In Understanding Media, the artist is one of the few antidotes Marshall McLuhan poses for the numbing and overwhelming effect of the electric age’s technology:

The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old. Equally age-old is the inability of the percussed victims, who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist…The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness. The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures. He can correct them before numbness and subliminal groping and reaction begin.[i]

McLuhan conceives of the ideal “artist” as a medium through which society is informed of the impending violence of new technology. In McLuhan’s estimation, the artist is any man who “picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs,” and, in doing so, “prevent[s] undue wreckage in society”[ii] – even if the victims of the electric age are ignorant of his potential to critically examine, and possibly rectify, society’s ills. While McLuhan situates the artist as a key outlier in an age of new and increasingly dangerous modern modes of mass media, the underlying ideas of his particular characterization of the artist can be traced to the word’s very beginnings in Western society.

McLuhan’s depiction focuses on the artist as a medium working “in any field” through which society can discover itself; as such, he does not classify the artist as producing works of art in specific media. The English word “artist” itself does not necessarily imply certain media. The Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition for “artist” is “a person skilled in a practical art.” Its subcategories augment this definition: an artist can be “skilled in one of the seven liberal arts,” “engaged in a practical science,” be an actor or performer, or simply “skilled or proficient at a particular task or occupation.” The definition of the artist as “a person skilled in one of the creative or fine arts” is modified as being “(now more generally) a person who practices any creative art in which accomplished execution is informed by imagination.” The word itself dates to the sixteenth century (from French artiste and Italian artista, from Latin ars) originally applied to those working in the fine arts. By the seventeenth century, the word expanded to include those skilled in a particular craft.[iii] The word “artist” has therefore served as an umbrella term, naturally growing to encompass professions that did not exist as part of the “arts” of the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe. Visual artists are generally referred to as simply “artists,” whereas writers, poets, musicians, dancers, choreographers, directors, actors, and other groups working in creative professions are referred to by their more specific titles. The artist that will be discussed here is the visual artist, who transmits images and thoughts from their minds into media that can be seen by others.

Though artists can be defined by their individual work in specific media, Western societal conceptions of artists as having minds that are somehow special or different from those of non-artists – an example being McLuhan’s definition – have also been implicitly included in the term “artist” from its beginnings. In her analysis of the term “art,” Johanna Drucker traces the cultural relation of the artist with inherent creativity and heightened consciousness to Romantic ideas of the nineteenth century. Before the Renaissance in Western Europe, it was relatively rare to find artists that were considered significant, much less widely regarded as gifted individuals: in the classical period, painters and sculptors gained prominence, but “art was a concept associated with techne, or applied skill” rather than “the expression of personal experience or feeling.”[iv] The Renaissance marked the birth of the modern ideal of the artist (generally limited to men until the expansion of feminist discourse in academic art history). The flourishing of arts during the period spurred concepts of the artist as possessing an uncommon gift or talent, as well as being a “symbol and symptom of humanistic thought.”[v] Beyond talent, the ideal artist possessed a certain disposition: Drucker writes that “a direct line connects the Renaissance figure of the artist as a personality ruled by the planet Saturn, and thus tinged with madness or melancholy, with the later Romantic artist at odds with culture and society.”[vi] Painters and sculptors became known for their work and their respective talents, but also as distinct personalities: Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, one of art history’s foundational texts, praised figures of the Italian Renaissance for their technical mastery and contributions to the “perfection” of painting and sculpture while making sure to note their dispositions and genius.

As Drucker describes, the trend of artists taking “the stance of being at odds with mainstream culture and its conventions” took hold during the Romantic period. She writes, “The image of the artist driven by feelings, often working in isolation, scorned or misunderstood, found ample support in the works and deeds of Eugene Delacroix and Lord Byron, exemplary among others, who seemed to embody the wildest dream of artistic life.” The idea of the artist as a figure intentionally outcast from society still thrives: “even today, an aura of alienation is considered characteristic of artistic temperament.”[vii] The archetypal artist, therefore, possesses a rare and unique talent – aided by their critical distance from society, and perhaps madness or melancholy – that is evident in their skilled output in creative media. Some characterizations of artistic genius almost downplay the artist’s individual control over this output: according to Kant, “genius is the innate mental predisposition (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.”[viii] In this portrayal, the artist’s genius itself becomes a medium where nature creates works of aesthetic art; innate and intuitive ability is more important than artistic education, the development of practical skill, or even historical conditions. The creation of original and beautiful works of art is firstly dependent on the presence of this individual genius.

The Romantic figure of the artist as alienated from society and of his work as a visual expression of genius has been both reinforced and challenged in modernity. The rarefied status of the works of celebrated artists has been especially challenged by mass production. The printing press was the first invention to subvert particular works deriving value from their status as handmade or individually crafted; the advances of the Industrial Revolution sounded a death knell for any remaining special status. This development was famously elucidated in Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which argues that reproduction through mechanical media effectively removes the “aura” of an art object, or its unique existence at a particular time and location, that contributes to its cult value.[ix] The seemingly sacred character of the original work – which was transmitted from the artist’s blessed psyche by his own hand – is violated by the dissemination of images. By the time of Benjamin’s writing, some artists were already questioning the concept of aura in their own works. Duchamp’s readymades and Jean Arp’s dropped-and-pasted paper pieces served to eliminate the artist’s hand, and thereby their “genius,” from their artworks; of course, these works were and remain valuable due to their creators’ fame.

Modernist engagement with medium specificity subverted Benjamin’s prediction that aura would be reduced by the proliferation of images of art through mass media. The first half of the twentieth century saw painters privileging their medium over their subject matter: the paint itself, and what it was capable of doing, became the focus of their abstract works. Jackson Pollock serves as a perennial example of an artist who created paintings about painting. A photograph of a Pollock painting does not fully communicate the aura and value of the canvas itself as the place that Harold Rosenberg called an “arena in which to act”[x]: the original painting is a direct record of its own creation and reflects Pollock’s personal communion with the canvas through dramatic physical movement. The work that resulted from this personal expression is, according to Clement Greenberg’s seminal criticism, the manifestation of the medium of paint in its highest and purest form. Unlike representational paintings, Pollock’s paintings are signs that point back to themselves. Because they have rid themselves of references to other media, such as literature and sculpture, the works are non-representational spaces of pure opticality, wholly devoted to the expression of their singular medium of paint.[xi] Beyond these works and their aesthetic value, Pollock cultivated a public persona that exemplifies the continuation of the Romantic idea of the artist into the twentieth century: that of an artist troubled by the very genius that spurred the creation of his masterpieces. Paradoxically, Pollock became a star during his lifetime while maintaining – or perhaps exploiting – his reclusive, Thoreau-like nature and reticence to involve himself in the burgeoning New York art scene. His early death certainly added to his works’ cachet. To be in the presence of a Pollock painting is to experience the medium of paint in its highest form. It is also to be in the presence of a work created through the medium of the Pollock figure – genius and tragic hero – himself.

While Pollock and his works conveniently encapsulate the continuation of traditional ideas of art and artists – the artist as an individual hero, the irreproducible aura of his works, and Greenberg’s concept of artists working towards the purification of their specific medium – his contemporaries directly challenged these concepts. Minimalist artists, for example, called ideas of medium purification and specificity into question by moving beyond painting into three-dimensional sculpture or “situations,” whose status as works of art depended on the presence of a beholder’s body. Michael Fried decried these “theatrical” practices, labeling them as non-art as compared to the transformative experience of Abstract Expressionist paintings.[xii] At the same time, Andy Warhol removed the artists’ gifted hand from his works by creating his “factory” for the production and reproduction of silk-screened Pop prints. Rather than being a unique object, a Warhol print is a commodity. The cultural fetishization of its celebrity maker has determined its monetary value – even if Warhol himself did not physically make the work.[xiii] In more recent years, Damien Hirst echoed this quasi-industrial setup to produce works in various media. Hirst outsourced almost all of his “spot paintings” to his assistants. When one assistant left, she asked Hirst to paint one for her. Hirst told her to do it herself.[xiv] The impetus for the spot paintings’ creation was Hirst’s artistic volition, but he (and many other artists, during the age of mechanical reproduction as well as centuries before) did not realize the work by his own hand. This fact does not invalidate the value of his “originals.” Rather than being defined by and made famous for their skill in one specific medium, as Pollock was for painting, most twentieth century artists are not tied to their technical skill in a singular mode of production. Instead, their creativity is expressed through multiple media, and artists can outsource the physical realization of their ideas while retaining authorship over the work as a whole.

While all artists are mediums themselves, the work that they create as a result of their unique creative processes can be filtered through one or more media. The rise of performance art and body art in the 1960s allowed artists to move beyond expression of their creative subjectivity through secondary media (such as painting and sculpture) to using their bodies as the primary medium for this expression. Performance artists that use their bodies to convey a message perhaps most directly exemplify McLuhan’s axiom “the medium is the message” in terms of the visual artist’s status as a medium. Many artists performed these kinds of works directly to an audience of few. In “The Ontology of Performance,” Peggy Phelan argues that the reproduction of performance is futile and senseless, as meaning in works of performance is derived from their transitory and impermanent nature. The difficulty in accurately representing the temporal and spatial nature of performance events through “representations of representations” and mass reproduction is, in Phelan’s view, its defining characteristic and greatest strength. The act of performance is revolutionary, as it undermines the pictorial reproduction of traditional art media and their inevitable commodification by “clog[ging] the smooth machinery of reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital”.[xv] If performance pieces were recorded through video or photography, the pictures were not highly valuable; they have mainly served as documentation rather than aesthetically valuable or collectible works themselves, and fundamentally cannot fully communicate an objective experience of the actual performance. Benjamin’s concept of aura, therefore, is transferred to the artist’s body (rather than being contained in discrete, immobilized works) and is amplified through the exclusive nature of intimate performance events. The few people who can view performance in person have an augmented experience over those who can only view inherently limited reproductions, as they can physically witness the artist’s body becoming a medium as they perform their work.

The societal status of the artist has been contested to such a degree that McLuhan’s theory of the artist can be seen as both relevant and outdated to our contemporary idea of the artist. His definition is plainly based on the Western archetype of the artist solidified in the Romantic era, whose inherent genius compels him to create works of personal expression and feeling, and whose liminal position gives him greater insight into society. Twentieth century developments have complicated this concept. While mass reproduction has made images of art widely available, the aura and elite status of the most famous artists has seemed to only increase. Art practices have diversified and, in some cases, accommodated the nature of celebrity artists: many artists refuse to work within a single medium, and some elect to outsource the physical creation of work to others. Works of art may not be produced by the artist’s hand, but they retain their value and significance through their direct link to the artist’s privileged mind. In the Western post-Renaissance world, artists cannot be easily distilled into a monolithic group displaying similar temperaments and gifts; they can only be said to share individually creative dispositions that they apply to solve problems within their work. To be an artist, one is required to visually manifest the medium of his or her mind; to be recognized by mass society as an artist, however, one may be slotted in to long-lasting models of what an “artist” should look like.

— Erin Thomas

[i] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. MIT Press, 1964, 1994. 66.

[ii] Ibid., 66.

[iii] OED Online. “artist, n.”

[iv] Drucker, Johanna. “Art.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. 4.

[v] Ibid., 4.

[vi] Ibid., 5.

[vii] Ibid., 6.

[viii] Kant, Immanuel. “The Critique of Judgment.” 179. 2nd ed. Translated by J H. Bernard. London: Macmillan, 1914.

[ix] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt.

[x] Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters.” Art News (1952).

[xi] Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.”

[xii] Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.”

[xiii] Drucker, 14.

[xiv] Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World. Granta Publications, 2012.

[xv] Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance Art (1993). 148.