In our ongoing adult learning series, we link works from our collection with key art historical, theoretical or philosophical texts. Aimed especially at third-level students, but accessible to all, this series aims to support in-depth engagement with our collection and the selected texts.
In this post, we consider an etching from George Wallace's series of prints Summer Shadows, Summer Dreams in the context of a seminal text by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan.
George Wallace, Early Afternoon, 1995 (from the series Summer Shadows, Summer Dreams)
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), The Medium is the Message, Chapter 1, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
George Wallace (1920-2009) was a Dublin-born artist who was based for most of his adult life in Canada, working mainly in print and sculpture. On the occasion of the exhibition George Wallace: Reflections on Life, this post discusses one of his works in relation to some key ideas from the philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s text The Medium is the Message.
Early Afternoon (above) is from Wallace’s portfolio series titled Summer Shadows, Summer Dreams. It depicts two naked figures illuminated by electric light from a television set. All twelve etchings from this series show people half or fully naked, lying or sitting in their homes, watching television. Wallace created this series in 1995 after a visit to California, drawing from his observations of suburban life there. Wallace’s art was often created as running commentary on people around him. Here, he wanted to comment on a sense of boredom and pointlessness he found to be present in 1990s suburbia.
Television is presented as a part of the home; a provider of companionship and entertainment. Wallace was particularly interested in viewers’ relationships with the TV soap opera. Soap operas, often shown during the day, traditionally follow fictional lives in a granular way, dramatising events and encounters. For the viewers, this enhanced, exaggerated, real-time storytelling generates a sense of living alongside the characters. Wallace articulates a certain boredom in this print: the subjects are lying around with little evidence of interest in being outdoors and engaging with the world through their own bodies.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), a Canadian philosopher who coined the term “the medium is the message,” argued that the form in which content is communicated has more influence on the consumer (reader/listener/viewer) and society at large than the content itself does. In The Medium is the Message, McLuhan maps out shifts in form that mediums have taken in history, including the way that the printed word homogenised the French nation in the eighteenth century, which led to the French Revolution. For McLuhan, the mediums of his time were the telegraph, the telephone, television and radio. They were, in his view, mediums that brought people together, potentially at the expense of conformity or sameness, as we see in George Wallace's series Summer Shadows, Summer Dreams.
McLuhan saw radio and television as an extension of our central nervous system; “…our human senses, of which all media are extensions are also fixed charges on our personal energies…”. The way that Wallace depicts his subjects can fit into our reading of these works through McLuhan’s ideas. They are naked, exposed to the television, almost fully giving over their vitality and lives to the television set. Their nakedness suggests a closeness or even an intimacy with the television set. In Wallace’s print, we see an interior, suburban equivalent to uninhibited animals in the wild: figures fully embracing the comfort of the living room with no concern about social expectations or formalities.
The composition of Early Afternoon draws attention to the dominance of the television set in the home. The subjects watch the screen, while we see only the back of the TV set, which Wallace has placed front and centre in the image. The way that the gaze of both figures is held by the screen and the fact that that screen is the central point of the print are two key signifiers that Wallace's image is mostly concerned by the television. In McLuhan’s time, radio and television had reshaped how time was structured, and here we see evidence of leisure, passiveness, and absorption by the television. The presence of a television greatly impacts the design and use of the home; they are usually positioned as the focal point of a room, the centre of the composition, so to speak. Here, one figure is slumped on a chair, the other on the floor, which perhaps predates more contemporary homes’ built-in design that incorporates the television so that it can be viewed from any comfortable spot that a room has to offer.
McLuhan identifies the art movement Cubism as an early example of “the medium is the message.” In Cubism there was a shift from what the painting is about to what it is (see In Focus: Cubism for more details on elements of this movement). It is worth noting that Wallace’s artwork itself, along with the rest of the series, is an etching, which deters from the concept of “the medium is the message”. Etching is a technical process that has stages that we do not see in its final result. The process of etching aims to achieve a precise image that is calculated. For Cubism, the artist is reacting and responding to their perception of the world as it is happening. Cubism is often a transparent process; it is its own execution more than its subject.
“Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message.” McLuhan (1964).
We can bear this in mind when viewing the work Early Afternoon and the rest of the series, as we can split the artwork into three distinctive tracks: one in which the content leads us to consider the term “the medium is the message” from the experience of the figures depicted in the etching; secondly, for us as viewers, its identity as an etching brings us back to considering this as an image more generally capturing 1990s suburban life; and thirdly, when we observe reproductions of Early Afternoon on our computer or phone screens, this offers space to consider the medium of the screen in the digital age.
- If George Wallace were to depict 1990s suburban life using a medium other than etching, what do you think that could be?
- What influence do you think television has on our lives today?
- In your view, how can we understand “the medium is the message” in the digital age? E.g. Which do you think is more influential: every video watched on YouTube or the existence of YouTube itself?
- McLuhan, Marshall, (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Canada, University of Toronto Press.
- Baudrillard, Jean, (1981) Simulacra and Simulation, USA, Semiotext(e).
Written by: Jennie Taylor, Education Department
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George Wallace: Reflections on Life
On view until 29 August 2021.