April 25-27 2002

All experience of the arts naturally involves a medium. While the phrase "media aesthetics" has, in recent years, often been associated with the study of "new" media technologies, these associations nonetheless draw on long scholarly traditions investigating how an artwork's vehicle of communication conditions aesthetic experience by mediating between producers and receivers. With more and more people in the United States accessing information and entertainment through digital means, these questions about the modes and effects of artistic media have acquired new resonance: not only for those in the academy, but for arts communities more generally, as well as for advertisers and governmental policy makers.

Thinking about how best to define an "artistic medium," however, has entailed much scholarly debate. Aristotle's assessment of "medium" as a "material cause" of art (stone for sculpture, sounds for music, words for poetry and so forth) provides one way of approaching the term; more recently, critics have reconceived the term "medium" as an "instrumental cause" of art (the apparatus of writing or printing, film, the broadcast media, the internet). Still further debate arises around the question of whether or not an "artistic" media can be distinguished in a rigorous and systematic way from non-artistic media. What, for instance, is the relation between artistic and non-artistic uses of photography? Of painting or drawing? Of language?

Asking these questions forces scholars to question, on a very fundamental level, commonly held assumptions about the stability of the human body and the aesthetic object alike. Do human senses alter in response to changes in the available media? Do we learn new ways of seeing and hearing from inventions like drawing, painting, photography, the phonograph, cinema, and video? What happens to objects when we adapt or "translate" them into other media: written narratives into film narratives or architecture into photography?

In the course of working through such investigations, our seminar will range across historical eras and moments to consider aesthetic objects of many kinds: film, painting, photography, opera, literature, and others. We will both be asking questions about how the aesthetic object is situated within cultural history, and be engaged in an analysis of the sensory, cognitive, and emotional shaping of the aesthetic experience, and how that shape is shaped by the medium in which it occurs.

Speakers for the seminar will include Philip Bohlman (Music, Committee on Jewish Studies), James K. Chandler (English Language and Literature, Committee on the History of Culture), Thomas Gunning (Art History, Cinema and Media Studies), Eduardo Kac (Art and Technology, School of the Art Institute of Chicago), David J. Levin (Germanic Studies, Committee on Cinema and Media Studies), Joel M. Snyder (Art History, Committees on General Studies in the Humanities and Visual Arts).