The Invisible Environment
Marshall McLuhan believed the role of the artist was to help society better understand the world; the reality of which, like an iceberg, is mostly below the surface – hidden from view. To do this, he tells us, artists create 'countersituations' and 'anti-environments', that shift our perception (just enough) that the underlying reality may become apparent.
Welcome to the Invisible Environment
Art critic Robert Hughes called McLuhan the last thinker to believe that artists could, in fact, change the world. In the postmodern 'environment', the rationale goes, the illusion is so complete that virtually no one can see past 'the veil that has been pulled over [our] eyes'.*
Theodor Adorno calls postmodern culture a 'totality', for this same reason. McLuhan refers to 'the human environment' (the culture of our day) as a 'teaching machine'; alluding, perhaps, to Adorno's suggestion that official culture (as opposed to independent culture) is a 'bureau of information', a 'grandiose system of elucidation' – endlessly instructing in such subtle ways that people are not aware they are being influenced. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture – 'The Schema of Mass Culture' and 'Culture and Administration'.
Nevertheless, independent artists continue to create works of art that draw attention, specifically, to those 'pervasive structures' – as McLuhan called the various overlapping 'environments' that make up the world we experience.
Why is it that much of the world (though it is right there in front of our eyes) remains hidden from view? This question is as old as society itself, and it remains shrouded in mystery, despite the fact that science (and a new understanding of psychology) provides incredible insights into the nature of human perception. Popular culture has a field day in this arena; countless books and films perpetuate the conspiracy theories, and capitalizing on the intrigue and misunderstanding, while other works have attempted to explore this subject in a meaningful way. To read more on this, please continue with our introduction to this subject – popular culture and the invisible environment: Eyes Wide Open – Eyes Wide Shut.
"It seems that poor Human nature could only open one eye at at time"
— Elizabeth Cookson**
* The Matrix 1999 (What is the Matrix?)
** Elizabeth Cookson, POEMS FROM MANXLAND, WITH LEGENDS AND TRANSLATIONS FROM THE MANX AND GERMAN (LONDON: ELLIOT STOCK, 1868).