Interconnections: Artistic Mediators

“Artistic values,” writes Antoine Hennion, “are produced out, through a range of mediators” (Baroque and Rock, Poetics magazine 418, my emphasis). Mediators are the material media through which artistic expression is possible – allowing for both the individual expression of the artist as well as providing room for an audience’s critical evaluation of it. Mediators establish relations. The idea of mediators has been closely discussed in the postgraduate course on technology, media and culture with professor Cassián.

Take, for example, the painting of the Last Judgment (1541) by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Much of its stunning power comes from the vibrant and enchanting hue of blue in the paint pigment used to depict the sky. At the time, this unique blue could only be achieved by grinding up lapis lazuli into the paint: a semi-precious stone that is principally found in the north eastern region of what today is Afghanistan. This blue stone is a mediator in the sense that its material qualities allowed Michelangelo to realize his unique artistic expression. At the time, however, it was also an extremely rare and expensive material. Lapis lazuli represented wealth and power. The factors of trade, finance and exchange were as influential as that of the artist’s ability when determining this mineral’s artistic value, shaping the audience’s reaction to how it was used. It was “increasingly international trade” that “revolutionized taste in Europe” during the Renaissance, writes Jeremy Brotton. “For many people, the splendour of the painting was reflected by the sheer amount of material expense lavished on its creation,” leading to patrons specifying “the exact amounts of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and cochineal to be used in the painting” (The Myth of the Renaissance in Europe).

The dynamic by which these artistic objects and their corresponding value systems are constructed is deeply influenced by the introduction of new technologies. To take another example, the combination of new performance technologies and the rock and roll music genre has led to a complicated dialectic of mediation between the performer and his or her audience that is read, paradoxically, as very immediate. “The stage,” writes Hennion,

has a very special status as the cradle of rock. It offers a possibility – albeit a distant one – of a physical relationship with the body of the singer… The fusion of the many mediators in the melting pot of the performance requires immediacy. Although apparently given no prominence, the staging techniques and material mediators make decisive contributions to provide an environment in which the live performance creates an overwhelming sense of immediacy. (Hennion 428-9).

Reference to the cradle of rock as well as to the corporeality of stage performance can only bring to mind Elvis Presley, whose live concerts as well as unique and free form of dancing caused no end of societal furor in the early 1950s. The main mediator here is that of television, which became the principal venue through which a new generation of music fans and, thereby, a new genre was constructed. (See this nicely illustrated article on The paradox here is how a mediated communication technology such as broadcast television almost invisibly allows for a sense of immediacy: intimate contact with a distant artist.

But artistic mediators imply another paradox. They not only dialectically relate what is distant; they free what has been captured.  “The capturing of music on record is responsible for its freedom” (Hennion 426). Take, for example, the interpretation of classical music. It can always be accompanied by a sense of doubt: is this an authentic rendition? The way a symphony performs a piece will depend upon the musicological, historical and sociological theories adopted, determining the interpretation of the score and accompanying notations, the choice of instruments, their arrangement, as well as the incorporation or inclusion of various rituals and traditions. Of course, there are different schools of thought that dispute these questions. But being able to go back and listen to a high fidelity recording of the original performance frees us from these kinds of debates.

The paradox comes when we realize that this freedom from doubt comes at a price. A recording is “in many ways a ‘text’ which is more ‘written’ than any classical score” (Hennion 427). It cannot be interpreted, it cannot be debated, it cannot be changed – a dead letter.

Consider Elvis once again, but this time in 1968. After several years of making Hollywood films, without giving a single live performance, and facing a stagnating career, Elvis decided he needed to rediscover the roots of rock and roll music. As is no surprise, he believed those roots to lie in stage performance. He made his famous comeback, however, not by going on a national concert tour: he first organised a television music special which featured footage of a pre-recorded live show. For Elvis, a return to the origins of rock and roll meant returning to a scenario in which the live performance dialectic would be permanently frozen in a recorded medium. Thus began the dynamic of increasing the grandiosity of each successive stage image – Elvis continually competing with pre-existing and unalterable images of himself.

When examining the ever-changing trends in art history, it is a tremendous oversight to exclude artistic mediators. Their use not only reveals how new technologies provide possibilities for artistic expression but they elucidate a complex dialectic between artist and public that traverses the entire domain of sociology.