Since the beginning of the 1990s, Noël Carroll has become one of the key figures in the American philosophy of art, proposing alternative answers to the dilemma of “what are movies made of?” For the film theory, this problem was closely connected with the desire to establish the status of cinema as one of the art forms. The main argument in this issue was the property of the medium uniqueness, which distinguishes the essential feature in film and determines what is most important in it as a medium, and differentiates it from other forms of art. The lines that Carroll follows in clarifying the basic concepts connect him immediately with two polemical approaches – the anti-essentialism of the second half of the 1950s and medium essentialism of the early theory of cinema. Carroll’s alternative position is to abandon the conversation about the notion of cinema, turning to an analysis of its components. He dismisses medium essentialism as an inappropriate approach for characterizing cinema and other art forms. Carroll’s arguments are reinforced by concise explanations of why the theory of medium uniqueness fails at describing the notion of cinema and art in general.
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Noël Carroll has made many significant contributions to film theory. He has been a prominent critic of medium essentialism, which claims that a unique medium is associated with each art form and governs its essence and success. This conceptual framework is based on the theory of medium uniqueness. According to the theory, the medium that serves as the basis for a form of art puts constraints on what can be communicated through a work (Carroll 4). Also, whether or not an artwork succeeds is predetermined because the medium governs what works best stylistically (Carroll 4). Carroll, however, in his essay “Forget the medium!” undermines this theory and urges that it has been wrong from the very beginning.
Carroll’s essay can be conceptually divided into three parts. His first argument against the ideas of medium essentialism is that no medium is unique to an art form (Carroll 2). As an example, he talks about words that can be considered a medium of literature. However, as Carroll states, words are used in many other forms of art as well, including theater, song, and opera (Carroll 3). Indeed, many of the media used by various types of art are shared. For instance, a painter may use a brush, whereas a brush may also be used when sculpting. Therefore, the notion of medium uniqueness does not seem to be correct, as no medium is unique to one single art form. Recent technological advancements, as Carroll believes, has only made this fact more apparent (Carroll 2). On the other hand, the proponents of the theory of medium uniqueness suggested the opposite, despite not agreeing on what medium films were based on. For instance, Laura Mulvey argues that cinema is a source of pleasure (201). She may be indirectly stating that pleasure is the ultimate goal of movies and the means of achieving it can be considered a medium. Various film theorists have different opinions on what the medium of film is.
The second argument Carroll makes is that no art form is based on a single medium. He believes that speaking about an only medium is “a misleading simplification or abstraction” (Carroll 7). Indifferent to what is considered as a medium, any art form is comprised of several media. For instance, if one thinks of the medium as the material of making, then many elements comprise an artwork (Carroll 5). For example, a sculpture may be made of both metals and stones and many other materials (Carroll 5). When it comes to filming, movies can be made using celluloid, magnetic tapes, or entirely using digital means by manipulating electric current. If one thinks of media as appliances with which artists create their works, then the situation is similar. Movies can be shot using a video camera or can be artificially created in video rendering software. Carroll’s argument significantly jeopardizes the reliability of medium essentialism.
One of the central beliefs in the theory of medium uniqueness is the claim that media have the power to constrain the aspirations of artists. However, Carroll suggests that such thinking is fallacious because artists have successfully adjusted the media according to their goals and purposes for centuries (8). Carroll explains his point of view by discussing musical instruments. They, as Carroll clarifies, “are constantly being invented and re-adapted” to fit stylistic goals of musicians (8). For instance, the invention of the piano took place because of musicians’ interest in sustained crescendo (Carroll 8). The same is true in filmmaking – new software is being developed to meet the needs of directors, new techniques are being invented, and new types of movies, such as animated 3D works and films entirely created without using the camera, are being created. Therefore, the media cannot impose limitations on what can be delivered using a work of art.
In summary, Carroll believes that medium essentialism has been utterly wrong from the beginning, despite the theory’s widespread adoption. He urges that it is impossible to connect a medium uniquely with an art form because the media are often shared between many of them (Carroll 5). Second, he believes that stating that an art form is comprised of only one medium is an oversimplification (Carroll 5). Lastly, Carrol thinks that the media are not the source of constraints, and assessment of artworks should not be done by evaluating what media are used and what is the best way to use them.
Throughout centuries, artists have adapted the media according to their needs and goals. This claim is supported not only by the fact that the media are being continuously enhanced and adjusted, but also by the fact that art forms are being changed to suit artists’ purposes (Carroll 7). The medium does not predetermine an art form’s course of development (Carroll 7). Instead, artists’ goals serve as the basis for change and improvement (Carroll 7). When inquired about what film is, if not the medium, Carroll suggests that it is a collection of moving images (9). An image, in this context, is not only a physically visible picture – it can be abstract and nonobjective (Carroll 9).
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Personal Opinion about Carroll’s Arguments
Work in a specific field begins with a clarification of fundamental concepts of its subject. Therefore, it is inherent that, in order to study the philosophy or art, one should be give a precise answer to the question of what art is. Carroll successfully tackles this question by identifying what is currently wrong with definitions and by providing arguments against each of the identified issues. Early theorists attempted to define art and its forms by identifying an essential element that would serve as the requirement. For instance, a sculpture should be carved out of stone to be considered sculpture. While this approach used to be sound and many philosophers and artists praised it, I personally believe that it was fallacious. I strongly support the opinion of Carroll because I think that art forms are not based on what materials end results are made of and what instruments are used during the creation process. Instead, we designate works as members of particular forms of art by analyzing their purpose. As the intentions and goals of artists change, so do the means by which artworks are created and delivered.
Carroll’s general criticism of any essentialist theory boils down to proving that these essentialist traits are not required because there are examples of works of art that do not contain them. They are also not sufficient, because one can give examples of objects and practices that contain them, but cannot be attributed to works of art. For instance, words are essential to literature, but they are also fundamental to songs. Everyday speech is also based on words but cannot be considered an art form. Therefore, medium essentialism and the theory of medium uniqueness discussed in Carroll’s essay are not an excellent framework for defining art forms. Carroll’s arguments prove that theorists took an incorrect approach from the start.
It is evident that, besides contradicting established trends in modern American aesthetics and classical film theory, Carroll went beyond a simple refutation. Carroll reproaches the early film theory, which, in its long search for essential elements that comprise movies, completely overlooked other issues. By saying that “artforms are made by human beings in order to serve human purposes,” Carroll indicates that theory should be used as a tool for analyzing various functions of artworks (7). Such a position on theory is in full agreement with Carroll’s general views on the philosophy of art.
While Carroll does not provide definitions of art forms, he does mention what he believes movies are. The notion of moving images describes what cinematic works stand for adequately. Also, this definition does not put any constraints on what media can be used to make movies. Carroll states that he deliberately chose the word “images” because “pictures” should be physically perceived, whereas films may contain imagery not recognizable by eyes (9).
The style that Carroll employs when influencing his readers should also be noted. I find Carroll’s arguments persuasive not only because of the contents but also because of the way they are delivered. Carroll clearly outlines the problems with the current film and art theory and provides readers with arguments on why he believes the framework of medium uniqueness fails at defining what art and film are.
Noël Carroll is one of the most profound individuals in the field of film and art theory. His essay “Forget the medium!” urges theorists to focus more on the goals and functions of artworks and claims that taking the medium approach is false. He makes strong arguments on why medium essentialism is wrong and how movies should be defined – according to Carroll, movies are moving images.
Carroll, Noël. “Forget the Medium!” Engaging the Moving Image. Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 1-9.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory Reader, pp. 200-208