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The Specificity of Media in the Arts
Author(s): Noël Carroll
Source: The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 5-20
Published by: University of Illinois Press
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The Specificity of Media
the Arts
The idea-which I shall call the medium-specificity thesis-that each art
form, in virtue of its medium, has its own exclusive domain of development was born in the eighteenth century, almost at the same time that the
distinctions between the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic and between the
fine arts and the practical arts crystallized. Yet despite its age, the medium-specificity thesis continues to exercise a tenacious grip on the imaginations of artists and theorists alike. On the contemporary art scene, this is
perhaps most evident in the arena of video aesthetics, where one group,
the image processors, advocate their stylistic explorations on the grounds
that they are concerned with the basic attributes of video. Summarizing
their position, Shelley Miller writes: “Electronic image processing uses as
art-making material those properties inherent in the medium of video.
Artists work at a fundamental level with various parameters of the electronic signal, for example, frequency, amplitude or phase, which actually
define the resulting image and sound.” 1
Undoubtedly many video avant-gardists are predisposed toward the
medium-specificity thesis because, given backgrounds in the fine arts, their
thinking has been and is swayed by the still influential tenets of Modernism Ia Clement Greenberg. This approach to painting and sculpture is
strongly essentialist. Greenberg proclaims:
A modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid dependence
upon any order of experience not given in the most essentially
construed nature of its medium. This means, among other things,
renouncing illusion and explicitness. The arts are to achieve conNoel Carroll, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University, is the author
of essays that have been published in Philosophical Exchange, October, and in Philosophical Essays in Dance, ed. Fancher and Meyers.
journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 19, No.4, Winter 1985
Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
© 1985
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Noel Carroll
creteness, “purity,” by acting solely in terms of their separate and
irreducible selves.
Modernist painting meets our desire for the literal and positive by
renouncing the illusion of the third dimension. 2
For Greenberg, optical, two-dimensional effects are the medium-specific
domain of painting, while tactile, three-dimensional effects are the domain
of sculpture. And video artists, influenced by this version of Modernism,
believe that the proper direction of their art form will be involved in the
isolation and definition of the quidity of the video medium. Moreover,
with Greenberg, these medium-specificity proponents are advocating that
the differences between media should supply us with a standard of what
art should and should not be made. And, if medium-specificity is transgressed, the medium-specificity critic is thought to have a reason to evaluate a given work of art negatively.
Contemporary photographic criticism also shows some recurrent tendencies toward upholding the medium-specificity thesis. For example, in
his extremely popular book, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes argues that
photographic representation is essentially different from representation
based on analogy or copying, i.e., the kind of representation found in
painting. Barthes writes: “The realists, of whom I am one and of whom I
was already one when I asserted that the Photograph was an image without
code-even if obviously, certain codes do infect our reading of it-the realists do not take the photograph for a copy of reality, but for an emanation
of past reality: a magic, not an art.” 3 Furthermore, realist aesthetic preferences appear connected to Barthes’s realist account of photographic representation-specifically, his taste for photos that afford the opportunity for
the spectator actively to discover uncoded details. 4
The persistence of the medium-specificity thesis has significance for
educational policy as well. For when video makers and photographers
strive to form their own academic departments or divisions, a prospect
already before us, they are likely to do so by asserting their autonomy
from other arts on the basis of medium-specificity arguments.
The medium-specificity thesis holds that each art form has its own domain
of expression and exploration. This domain is determined by the nature
of the medium through which the objects of a given art form are composed. Often the idea of “the nature of the medium” is thought of in
terms of the physical structure of the medium. The medium-specificity
thesis can be construed as saying that each art form should pursue those
effects that, in virtue of its medium it alone-i.e., of all the arts-can achieve.
Or the thesis might be interpreted as claiming that each art form should
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pursue ends that, in virtue of its medium, it achieves most effectively or
best of all those effects at its disposal. Most often the medium-specificity theorist unconsciously relies upon (and conflates) both these ideas.
Each art form should pursue only those effects which, in virtue of its
medium, it excels in achieving. The thesis holds that each art form should
pursue ends distinct from other art forms. Art forms should not overlap
in their effects, nor should they imitate each other. Also, each art form is
assumed to have some range of effects that it discharges best or uniquely
as a result of the structure of its physical medium. Each art form should be
limited to exploiting this range of effects, which the nature of the medium
The idea that each art form has its own domain and that it should not
overlap with the effects of other art forms hails from the eighteenth century, when theorists such as Jean Baptiste Dubos, James Harris, Moses
Mendelsohn, and, most famously, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing revolted
against the kind of art theory proposed in Charles Batteux’s tract entitled
The Fine Arts Reduced to the Same Principle. 5 As Batteux’s title should
suggest, pre-Enlightenment art theorizing tended to treat all arts as the
same-e.g., as striving for the same effect, such as the imitation of the
beautiful in nature. Enlightenment proponents such as Lessing, possessed
by the epoch’s zeal for distinctions, sought to differentiate the arts in
terms of their medium-specific ingredients. Using the concept of a sign in
advance of semiology, Lessing felt that the proper subject matter of each
medium could be extrapolated from the physical properties of its constituent signs: poetry, whose words are encountered sequentially, is a temporal art, specializing in the representation of events and processes, while
painting, whose signs, daubs of paint, are encountered as only spatially
continguous, should represent moments. 6
The impression that proponents of the medium-specificity thesis impart
is that one need only examine the physical structure of the medium, and
the sort of effects the art form based in that medium should traffic in
more or less jumps out at one. Paint is the major ingredient in painting.
Therefore, painting should primarily exemplify flatness (or, at least, be
constrained to exemplify only effects that are consistent with flatness).
However, it is far from clear that one can move so neatly from the physical
medium to the telos of the art form. For example, if anything can lay
claim to being the physical trait that essentially defines film, it is its flexible celluloid base. But what does this suggest to us about the kinds of
things that could or should be represented or expressed in the medium?
Indeed, why suppose that the essential characteristics of a medium necessarily have any directive consequences for the art made in that medium?
Of course, this point also pertains when we are speaking of other than
essential aspects of the physical medium. If some sort of writing instru-
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Nol!l Carroll
ment, e.g., a typewriter (or, to be more up-to-date, a word processor), and
some material surface, say paper, are the customary, basic materials of
the novelist, what can we extrapolate from this about the proper range of
effects of the novel? 7
Perhaps we will be told that language rather than print is the novelist’s
basic material. But then what different effects should poetry and the novel
pursue, insofar as they have the same basic material? Maybe a move will be
made to suggest that sound is the basic material of poetry, whereas events
and actions are the basic material of the novel. Of course, it is very difficult to understand why we are to construe actions and events as physical
constituents of a medium on a par with candidates like the paint of paintings. And, undoubtedly, the medium-specificity theorist, at this point, will
tell us that we need not be committed to a simple notion of the medium
restricted solely to its physical characteristics. But once we abandon a
supposedly physicalist account of the medium, how are we to determine
what the basic elements or constituents of the medium are? Whether or
not it is true that actions and events are the basic elements of the novel, of
course, is not my concern. My interests in the preceding dialectic lie in
what it reveals about medium-specificity arguments, viz., that it is not an
easy task to identify the basic materials of a medium, let alone to move
from a simple enumeration of a medium’s physical elements to the effects
the art form embodied in the medium should be committed to explore.
Indeed, it is often difficult to know at what level of analysis we should
focus our attention vis-a-vis medium-specificity accounts. For though they
generally suggest that their starting point is some physical element or constituent, medium-specificity discourse also easily drifts into consideration
of nonphysicalistic elements or constituents: space and time, for example,
are often said to be the basic ingredients of film. But why are these more
pertinent to the medium-specificity theorist than the flexible-celluloid
base of cinema?
Of course, if we already have a specific use for a medium, say poetry,
then we may be able to say what features of the medium, even what physical features, are relevant for serving that purpose. However, here it pays to
note that a feature, like sound in language, might be better characterized
as a feature relevant for the purposes of poetry rather than as the basic,
determinant feature of the medium. Basic-feature talk seems to imply or
connote that prior to any uses of the medium, a medium could have a feature that would be more important and more indicative than any other of
its features concerning what ranges of expression the art form embodied in
the medium should explore. But, in fact, we have no idea of what features
of the medium are important unless we have a use for the medium.
Furthermore, once we realize that it is our purposes that mold the
medium’s development and not the medium that determines our artistic
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purposes, we realize that the problem of overlaps between media is vitiated.
We may have a purpose, such as the dramatic portrayal of human action,
that will cross media, selecting the features of each medium that best
facilitate our purpose. These features in each medium, in turn, either may
resemble or may sharply contrast with those of other media. The provisional purposes we designate for a medium may in fact be best pursued
by imitating another medium. Thus, Jean-Marie Straub, in his film The
Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp, mimes theater outright in order to
make-quite effectively, I might add-his reflexive point that all film is
“staged.” Moreover, it is likely that when we introduce a new medium like
video or photography, we will have to begin by attempting to adapt it to
already existing purposes and strategies, e.g., portraiture, whose implementation perforce will recall the effects of other media. With such incipient
arts, that is, practitioners will have to begin somewhere. The evolution of
the medium will depend on the purposes we find for it. The medium has
no secret purpose of its own.
Another way to approach this point is to remember that all media have
more than one constituent component. To simplify, let us say that paint,
paint brushes, and canvases are the basic materials of painting. How does
the medium-specificity theorist know to identify paint as the pertinent element in this group? And, having identified paint as the lead element, how
does the Modernist know to identify the potential for flatness, as opposed
to impastos of ever-widening density, as the relevant possibility of paint
that is to be exploited? Clearly paint itself cannot dictate how it is to be
used-paint can be adapted for covering houses, covering canvases, portraying funerals, or proffering color fields. Paint does not determine how it
will be used, but the purposes for which paint is used-art and/or Modernism-determine the relevant features of the medium for the task at hand.
Flatness, for example, could be made to express Modernist ideals of purity
and rigor. In short, the purposes of a given art-indeed, of a given style,
movement, or genre-will determine what aspects of the physical medium
are important. The physical medium does not select a unique purpose, or
even a delimited a range of purposes, for an art form.
The fact that a medium is generally composite in terms of its basic constituents leads to other complications for the medium-specificity thesis.
For different features of the medium may suggest radically different directions of artistic development. Film has photography as a basic element,
which has led many to designate it as a realist art. But the appearance of
movement generated by the sequential structure of the film strip is equally
basic to cinema, and it has led some to champion cinema as a magical art.
In such cases, which aspect of the medium should be emphasized? Can the
medium-specificity theoriest offer a nonarbitrary basis for selecting the
program suggested by one basic feature of the medium over another? Per-
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haps the medium-specificity theorist will opt for the program suggested
by that element of the medium that is a sine qua non of the medium. But
in our film example, both photography and the sequential structure of the
film strip are sine qua nons.
Of course, the medium-specificity theorist may argue that no problem
arises for him because basic elements of the medium suggest different
lines of development. For, it may be said, the artist can pluralistically pursue more than one line of development. However, there are often cases
where the candidates for the basic features of the medium suggest programs of development that conflict with each other. Both cinematography
and editing are counted as among the basic elements of cinema, ones purportedly enjoining radically opposed styles: realism versus montage. Here
it is impossible that the artist can fully explore the range of effects his
medium excels in, because it is impossible simultaneously to exploit the
cinematic potentials of rapid editing and deep-focus, realist cinematography. Similarly, video’s capacity for immediate transmission makes it a
useful device for creating certain news documents, while its potential for
instant feedback enables it to be employed for abstract image processing.
But one cannot make an abstract, image-processed news document.
A medium may excel in more than one effect, and these effects may be
incompatible, thus making it impossible for the artist to abide by the
medium-specificity thesis by doing what the medium does best. For it is
not possible to do all that the medium does best. Nor does the mediumspecificity thesis have a nonarbitrary way to decide which of conflicting
“medium-based” styles is to be preferred. Obviously, one will gravitate
toward the technique that serves one’s purposes best. What aspects of the
medium are to be emphasized or exploited will be determined by the aims
of the artists and the purposes of the art form. If poetry is to be read silently on the page, then it makes sense to emphasize certain aspects of the
medium, such as where each line ends; if poetry is primarily to be declaimed aloud by bards, however, line endings will not be a very determinant feature of the medium, even if our poets compose their songs ahead
of time on paper. A medium is used to serve the purposes of an art form,
a style, or a genre. Those purposes make different aspects of the medium
relevant, rather than vice-versa.
In response to my claims about the priority of use, it may be asserted
that there are certain uses to which a medium cannot be put. And this,
it might be said, is the basic truth of the medium-specificity claim. However, if the force of cannot here is that of either logical or physical impossibility, then the medium-specificity thesis is nothing but a truism, one
irrelevant to art criticism or art making. For if it is literally impossible for
a given medium to be put to a given use, then it never will be. Thus, since
there is never any likelihood that media will overstep themselves in terms
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of what is logically or physically possible for them to do, there is no reason
to warn them to be wary in this regard.
Clearly the existing output of any medium will only consist of objects
designed to serve uses that it is logically and physically possible for the
medium to perform. Use determines what aspects of the medium are relevant for aesthetics, rather than some essential trait of the medium determining the proper use of the medium. But if the use of the medium is
key, then effects will be evaluated in terms of how well they serve presiding purposes. Some uses of painting, landscape, for example, enjoin the
exploitation of pictorial depth-obviously a logical and physical possibility
of the medium. Such instances of pictorial depth, then, will be evaluated
in light of the degree to which they serve the purposes to which they are
connected. Our landscape paintings with their depth cannot be rejected
on the grounds that paintings cannot disregard the essential flatness of
the medium. Quite clearly some paintings do and, therefore, can ignore
the Modernist’s constraints concerning pictorial flatness. In such cases,
excellence in the service of a definable purpose-e.g., accurately portraying recognizable landscapes-will be our leading criterion for accepting
each modification of the medium, at least where there is agreement about
how to use the medium. Moreover, where there is not agreement, reference
to traits of the medium will have little sway concerning alternative styles,
since traits of the medium are only significant vis-a-vis uses. Rather, we
will have to find other reasons for advocating one use over others.
It may be felt that whatever persuasiveness the foregoing account has, it
can be resisted on the grounds that there are straightforward examples
where artistic failure can be incontestably ascribed to ignoring the mediumspecificity thesis. Imagine a silent film drama in which we see a gun pointed
at X, followed by an intertitle reading “Bang!,” followed by an image of
a prostrate, dead X. One explanation of what has gone wrong here is that
the filmmaker has failed to execute the scene in terms of what the medium does best-viz., showing things. However, we must ask whether the
putative error here would be an error in any kind of film or only in certain
types or genres of film with very special purpose. Put this way, I think we
see that the sequence just described might be a brilliant invention in a
comedy or in a film striving after Brecht’s vaunted alienation effect. On
the other hand, the sequence is an error within the Hollywood style of the
action genre for which, among other things, considerations of pacing as
well as of spectacular effects would favor showing the gunshot. Style,
genre, and art form, and the purposes rooted therein, determine what elements of the medium will and will not be relevant. That is, contra the
medium-specificity thesis, there are no techniques that are unavailable to
an artist because of a failure to exploit certain characteristics of a given
medium (or because of overlaps with other media). Rather there are styles,
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genres, art forms, and their presiding purposes, which determine the viabiliy
of a technique within a context of use. Where certain artistic failures occur
-such as in cases of canned theater-we are not confronting transgressions
of the medium but errors within prevailing styles that cannot be recuperated by references to other existing styles or other defensible purposes.
Earlier I assumed that the “cannot” in the medium-specificity thesisi.e., “Make no medium do what it cannot do”-signalled either logical or
physical impossibility. However, there is another sense of “cannot” that
the medium-specificity theorist is banking on. According to the mediumspecificity approach, we are told that if one wants to identify the aspects
of the medium that a given art is to exploit, then one must look to those
aspects that differentiate the medium in question from all other media.
Thus, it is the purported flatness of paint that distinguishes it from sculpture. So painting-as-surface is the painter’s proper arena. Here we see that
the medium-specificity thesis is to be read normatively-“Do not make an
art form do what it cannot do” means “Do not make it do what it ought
not do because some other art does it.” Thus, the medium-specificity formula is an injunction.
As an injunction, the medium-specificity thesis has two components.
One component is the idea that there is something that each medium does
best-alternatively, best of everything else a given medium does or best in
comparison with other media. On both counts, Lessing thought that painting represented moments best and poetry actions. Rudolf Arnheim thinks
that films represent animated action best. 8 Also, the medium-specificity
thesis holds that each of the arts should do that which differentiates it
from the other arts. We can call these two components of the mediumspecificity thesis the excellence requirement and the differentiation requirement, respectively. There are many problems with the medium-specificity thesis. Some of these are a direct result of the combination of the
differentiation and excellence requirements.
An underlying assumption of the medium-specificity thesis appears to
be that what a medium does best will coincide with what differentiates
media (and art forms). But why should this be so? For example, many
media narrate. Film, drama, prose, and epic poetry all tell stories. For
argument’s sake, let us say it is what each of these arts does best-i.e., what
each does better than anything else it does. Yet, narrative will not differentiate these art forms. What does the medium-specificity thesis tell us to do
in such a situation?
If film and the novel both excel in narration, ( 1) should neither art
form narrate since narration fails to differentiate them? or (2) should film
not narrate since narration will fail to differentiate it from the novel and
the novel claimed the domain of narration first? or (3) should the novel
give up narration and let the newcomer have its chance?9
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The first alternative is simply absurd. It would sacrifice a magnificent
cultural invention-narration-for whatever bizarre satisfaction we can
derive from adherence to the differentiation requirement. That is, to what
end would we be forgoing artistic excellence in cases like this? Clearly
attainable excellence will always be more important to us than differentiation for its own sake.
The second alternative is also unattractive. In this case, the mediumspecificity theorist would appear to confuse history with ontology. Film is
to foreswear narrating just because literature already has that turf staked
out. But surely this is only an accident of history. What if movies had
arisen before writing? Then would novels have to find some occupation
other than narrative? And what might that have been?
Clearly, accidents of history should not preclude an artistic medium
from exploring an area in which it excels. Nor should accidents of history
be palmed off as ontological imperatives, another proclivity of the medium-specificity thesis. That is, according to one very natural construal of
the medium-specificity thesis, the special subject matter of each art form
follows from the nature of the medium it is embodied in. However, in
fact, we have seen that the medium-specificity thesis is even more complicated than this because a medium is supposed to specialize in what it
excels in as a result of its nature, but only where that area of special
achievement differentiates the medium in question from other media.
So, the question of differentiation is not simply a question about the nature of what a medium in isolation excels in, but a question about the
comparison of arts. And it is quite possible that a new art may be invented
which excels in an area where an older art already excels. 1 o To award the
older art the domain just because it is already established seems arbitrary,
as does the third alternative above-awarding the domain to the younger
art just because it is younger. If two arts both excel in an area it seems
natural to permit them both to explore it. What reason do we have to be
against this option? Following this policy, we will enrich ourselves by multiplying the number of excellent things we have. This is surely the case
with narrative. The world is richer for having novels and fiction films and
epic poems and dramas and operas and comic books and narrative painting, etc., though the differentiation component of the medium-specificity
thesis would seem to urge us to forsake some if not all of these treasures
should we choose to regard the medium-specificity thesis as a guideline
for deciding what art can and cannot be made.
The specificity thesis has both an excellence component and a differentiation component. Perhaps one interpretation of the theory is that each
art form should pursue those projects which fall in the area of intersection between what the art form excels in and what differentiates the art
form from other art forms. But this does not seem to be an acceptable prin-
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ciple because, among other things, it entails that an art form might not be
.employed to do what it does best just because some other art form also
does it well or, for that matter, can merely do it passingly. Again, the
specificity thesis seems to urge us willingly to sacrifice excellence in art
on principle. But I think that excellence is always the overriding consideration for deciding whether or not a particular practice or development is
Indeed, I believe that what could be called the priority of excellence is
the central telling point against the specificity thesis. To dramatize this,
let us imagine that for some reason the only way that G. B. Shaw could get
backing for Pygmalion was to make it as a talking picture-perhaps in the
possible world we are imagining, Shaw was only reputed as a successful
screenwriter. Let us also suppose that in some sense it is true that theater
is a better showcase for aesthetically crafted language than talking pictures.
Would we decide that Pygmalion should not be made, even though film
will afford an adequate mode of presentation for it? I think our answer is
“no,” because our intuitions are that the medium-specificity thesis should
not be allowed to stand between us and excellence.
Nor need the excellence be a matter of the highest excellence achievable in a given medium. One interpretation of the medium-specificity
thesis urges that a medium pursue only that which it does best of all the
things it does. But if a medium does something well and the occasion
arises, why should an art form be inhibited especially just because there is
something that the art form does better? Certain magical transformationsweaklings into werewolves-can be most vividly executed in cinema. But
it can also be done quite nicely on stage. Should this minor excellence be
forgone in a stage adaptation of Dr. jekyll and Mr. Hyde either because
language, not transformation, is what theater handles best or because film
can make the metamorphosis more graphic?
The medium-specificity thesis guides us to sacrifice excellence in art.
We should eschew Groucho Marx’s movie monologues because they more
appropriately belong to theater, just as the Laocoon should have been
poetry. But is there reason to give up all this real and potential excellence?
There is the medium-specificity argument conceived of as a rule that tells
us what art should or should not be made. But on what grounds? It is not
a moral imperative. So what is its point? What do we gain from abiding by
the medium-specificity dictum that compensates or accounts for the sacrifices of excellence the medium-specificity theorist calls for? Here it is
important to recall that the medium-specificity thesis has often been
mobilized to discount acknowledged artistic accomplishments. 1 1
The medium-specificity theorist may maintain that his position is
basically committed to the proposition that each medium should only pursue those effects that it acquits better than any other medium. This not
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only raises the question of why a medium should only pursue that which it
is thought to do better than any other (in opposition to what it is merely
thought to do as well as other media, or what it does well but not as well
as other media are thought to do); it also raises the question of whether it
makes sense to compare arts in terms of whether they are more or less successful in performing the same generic functions. Can we say whether film,
drama, or the novel narrates best, or is it more appropriate to say they narrate differently? Moreover, the relevant issue when commending a given
artwork is not whether it is an instance of the medium that is best for the
effect the artwork exemplifies, but whether the artwork in question
achieves its own ends.
Surprisingly, there is little by way of defense for the medium-specificity
thesis, especially when it is thought of as a way of determining what art
should and should not be made. The thesis usually succeeds by appearing
to be intuitively self-evident. Undoubtedly, the medium-specificity theorist leads listeners to accept the thesis through an implicit analogy with
tools. Tools, for example, a Philips-head screwdriver, are designed with
functions in mind, and efficiency dictates that we use the tool for what it
is designed for. If you wish to turn a screw with an x-shaped groove on
top, use a Philips-head screwdriver. If you wish to explore the potentials of
aesthetically crafted, dramatic language, employ theater. If your topic is
animated action, use film. Likewise, just as you should not, all things being
equal, use a Philips-head screwdriver as a church key (though it can open a
beer can), you should not, all things being equal, use cinema to perform
theater’s task and vice-versa.
But I think that to carry over the tool analogy to an art form is strained.
Art forms are not tools, designed and invented to serve a single, specific
purpose, nor are they even tools with a delimited range of functions. Most
art forms were not self-consciously invented and, therefore, they are not
designed. 1 2 Painting was not invented to celebrate flatness. Moreover,
even with self-consciously invented arts like photography, film, and video,
it was soon realized that these media could perform many more tasks than
they were expressly and intentionally designed for. Indeed, our interest in
an art form is in large measure an interest in how artists learn or discover
new ways of using their medium. But the idea of the artist discovering new
ways of using the medium would make no sense if the medium were designed for a single, fixed purpose, as the strongest variants of the mediumspecificity thesis seem to suggest.
An art form is embodied in a medium which, even in the cases of the
self-consciously invented arts, is one whose many potentials remain to be
discovered. But discovery would not be a relevant expectation to have of
artists, nor would an interest in it be relevant to an art form if the task of
the art form were as fixed as that of a Philips-head screwdriver. A correla-
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Noiil Carroll
tive fact against the idea of the fixedness of function of art forms is the
fact that art forms continue to exist over time, obviously because they
are periodically reinvented and new uses are found for them. But if art
forms were as determinately set in their function as are things like Philipshead screwdrivers, one would expect them, like most tools, to pass away as
their function becomes archaic. That art forms are constantly readapted,
reinvented, and redirected bodes ill for the central metaphor suggested
by the medium-specificity thesis: that of the art form as specialized tool.
Furthermore, the notion of “efficiency” as it figures in the allure of
the medium-specificity thesis is suspect. For it is not clear that if film
undertakes the task of painting-showing a still setting-it will be inefficient in the sense of incurring more labor. Nor is it obvious that expenditures of time, material, or labor are really relevant in the appraisal of artworks. Excellence of effect is what we care about. Moreover, if “efficiency”
is thought of as “operating competently,” then it is difficult to see how
the medium-specificity theorist can employ it in a non-question-begging
fashion since things such as the Laocoon do support some measure of aesthetic experience even if they supposedly transgress their medium.
One way to attempt to defend the medium-specificity thesis is by asking, “Why else would there be different art media if they were not supposed
to pursue different ends?” The medium-specificity thesis is, in this light,
an inference to the best explanation. Given the fact that we have a number
of arts, we ask “why?” The answer that seems most reasonable is: “Because each art has, or should have, a different function.” Again, there is
some und_erlying idea of efficiency.
An important presupposition of this argument is that it is legitimate to
ask why we have different arts. It also supposes that it is legitimate to
expect as an answer to this question something like a rational principle.
To paraphrase Wittgenstein, where there is no question, there is no
answer. We can, I think, use this principle to rid ourselves of the preceding
argument. For its question, when stated nonelliptically, is not “Why are
there diverse arts?” but “What is the rationale that explains or justifies
our possession of exactly the diverse arts we have?” Now there may be an
answer, or, better, a series of answers to the former question-answers of
an historical and/or an anthropological variety. For example, we have film
because Edison wanted an invention to supplement the phonograph. Perhaps we have painting because one day a Cro-Magnon splashed some adhesive victuals on a cave wall and the result looked strikingly like a bison.
And so on. But we have no answer to the second question-“What is the
rationale for having exactly the several arts we have?” Rather, each art
arose due to a chain of events that led to its discovery or invention and to
its subsequent popularization. The result is the collection of arts we have,
which we only honorifically refer to as a system. The arts are not system-
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The Specificity of Media
atic, designed with sharply variegated functions, as the medium-specificity
thesis holds. Rather, they are an amalgamation of historically evolved
media whose effects often overlap. There is no rationale for the system,
for in truth, it is only a collection. Thus we have no need for the explanation afforded by the medium-specificity thesis.
As I mentioned earlier, one area where it will be tempting to resort to
medium-specificity arguments is in the justification of the formation of
new arts-educational departments, such as film, video, photography, holography, and so on. Proponents of such departments will argue that their
medium is distinct from the other arts in such a way that it will not receive
its due if condemned to existence in departments dominated by specialists
in literature, theater, and fine art. Furthermore, it may be added that the
medium-specificity thesis is of great heuristic value insofar as it entreats
students to think deeply about the specific elements of their trade.
I do not wish to demean the fact that the medium-specificity myth has
and can have useful results. But I wonder whether the students who benefit from this myth are really doing something as simple as considering the
materials of their arts rather than the “state-of-the-art” techniques, conventions, and styles that dominate their practices. And, furthermore, the
medium-specificity thesis can result in undesirable consequences. Students
can become mired in the prevailing traditions of their medium, closed to
the possibility of innovating inspiration from the other arts. Indeed, my
own prejudice is to suspect that once students have mastered the basic
techniques of their medium, their best strategy is to explore not only the
history of their art, but other arts and culture at large for new and stimulating ideas.
Concerning the usefulness of medium-specificity arguments for the justification of new academic departments, it can be said that this is a rhetorical matter, not a logical one. That administrators may be persuaded
by such arguments, or that the proponents of new arts-educational disciplines feel they need such arguments, does not show that the mediumspecificity thesis is valid. On the other hand, such departmental realignments can be defended without reference to medium-specificity. We may
argue that the practice in question has become or is becoming so important
to the life of our culture that it warrants intensive and specialized study,
even if the enterprise does overlap with the practices of preexisting forms
such as theater, literature, or fine art.
In concluding, I would like to emphasize that the strongest and most pervasive instances of the medium-specificity argument maintain that the
various media (that art forms are embodied in) have unique features-
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Noel Carroll
ostensibly identifiable in advance of, or independently of, the uses to
which the medium is put-and, furthermore, these unique features determine the proper domain of effects of the art form in question. However,
it seems to me that what are considered by artists, critics, and theorists as
aesthetic flaws, traceable to violations of the medium, are in fact violations
of certain styles, the purposes of those styles, and their characteristic
modes of handling the medium. That medium-specificity arguments are
often connected with advancing the cause of one artistic movement or use
of the medium should indicate that what is urged under the banner of
medium specificity is linked to implicit conceptions of preferred artistic
Even when analysts are not concerned with saying how a medium should
be used but are only attempting to describe the unique, artistically pertinent features of a medium, I suspect that they are really speaking of styles
within the medium. If we are told, for example, that temporal manipulation is the artistically relevant, unique feature of film, our informant
clearly is thinking of film in relation to certain styles of filmmaking. For
real-time exposition is also a feature of the medium, one pertinent to alternate styles of filmmaking, which, of course, have different purposes. 13
Similarly, if we are told that the potential for wordless action and
spectacle, rather than ornate language, is the key element of an authentic,
nonliterary theater, then it is evident, I think, that we are being asked to
advocate one style of theater while being confused about the reasons for
doing so. We are led to believe that our decision is based upon some facts
about the nature of the theatrical medium rather than assessing the purposes of the style of the nonliterary theater we are asked to endorse.
The task of the theorist of an art is not to determine the unique features of the medium but to explain how and why the medium has been
adapted to prevailing and emerging styles and, at times, to either defend
or condemn the prevailing or emerging purposes artists pursue. Such debate should not proceed by arguments about what the medium dictates,
but rather by finding reasons-artistic, moral, and intellectual-that count
for or against those styles, genres, artworks, and their subtending purposes
which confront us.
1. Shelley Miller, “Electronic Video Image Processing: Notes toward a Definition,”
Exposure 21, no. 1 (1983): 22.
2. Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” from his Art and Culture (Boston:
Beacon, 1961), p. 139.
3. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1981), p. 88. I criticize this position on photography in my “Concerning
Photographic and Cinematic Representation,” which is forthcoming in the
journal Dialectics and Humanism.
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4. See Barthes’s discussion of the photographic punctum in Camera Lucida, esp.
pp. 51-60.
5. The historical remarks here follow the account offered by Monroe C. Beardsley
in his Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present (New York: Macmillan,
1966), pp. 160-63.
6. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoo”n, trans. E. Frothingham (New York: Noonday Press, 1969), pp. 91-92.
7. In the paragraph above, I am accepting the frequent presupposition of specificity theorists that media can be individuated on the basis of their physical
structures. But this does seem problematic. Why claim that daguerreotypes
should be grouped in the same medium as celluloid-based photography? The
physical structure and certain of the physical potentials of these processes are so
different. Why not claim there are at least two media here? Obviously, the question of individuating media is not simply a matter of physicalistic considerations. Media are cultural and historical constructions. The topic of the way in
which media are individuated is too large to include in this paper. For the purposes of my argument, I am hypothetically assuming the adequacy of our present distinctions between media.
8. Rudolf Arnheim, Film, trans. L. M. Sieveking and F. D. Morrow (London:
Faber and Faber, 193 3).
9. It is interesting to note that most often when medium-specificity claims are
advanced in support of the program of a particular art, generally, the theorist
does not contrast the art he champions with every other art-which one would
expect given the theory-but only with selected arts. Thus, painting is contrasted with sculpture, or video with film, or photography with painting, or film
with theater, etc. Film, for example, is not usually contrasted with the narrative
novel in order to find film’s proper domain of effects, nor is video contrasted
with music. The theory is only applied to certain neighbors of the art in question, normally ones with which the art in question is competing for attention
and for audiences. The differentiation requirement, in such contexts, does not
seem to be a matter of ontology but a rhetorical lever in aesthetic power struggles. This is discussed at greater lengrh in my “Medium Specificity Arguments
and Self-consciously Invented Arts: Film, Video and Photography,” in Millennium Film journal nos. 14/15 (Fall/Winter, 1984-85).
Parenthically, it is worth pointing out that most frequently medium-specificity arguments are used in the context of comparing only two arts. This may
be the cause of the fact that it is difficult to find elaborately articulated statements of the general thesis. Rather, the general thesis is most commonly assumed
as a premise for the purposes of a more local argument.
10. Here we are not speaking of the arts excelling relative to each other but excelling in terms of one thing that they do compared to other things that they do.
11. For example, see Erwin Panofsky’s attack of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in his
“Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed.
Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970),
p. 263.
12. Here an analogy with human beings may be helpful. Human beings are not designed with a fixed function and, as a result, we do not attempt narrowly to
constrain the ways in which they can fruitfully develop. We accept a range of
alternative, even competing, lifestyles. Likewise with the artforms embodied in
artistic media.
13. Another reason that I advocate the priority of stylistic considerations over mediumistic ones is that our stylistic aims, neens, and purposes lead to changes in the
very physical structure of media. It is because we are committed to certain
stylistic aims that we mold dancers’ bodies in a certain way; it is because we
already are committed to certain styles of realism that various technical innovations, like cinemascope, are introduced into the film medium. The physical
structure of a medium does not remain static. It is modified as a result of the
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Noel Carroll
needs and imperatives of our existing and emerging styles, genres, and art movements. Those often literally shape the medium, rather than the medium dictating style.
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Class: Film and Media Theory
Course Description
Within two decades of the invention of film in 1895, filmmakers and theorists
engaged in debates over the nature of this new medium. What are its basic
properties? What are its possibilities as an art form? By the early twentieth
century, film theorists had converged around two basic arguments: realist
theorists argued that, because it is based on photography, film should focus on its
special relationship to the physical world; formalist theorists argued that because it
is based on the illusion of movement, film should focus on creating new worlds and
ideas. In this class, we will examine these approaches to understanding film
aesthetics and consider how and whether the emergence of digital film has
changed the very nature of the medium.
Discussions: At the beginning of the quarter, you will be assigned to a
team with whom you will discuss the weekly readings and prompts. You will
hold these discussions on a shared discussion board. If a team member does
not contribute consistently to these discussions, they will be removed
from your team.
Week 1 Module
Week 1: Medium Specificity – Week 1 Discussion
If you are the first to post your answers, please start a new thread for each
question and indicate by number which question you are answering. After you
have discussed the questions here, each of you should enter your answers on
the quiz.
1. Carroll describes Clement Greenberg’s approach to painting and sculpture
as “essentialist” (p. 5; Carroll is using the second meaning of the word). Based
on his summary of Greenberg’s argument (pp. 5-6), why would he describe
Greenberg’s approach to evaluating art as “essentialist”?
2. In your own words, how would you define the “medium-specificity thesis”?
3. Which “aspects of the medium” does Vertov emphasize in Man with a Movie
Camera? What do you think his aims were? How has he used the medium (film)
to serve these aims?
4. Do you think it’s important to understand the differences between film and
literature? Between film and television? (As films shift to streaming, are there
differences between film and television?) Film and video games? Why or why
If you are a filmmaker, to what extent do you think about the possibilities
afforded by the medium, such as the ability to reproduce the physical world
around us or the ability to create new, imaginary worlds?
5. In your own words, what is Carroll saying here? What questions about
aesthetics should film theorists take up? Why should we ask these questions?
Video Link of The man with a movie camera

Link of Medium Specificty(Slides):
I also uploaded the reading.
Please follow the guidelines very carefully and write correctly.
If you have any questions please ask me.
Thank you.

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