Others are creating new genres by combining existing ones. Schwitters was an expert at this.

I would see the three new sensory media as diverging into "timed olfactory", "timeless olfactory", and so on and so forth. Eventually, there would be so many categories and combinations of senses and dimensions, art would either be classified on an extremely complex level, or categorization would be broken down completely. Genre names would be descriptions and no longer classifications. However, certain types would still be preferred, no doubt.


robes said...

hi there,
i don't plan on getting too deep here, but i admire your project. i do think the interstices hold the future. i wonder though... i have found that one of the most popular pieces of writing in this area has also been somewhat destructive too. i am referring to rosalind krauss's 'sculpture in the expanded field.' while she tries to make coherent definitions of traditions and outlines a structural method of reorienting them she commits a crime for me: overdetermining a medium. i think that the power of one medium is as important to a message's success as the message itself. i also think that the best work in any medium specifically addresses the edge or limits of that medium. in this way i think the strongest work is made: work that remains open, or incomplete, thereby implicating any viewer or user in the social generation of a dialectic. i don't think it is conservative or bad to push the limits of a medium without displacing that opening into yet another medium, even if it is 'new.' although i am a major fan of many artists that you mentioned (schwitters, etc) i think they were artists whose medium was action rather than matter... his merzcolumn, and his writings are sort of castings, or residues left vibrating, but not the major work itself: movement. joseph beuys is a classic master of action over medium, even with the recurring lard and felt. one more recent artist that gets brought up in this kind of chat is jessica stockholder. while she is blurring many mediums, she is not doing it in the way krauss says, and i think the real impact of her work still occurs in the human use and experience of it. in other words, there is no finished piece of art sitting in that gallery at night, only each morning, when the visitors come back inside, does the artwork occur.
i don't mean to sound critical, but i do wonder about so much 'nontraditional' art right now which is often materially interesting, but not essentially any more progressive than older art, just expanded out of its medium. i am more concerned with artwork pushing against the limits of all matter and previous notions, not necessarily finding new mediums. the digital art world is overflowing with new medium cross-pollination... hell, as i say this, all of my own work is installation based, ie: the kitchen sink... so take all this with a grain of salt. i think we are thinking about the same things though: ideas unfettered by tradition. i am for this too. i guess i just think the social moment, or dialectical construction is more important than whether you can call something by a traditional name like painting, or now 'installation." mediums will always shift; strong, new ideas always rupture medium. we don't need more mediums, we need more real artists out there, not just masters of aesthetic manipulation.

thunderperfectmind said...

thanks :)

i didn't think anyone in particular took any notice to this post.

you bring up an interesting point, one i can say i honestly don't consider enough sometimes. i've always been so fascinated by technique sometimes i probably lose sight of the real point of a lot of works. you are right when you say that innovation of purpose is more important than method. i do think exploration and understanding of method and medium have their merits though.

a deeper purpose of my concern with media (which i don't think i mentioned) is that not so much i think innovative medium is necessary for innovative expression (i think most ideas can be effectively conveyed in just about any medium, if done right) but that creating new media and techniques simply expand the ways in which an artist can express him or herself, rather than expanding on the quality of their work. on the other hand, i'm also concerned with the fact that certain media earn more credit and worth than others, when all are equally able. i wanted to find which ways they were different, fundamentally and conventionally, and why. that was more the point than exploring new media. my ending thoughts are just on what i think might be the direction things are going in. one day the meanings of the words "painting" and "sculpture" may be irrelevant. then again, i don't think something so revolutionary is possible, at least not anytime soon. maybe it's not even necessary.

so qualitative value is more important than material value. i cannot help, however, feeling a bit of excitement for a piece such as smell chess just because of its material innovation. hypothetically, if i were to experience two works, equally able in expression and parallel in impact, but one had a material innovation the other did not, i would prefer that one.

when you bring up schwitters and beuys, you are certainly right. art can definitely exist within an action and not in the medium itself (though i would still consider it under one of my headings). (in a sense, music has no medium - it occurs soley in time, through the transmission of energy, specifically, the sound wave.) this is partly why i am so fascinated with a lot of fluxus works.

i think what we are both getting at is that the medium is only necessary so far that an artist can get his or her message or effect through it. i would add that the most broadly experienced artist could, if experienced enough, convey something in any medium, and to a degree medium would therefore be irrelevant. the real value lies in the manipulation of that medium to convey something. it is the effect the experiencer gets that is important.

a lot of what is transmitted, though, are variations off of universal themes and morals, as joseph campbell points out (he calls them archetypes). not to get too off topic, but i try to avoid this as much as possible - as you say, to create new ideas, not spinoffs on old themes (which have their value too; don't get me wrong). this is much harder to do, though more worthwhile.

i hope that all made sense; i have a hard time explaining myself sometimes. i do appreciate your thoughts though. this is the kind of stuff i want coming onto this site. it makes you think.

robes said...

sorry, took me a few days to get back here.

i totally agree about the archetypal stuff. not that some people, myself included, don't find resonance in things that often get labeled, or linguistically overdetermined as archetypes. i think that if you are logically referencing an archetype, then it is a case of emperor's new clothes... certainly new media will be displaced in a novel way, and putting some classic theme within that new medium is gonna immediately get called out for trying to justify its newness as "respectable" in the realm of high art. thumbin' a free ride with the presidential motorcade. i certainly think that the reason i move towards new mediums has to do with trying to connect the dots between social world events and the more introverted creations in the studio. i tried to force it all into drawing for a while, to oversaturate and amplify things, trying to force all kinds of richness into the relative poverty of black ink. once i got to a sort of impasse there, i tried to start carrying the lessons/habits formed in that 'bondage' back out into 4 dimensions, not just binary black/white, 2D. now i am trying to create situations like music, or like the original act of drawing was for me, in a way that any person who got involved could participate on that formative level, even play.

this gets into some of the things you reference with the Derive, and or psychogeography... less obsessed with breaking the modern order though... more about utopian test activities... anyways. i don't want to go off there, but only deepen and echo some of the things in our short dialogue. i have always seen myself as a drummer first, and drawing has always been there, but it's lessons are spurred on by listening and musical navigation as much as the paper and the ink, or my eyes really. in these ways, i think some mediums always inform each other at deep structural levels, but not always on the crust of an individual work of art. i guess my favorite art is, like your foulcauldian reference to las meninas, about the undifferentiable space that rises up like a gravy in between me and a work of art... somehow i am immediately incorporated into the work in a give and take. to quote from sartre (which is a pompous and absurd move, but, i digress) all social relations and especially art are a "mediated reciprocity." i am most ecstatic and engaged when i feel that total reciprocity with a work. i'm not much of a prescriber, despite my verbosity here, so rather than even trying for new ideas, i am looking for new spaces of social constructivity, and entropy... the nice thing about art is that you can experiment with things, and not try to play with people like toys in their real lives. promoting radical creative social activity is one thing; setting people up to prove an artistic point maybe not. so much relational art right now is so condescending towards the viewer, and/or self-congratulatory for being so socially based(eg. rirkrit taravinija) i still think its okay to make art for quiet times, and quiet people... if making food and talking with people is novel enough to be famous art, then what the hell is my kitchen for anymore? maybe that gets to be incoherent.

I think that with things like fluxus in our past, the relational artists of today should have a little more game! i'm with you all the way on that tip. i appreciate your thoughtful response.. i look forward to stopping by more often... i came here because i had been such a fan of your music blog actually.