The material

/ 09:08 AM September 26, 2012

The medium is the message” was a phrase coined first by Marshall McLuhan who pioneered the study of mass media and how it would change the way we perceive the world. He observed that the medium used in bringing information to us will profoundly affect the information itself, its message.

For many years, it became somewhat of a catch phrase not only in the communications discipline but also in the world of art. Especially sculpture and design where material is always a key issue. Thus, for a while the use of animal fur became less popular with rising public awareness of the fact that much of the fur came from animals that had become gravely endangered. Only in recent years have fur and exotic animal skins come slowly to reuse with the advent of new farming methods.


Even so, they do not make Steinway pianos using ivory anymore. They used to. One must wonder if the old Steinways which used ivory are now more expensive than the new ones. They probably are. But perhaps the use of ivory keys may not have anything at all to do with that.

With pianos the bottom line is always sound and playing quality. And one cannot help but wonder if these will be affected by using ivory keys. Most likely not at all. On the other hand, we do know that the total experience we have of the music would most likely be distracted if we knew beforehand that this music comes from an instrument using the tusks of elephants ruthlessly hunted down by poachers and then eventually smuggled from natural jungles to urban ones.


The music would be sinful. But not in the same way that ice cream is sinful. It would be sinful in worse ways. It would be a crooked line that cannot ever be straightened. Not even by an ivory saint or an ivory Jesus or an ivory Holy Child. About the only thing that could morally excuse it would be if its provenance proves it comes from a time before we knew where ivory came from and how it is uprooted from an endangered animal while it was still half-alive.

“The medium is the message” was what Marshall McLuhan said. And his message is a warning to all of us who make things that carry a message that would move the world. The more so especially if we would move the world to prayer.

Contemporary awareness requires that we apply always a sense of morality to the materials we use and the processes we apply to make things. Not that there is any material left that does not have its own store of moral baggage. Anything that employs fossil fuels to make and process will have an implication to the ecology. So where do we draw the moral line?

The easiest is always to draw the line on what is legal. There are internationally recognized laws that criminalize the use of ivory and its transportation. There is a clear reason why those laws exist. They are morally valid reasons. And so deserve respect.

But there are other factors that good designers and artists consider. The highest attention is given to the appropriateness of the material used to the message one seeks to tell. And this would be the reason we do not see religious icons anymore that are cast in gold. A small gold crucifix would be okay. When it is bigger than that the crucifix will take on the character of a “graven” image much like the “golden calf” of the Biblical exodus.

In the light of so much suffering and starvation in the world a golden image would carry insurmountable aesthetic risks. But the issue is not just aesthetics, it is also pragmatic. What use is an image that one must guard beyond ordinary standards and all the time from pilferage? In light of current awareness, it just doesn’t work. And there are always other alternatives, less expensive and with lesser moral implications. And while they all will have implications on the environment these might be balanced by the fact they employ local labor and local industries. They strike a better balance of moral judgement which carries into its aesthetic appeal and ultimately into the credibility of its message.

A golden God carries just as much weight as an ivory one. In the light of current awareness they are, put most simply, just so much tasteless vanity. Indeed, they are such tasteless vanity as would make the very concept of God a travesty to be laughed at. The medium is the message.


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TAGS: ivory trade, Marshall McLuhan, mass media, Religious Icons
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