Mirror Image

Opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, August 8, 2008. Photo: Doug Mills/New York Times/Redux.

A COROLLARY of Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage that art is a “radar environment” uniquely suited for making clear the effects of media in culture is his lesser known analogy between those effects and the sound waves that become visible along an airplane’s wings just before it breaks the sound barrier. “The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends,” McLuhan writes in Understanding Media (1964), “is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as earlier forms reach their peak performance.” And so, he argues, the fragmentary quality of mechanization is never so apparent as when movies are first invented—which, in turn, prompts the holistic mode of perception that would find itself articulated in Cubism.

McLuhan’s examples, of course, hail from the last century, and yet they might usefully be recalled when seeking a place for art

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