DOI link for Medium
DOI link for Medium
Cinema – artistic film or movies – was the great new art form of the twentieth century. In its struggle to establish its artistic credentials, cinema inherited the nineteenthcentury debate about whether photography was an artistic medium. The question now was: could film, involving a process that mechanically recorded whatever was in front of the camera’s lens, be recognized as a medium of artistic expression? Was there a distinctive medium that allowed an artist or artists to create a cinematic work of art? As a developing narrative form, often adapting established theatrical works, film also prompted theorists to clarify the differences between theater and cinema. Exactly how was the film medium different from that of theater? This concern about the distinctive nature of the cinematic medium was not a new theoretical enterprise. Theorists of the arts had been engaging in similar debates about other artistic media for centuries. One of the most famous earlier medium theorists was Gotthold Lessing, who in his book Laocoön (1968 ) proposed distinguishing poetry from painting in terms of their different sign systems. “Since painting,” Lessing claimed, “because its signs or means of imitation can be combined only in space, must relinquish all representations of time, therefore progressive actions, as such, cannot come within its range” (90). Painting, he argued, should only attempt to show bodies or objects in space and not try to show a temporally unfolding series of events. Because it presents its imitative signs sequentially in time, poetry should concentrate on representing actions or events and not the appearance of bodies in space. What is important for later medium theorists about Lessing’s theory is that Lessing connects a description of a medium with a prescription for how artists ought to use that medium. Because of its distinctive material and formal nature, each medium has its own special potential. Artists ought to produce works that recognize the formal restrictions and distinctive representational requirements of the medium; they ought not to employ stylistic strategies more appropriate to another medium. This two-part concern to identify a special functional character of an artistic medium and to prescribe certain projects appropriate to that medium has been referred to by Noël Carroll as “the specificity thesis” (Carroll 1988: 81). This concern to identify the nature of an artistic medium and to prescribe a range of aesthetic features appropriate to that medium was a major formalist interest of modernist artistic theory. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century and continuing
on into the middle of the twentieth century, modernist theorists questioned the imitative, illusionist aesthetic that had been the main direction of the arts since the Renaissance. In a classic statement of this position, Clement Greenberg in his essay, “Modernist Painting,” claimed that an essential feature of the modernist project was that each particular cultural practice, such as an individual art form, should engage in a self-critical search for its own distinctive nature. Each art form should attempt to discover what is “unique and irreducible” about its nature. He asserts:
It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique to the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Therefore each art would be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as its independence. (1995: 120)
According to Greenberg, the essence of painting – the irreducible medium of painting – was a paint-covered flat surface. Realistic or illusory painting, he says, “had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art” (ibid.: 120). Modernist painting that conformed to this effort at self-criticism revealed the art form’s true or “pure” medium and proclaimed such works to be an honest expression of that medium, providing an experience for the viewer that no other art form could deliver. Modernism had a profound effect on all twentieth-century art forms, leading theorists of the arts to search for the irreducible essence of each artistic medium so as to validate it as a genuine art form. Artists were encouraged to produce works which reflexively highlighted the medium employed and revealed to perceivers the distinctive nature of that medium. Theorists of modernist poetry, modernist dance, modernist architecture, modernist (Brechtian) theater – and many other art forms – all sought to discover the essential medium of their specific art form. One can see the attempt to search for the “true” medium of film as an endeavor in this same modernist spirit. It was also important to distinguish cinema from theater and to emphasize that artistic films should be true to their medium and not pretend to be works in some other medium, such as filmed plays. An important issue in addressing the question of what is the true medium of film is the question of whether cinema is best thought of as a single medium. Or, because of its history of constant technological change, should film be better thought of as involving a process, where a newer medium constantly replaces an older medium? Or, is film better thought of as a composite medium – such as some might call opera – in which new features are added to established ones? To begin addressing these concerns, one might acknowledge that art forms often have several different, distinctive media. When speaking about painting, for example, one could say that water color is a different medium from oil paint. This way of speaking identifies a medium as a physical object or process with a distinctive set of properties or features. However, by emphasizing the properties of the manipulated physical object, this approach invites
the question of whether changing the physical object (e.g., the paint) produces a new artistic medium. If because of advances in chemistry, contemporary oil-based paints are different than those used in seventeenth-century Holland, is that reason enough to say that contemporary oil painters and seventeenth-century Dutch genre painters were working in different media? Does each new advance in paint technology produce a new medium? While we might say that water color is a different medium from oil, is acrylic paint, which certainly has some unique properties, really a different medium from oil paint? Or, are they the same medium because they produce generally similar qualitative experiences? If we insist that acrylic is a different medium from oil, important questions are raised about the nature of the cinematic medium, due to the continuous change in film technology. Such changes have often been dramatic (e.g., the introduction of sound), but there have also been minor changes whose accumulative effects have been equally dramatic (e.g., gradual changes in the design of the camera). Are 1920s silent films that used black-and-white nitrate film stock in the same medium as sound Technicolor films from the 1950s or contemporary films using computer-generated imagery? Is the film medium that D. W. Griffith worked with during the 1910s and 1920s the same medium that Steven Spielberg worked with at the end of the century? Has cinema changed from a single distinctive medium into a composite medium or multimedia (Carroll 1996)? Some theorists have tried to find a common element across the myriad changes in film technology to identify as the essence of the medium. Gregory Currie finds the common element in cinema to be moving images (Currie 1995). Gerald Mast has proposed that cinema is essentially “an integrated succession of projected images and (recorded) sounds” (Mast 1977: 111). By emphasizing that cinema essentially involves projection, Mast distinguishes cinema from television, at least the cathode-ray-tube television technology that he was familiar with in 1977. The quality and resolution of the television and film images are quite different. The professional projected image in a theater has a much sharper resolution than that of a TV image in one’s living room. The film image created by light projected through celluloid allows for a true black and white. “On a color television set,” Mast points out, “black-and-white looks more like purple-gray-and-pale-pink, since the color dots still produce faint hues without any stimulus” (94). Of course, lots of films are shown on television; however, Mast claims that one’s experience of a film on a large movie theater screen is markedly different from that of watching even the same film on the little box in one’s living room. Seeing those giant lips say “Rosebud” on a large screen, Mast thinks, is a very different experience from seeing Citizen Kane (1941) on a small television monitor (ibid.: 102). With film we can be overwhelmed by the size of objects in the image, fascinated by the detail of a close-up, startled by loud sounds, held in rapture by soft ones. These characteristics of the screen image, Mast says, “produce almost tactile, sensual effects on the nerves, stomach, even skin . . . on television they remain occasionally interesting” (ibid.: 102-3). Cinema can create an almost “hypnotic” effect on the perceiver; television in one’s living room often competes with many distractions.