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Much ado about medium: Greenberg, McLuhan, and the formalist problem in early video criticism in New York

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Early American video history is often characterized as difficult and heterogeneous, and this is in part due to the conflicting theoretical approaches to the notion of ‘medium’. In early 1970s New York, there were two major strands of discourse on video: one saw and described video through a techno-utopian lens based on Marshall McLuhan’s media theories, and the other, still steeped in the legacies of Clement Greenberg, treated video as though it was a static, flat and plastic medium. Neither was able to adequately articulate video’s unique aesthetics, but they nonetheless dominated the American language of video during the early 1970s. These opposing views on video eventually came to a head in 1974 at the Open Circuits conference at the Museum of Modern Art, where practitioners of early video, such as Frank Gillette and Douglas Davis, faced hostility from other artists and critics such as John Baldessari and Robert Pincus-Witten. They clashed around the concept of ‘medium’, with each side accusing the other of being formalist, and these dialogues spill out onto various publications throughout the same year. The article will argue that this conflict lies at the root of American video art’s difficulty with articulating its own history.
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Keywords: 1970s American video art; Clement Greenberg; Marshall McLuhan; Nam June Paik; criticism; formalism; medium specificity; technology

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: The Courtauld Institute of Art

Publication date: 01 December 2016

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  • The Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ) is the first international peer-reviewed scholarly publication devoted to artists' film and video, and its contexts. It offers a forum for debates surrounding all forms of artists' moving image and media artworks: films, video installations, expanded cinema, video performance, experimental documentaries, animations, and other screen-based works made by artists. MIRAJ aims to consolidate artists' moving image as a distinct area of study that bridges a number of disciplines, not limited to, but including art, film, and media.
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