Marshall McLuhan redeemed—sort of

A couple weeks back on my personal blog, I posted a rant about Marshall McLuhan. Basically I was arguing that while the medium may be the message, the medium isn't the only message. There was a fair bit of commentary on my post, both there at Word Munger and around the blogosphere. As expected, I don't think I changed many minds—"believing" McLuhan's argument seems to be more a matter of faith than anything else.

It turns out, psychologists have something to say about all this. There is plenty of psychological research on art, but as you might expect, most of this work is done in labs, not museums. Instead of looking at the original works of art, participants observe slides, or (gasp!) digital photos of the works. Paul Locher, Jeffrey Smith, and Lisa Smith (of Montclair State, Rutgers, and Kean University, respectively) conducted a study where they explored whether this makes a difference; whether the medium is indeed the message—or the massage ("The Influence of Presentation Format and Viewer Training in the Visual Arts on the Perception of Pictorial and Aesthetic Qualities of Paintings," Perception, 2001).

Locher and his colleagues corralled visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on their way inside and asked if they'd like to participate in a study. Participants were shown a series of nine works by Chardin, van Eyck, Petrus Christus, van Ruisdael, Breugel, El Greco, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Giotto (apparently either Locher had a thing for Dutch art or the researchers figured it would be easier to show participants works that were displayed in the same general area of the museum) and given a museum CD as compensation for their efforts.

Others were shown museum-quality slides of the same works, and still others were shown digital photographs of the paintings displayed on computer monitors. Everyone was asked to rate the images on a scale of 1 to 9 along sixteen different dimensions, including "patterned—random," "usual—surprising," and "pleasant—unpleasant." Participants also reported their level of training in the visual arts.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was little difference in the results between trained and untrained viewers. There was also little difference between media along many of the dimensions viewers were asked to rate, especially those relating to the physical and "statistical" properties of the works, such as "small scale—large scale," and "sparse—dense."

But for a few of the works, the viewers of the original rated a few of the dimensions very differently from those who only saw slides or digital photos. These were the more subjective measures, such as "uninteresting—interesting" and "common—rare." The differences in ratings were sometimes whopping: those who saw Petrus Christus' "Portrait of a Carthusian" in person rated it an average of 7.35 on the 9-point "uninteresting—interesting" scale, whereas slide and computer viewers rated it only a 4.7. So apparently, if you're a Netherlandish painter, reputed to be a student of van Eyck and known primarily for your portraits, the medium is indeed the message. McLuhan is redeemed!

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