medium specificity

The OED defines “specificity” as “The quality or fact of being specific in operation or effect,” or “being specific in character.” The OED defines “medium,” in terms of the arts, as “any raw material or mode of expression used in an artistic or creative activity.” In linking these two words to form the phrase “medium-specificity,” a composite definition can be made: the quality of being specific, in operation and effect, to the character of the raw material being used as a mode of artistic expression. What does it mean, though, to be specific to a medium? The OED defines specific as “Specially or peculiarly pertaining to a certain thing or class of things and constituting one of the characteristic features of this.” If the “class of things” is taken to be artistic media, then being specific means that the artwork is constituted by the characteristic qualities of the raw material. For example, a painting that is medium specific is comprised of paint and surface (the “operation”), and also represents and imitates these materials (the “effect”).

Medium-specificity is based on the distinct materiality of artistic media; however, these categories are primarily defined by convention. The qualities that define a medium are not irreducible or inherent properties; artistic media are historically constructed categories of tools and practices. T.S. Eliot explains this faculty of medium-specificity in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone…You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead” (Eliot, 1922:2). Eliot argues that a writer never starts on a blank page, and by the same token a painter never begins with a blank canvas, and the same follows for all media. In order for a medium to have characteristic qualities it must be grounded in a tradition that has established these as intrinsic properties.

The insistence on medium-specificity arose in the era of modernism, and has become associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg. The concept, however, can be traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay, Laocošn. Lessing dismantles Horace’s famous claim “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), arguing that these media are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space. He refers to the media as “two equitable and friendly neighbors” (Lessing, 1766:91), who should not overstep their respective terrains. Lessing contends that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.

Lessing’s petition for a distinction between media was taken up by Greenberg in his 1940 essay, “Towards a New Laocošn” and later in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” However, while Lessing focuses his efforts on the interrelation of painting and poetry, Greenberg concentrates exclusively on the plastic arts. He defends and celebrates abstract painting as achieving the perfect expression of medium-specificity and purity–purity being the ideal state of medium-specificity, the work as uncontaminated by the influence of other media. By escaping from the chains of recognizable subject matter, the abstract painter became free to focus on the materiality of the medium. Thus, painting became an autonomous force that communicated nothing outside of its own self-contained properties. Through abandoning the imitation of nature, painting also escaped from emulating the conditions of sculpture; that is, abstract painting rejected the illusion of three-dimensional space. Greenberg describes this evolution towards abstraction as a gradual “surrender” to the flat surface, the opacity, of the painted surface (Greenberg, 1940:8). By focusing attention on this opacity, abstract artists come the closest to identifying what the art form is in essence.

Greenberg argues that painting found its way to medium-specificity through looking to music; not to imitate it, but to understand how it operated. Music, he contends, is inherently pure and abstract because it cannot be described in terms of any other media. Kandinsky expresses a similar sentiment in his seminal Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which is considered to be the first manifesto for abstract painting. Kandinsky writes: “With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound” (Kandinsky, 1914:19). Kandinsky talks of painting using “borrowed methods” from music, but insists on the “proper use of this encroachment” (Kandinsky, 1914:20). This proper usage requires that painting, while appealing directly to sensation as music does, operates only with the processes specific to itself.

W.J.T. Mitchell’s 1994 “Ut Pictura Theoria: Abstract Painting and Language,” argues against Greenberg’s conception of purity. According to Mitchell, representational and abstract painting both have a dependence on language, the former always involves narrative, and the latter has historically been dependent on theory. Thus, the Greenbergian idea that abstract art is free from a relationship with language is rejected. In Mitchell’s view, medium-specificity of this kind is impossible; words are always needed to explain the picture.

Poetry is often neglected in the theoretical discourse on medium-specificity, which usually revolves around the plastic arts. As Greenberg points out, it is much harder to locate where the medium of poetry lies, what its materials are, and thus where its specificity would be contained (Greenberg, 1940:7). However, it is important to mention poetry within the context of Greenberg and Lessing. Lessing structures his argument around poetry, criticizing any tendency towards visual description in writing which seems to imitate the effects of painting. He is making an early case for medium specific poetry. Greenberg describes Mallarmé’s efforts to free poetry from subject matter and logic by appealing directly to the sensations through lyricism and symbolism (Greenberg, 1940:7). There are many other poets who also strove to find the specific medium of poetry such as: Poe, Baudelaire, Valéry, Pound, and Stein.

Michael Fried is another important figure in the discourse on medium-specificity. In his 1966 essay “Art and Objecthood,” he attacks minimalist art for producing effects that do not derive from within the work itself, but instead are dependent on the viewer’s relationship with the object. This, he insists, “is now the negation of art” (Fried, 1967:15). According to Fried, these minimalists took Greenberg’s plea for purity too far; instead of exploring the materiality of the media, all they do is present the materials for what they are. Fried argues that this leads to an emphasis on the viewer’s encounter with the object and its “objecthood,” rather than with the formal qualities within the object itself. This interaction is theatrical because it exists within space and time, while Fried contends that visual art should instead aspire to absorption, which he casts as the opposite of theatricality. The work should present itself whole at every instant, and not depend on the viewers’s relation to what is being seen.

The concept of medium-specificity has had a profound impact on photography. In its early history, photography struggled to establish itself as a legitimate art form. Theorists devised a justification for the art of photography that positioned it against its competitor, painting. Art photographers such as Stieglitz, Weston, and Strand argued that in order for photography to be taken seriously, it must operate only according to its own capabilities: it must not aspire to imitate the aesthetics or materials of painting. The art of photography became defined on strictly medium-specific terms. The first substantial instance of this is Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, and his accompanying catalogue, Photography: A Short Critical History. In his modernist retelling of photography’s history, he frames its successes and failures against an assumption that the aesthetics of photography are controlled by a pure use of the medium. He discounts any attempts at mixed media, such as early hand-colored prints, or Man Ray’s darkroom experiments, as inherently non-photographic. He calls photography that is true to its medium “honest,” implying that any other usage is deceitful.

Newhall’s positions have had a lasting impact on photography; his early championing of photography brought it legitimacy. His claims for photographic art have had a legacy in the writing of John Szarkowski, another curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski’s 1966 book The Photographer’s Eye describes in detail the properties that define the photographic medium. He argues that the photographs he presents as exemplars have nothing in common but the shared vocabulary of the medium. He disregards the idea that an artist is behind every work, instead arguing it may just be someone who knows how to use the camera effectively and properly. This idea can be seen as the legitimate grand finale of photographic medium-specificity, when the medium is independent enough to be seen as self-operative.

Perhaps the most significant figure to discuss medium-specificity is Marshall McLuhan, a theorist concerned with the effects of media on culture. “The medium is the message,” which he coined in the first chapter of his 1964 book Understanding Media, not only entered the accepted rhetoric of media studies, but also became the common idiom used to discuss emergent technology. According to McLuhan, media should be defined as “extensions of man” (McLuhan, 1964:4), and include any technology that is not found in our natural state. In his view, “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan, 1964:8); the medium is thus specific through its effects, not its content. The power of media to change the way individuals interact with one another and society is determined by the nature of the medium itself. This change that is produced is the “message” of the medium, rather than the message being something that varies depending on content. McLuhan hypothesized that understanding this property of medium-specificity would allow societies to control the effects of new technologies, harnessing potentially dangerous inventions by predicting their influence.

In his 1977 book Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams proposed a reading of medium-specificity where media are defined by the social or cultural context they are practiced in (“From Medium to Social Practice”). Williams traces the evolution in art historical terminology from defining artworks according to “medium,” to defining them as “practice.” Williams contends that artworks have come to be understood as contextually embedded products. This understanding is aligned with the precepts of post-modern art, which emphasizes the conceptual rather than the material basis of art. Like Williams, Rosalind Krauss argues for a “different specificity” (Krauss, 2000: 56) in what she deems “the post-medium condition,” in her book A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. In her argument, the Greenbergian notion of medium-specificity has become irrelevant, and a new goal for purity must be assigned to the art world. This specificity, though, will not be located in materials or methods, but in the “essence of Art itself” (Krauss, 2000: 10). The successful art of this post-medium age will reflect on its own practice in relation to the past, and through such contemplation escape absorption into capitalist modes of production. Such reflection must involve an acknowledgement of the medium specific practices that are being replaced or combined, and an intent to use art as an exploration of the idea of art. In this way, medium-specificity is continued through its subversion into “different specificity.”

The concept of medium-specificity has had a lasting impact on the art world. In the post-modern dialogue this idea lost much of its luster, but our continuing identification of works in terms of their media (or mixed media) can be seen as a legacy of these theories. Many current theorists feel the need to acknowledge their departure from the ideas of Greenberg and Fried. Although medium-specificity was an important step forward for photography, abstract painting, and modernism, it can be seen as restrictive and destructive of artistic freedom. Perhaps the theory turned out to be too specific. In particular, there is an important history of interactions between media that this strand of modernism ignored. Although Greenberg did not get literary painting removed from museums, and Fried did not detract from minimalism’s popularity, and Newhall did not let surrealist photo-collage disappear into obscurity, there were setbacks. Color cinema’s early history was almost completely ignored because of the formalist rejection of painting on negatives. As a result, many prints have fallen into irreparable disrepair. Many early photographers were ignored because of their “non-photographic” subject matter or technique. Outside of the realm of art, medium-specificity has taken on different cultural and social connotations, and the self-awareness that McLuhan promoted has led to a tongue-in-cheek culture of the “meta.” Our ability to talk openly in culture about the effects of media on our lives – from TV to the web to instant messaging–might not exist without McLuhan’s theorizing the media as the “message,” or as he later writes, “the massage.”

Emma Bee Bernstein


Eliot, T.S. 1922. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism.

Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” ArtForum, June 1967.

Gauss, Kathleen McCarthy and Andy Grundberg. Photography and Art: Interactions Since 1946. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.

Greenberg, Clement. “Towards a New Laocoöšn.” Partisan Review, July-August 1940.

Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Partisan Review, Fall 1940.

Kandinsky, Wassily. 1914. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1977.

Krauss, Rosalind. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. 1766. Laocošn. Trans. Edward Allen McCormick. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1984.

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Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

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Szarkowski, John. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford, Oxford UP, 1977.