When Multimedia Wasn’t Art

The concept of multimedia is rather ubiquitous today, represented best, perhaps by the hardware that employs this ability to the utmost—personal computers. But from a humanities standpoint it is interesting to consider what previous scholars and critics have said about the concept of combining media or even artistic forms within the same medium. In my recent quest to examine the nuances of the concept of transparency (as opposed to hypermediacy—see Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation) in audiovisual media, I discovered an interesting point of view from a film scholar. In a 2005 textbook on film theory, The Philosophy of Film, there is a section devoted to the nature of film. Included in this section is a consideration of the move from silent film to ‘talkies,’ and not all of the theorist presented in this section view the change favorably. Rudolf Arnheim, in an article published in 1957, notes the “feeling of uneasiness that every talking film arouses” in him. He specifically argues that motion pictures cannot reconcile sound and image, a remarkable thought in today’s unquestioned acceptance of multimedia creations. In making this point he distinguishes between everyday reality, which is of course a multi-sensory experience, and moving pictures, designed to be an art form. He writes: “Therefore, when in everyday life an unbalanced combination of visual and auditory elements fails to produce discomfort, we need not be surprised either. In the realm of art, on the contrary, the unsure expression of an object, the inconsistency of a movement, a badly put phrase will impair at once the effect, the meaning, the beauty conveyed by the work.” Unlike real life, art has a goal of creating a strong, unified message, and Arnheim argues that this effect is greatly lessened or even hampered by employing two forms of media to communicate the same message. This distinction is further reinforced by his sense of how moving pictures are connected to other forms of media. He succinctly asserts that “[o]ne cannot put a sound in a painting!”

Obviously, the question of what is considered art is a very large one, and perhaps now that cultural studies has attempted to demolish the divisive sense of high and low culture/art, also a relatively moot one. Arnheim’s ideas are also problematic for other reasons, but it is very interesting and I think helpful that his article was included in a basic film textbook. Questioning assumptions such as the seemingly natural combination of moving images and sound seems like an important step towards a critical understanding of digital media. Even if one dismisses Arnheim’s arguments after consideration, that act of consideration is important. What else might we be taking for granted? Do we realize what assumptions we make about digital media?