Scottish Artist John McHale Influenced by Marshall McLuhan


John McHale (Sr.) with Self-Portrait (Photo: Sam Lambert)

Over the course of the 1950s, the Scottish writer and artist John McHale (1922 – 1978) was committed to exploring the effects of fine art, advertising, and new media on the human experience. He was a prominent member of the Independent Group (IG), which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (1952–1955), and was among the first artists in the group to travel to the USA, returning with a tranche of advertising imagery that became influential for their thinking about the mass media environment. McHale was also an early advocate of Marshall McLuhan’s media ecology theory and responded to it in his own artwork and writing. Focusing on a formative period for McHale, between 1954 and 1960, when he developed his collage practice, undertook a scholarship with Josef Albers at Yale University, and became a leading voice in the IG, the essay considers McHale’s writing and art practice as an evolving response to McLuhan’s media ecology. It identifies McHale’s two-part essay “The Expendable Ikon”, published in Architectural Design in 1959, as a key text for understanding his artwork and writings on the relationship between the fine arts and the mass media during this period.

Introduction: McHale and McLuhan  
In 1959 John McHale, the Scottish artist, writer, and participant in the Independent Group (IG) wrote to the Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan, informing him that: “for some years, since The Mechanical Bride was published, I have looked out for such articles as you have produced and they have been of immense value to myself and others here who are interested in the mass media”.1 An earlier draft of the same letter had put this in more emphatic terms, insisting that for artists in Britain, McLuhan’s work was “of great interest and considerable influence”.1 In the letter sent to McLuhan, McHale cited articles dating back to 1947 and the “Culture and Communications” seminars that McLuhan held at the University of Toronto between 1953 and 1955, revealing an early and sustained engagement with  McLuhan’s work prior to the publication of his best-known book Understanding Media (1964).3 McHale also shared his own developing theories on media ecology, enclosing with his letter a copy of his two-part essay “The Expendable Ikon”, published in Architectural Design in February (Fig. 1) and March 1959 (Fig. 2).4 This confirmed to McLuhan that discussions he was leading in North America about the language of the mass media were also now taking place in Britain. Furthermore, it posited “The Expendable Ikon” as a complement to McLuhan’s “most stimulating and informative text” “Myth and Mass Media”, which had been published in Daedalus a month after McHale’s piece.5 The artist was at pains to emphasise the didactic function of mass culture, stating that “for myself, and others who are interested in the mass media, this interest has been particularly directed to [its] role [in] the education of the artist and designer”.6 McHale’s letter initiated a back and forth with McLuhan that lasted throughout the 1960s and 1970s.7 The letters underscore the importance of McLuhan’s writing for the development of ideas and practices by members of the Independent Group, a radical group of young artists and architects who met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London and were concerned with ways technology and the mass media shaped human experience. Lawrence Alloway later cited McLuhan’s publication The Mechanical Bride (1951) as a key text for the group.8

The Expendable Ikon 1

The essay, “The Expendable Ikon”, which McHale had enclosed in his first letter to McLuhan, examined the communicative function of images and the means by which the mass media conveyed the stereotypical mid-century Western experience. Working on the premise that “the whole range of the sensory spectrum has been extended [such that] man can see more, hear more, travel faster—experience more than ever before” and that “his environment extensions, movie, TV, picture magazine, bring to his awareness an unprecedented scope of visual experience”, the essay made the case that images had to respond in kind and become “loaded” with associations about “man’s total environment”.9 The term “ikon” signalled that the meaning of mass imagery extended beyond the representation of the figure depicted, in much the way that a religious ikon embodied an inconceivable divine entity and sought to induce a spiritual experience through the image of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a saint. The unusual spelling may have been intentionally used to foster the connection to Eastern Orthodox ikons but more likely is that McHale adopted it from Reyner Banham, who used the same spelling in the catalogue for the exhibition This is Tomorrow in 1956.10

In “The Expendable Ikon” McHale categorised some prevalent trends in ikon-making in contemporary mass media. He cited Marshall McLuhan as an important source, describing The Mechanical Bride (1951) as a “classic of its kind”, while at the same time distancing himself from McLuhan’s “moralising” tone.11 Although McHale initially subscribed to McLuhan’s warnings about the potentially corrupting nature of the mass media, by the end of the decade, he was more circumspect. Their ambitions were aligned but not quite the same—McLuhan’s purpose being to understand the social and cultural implications of mass media, where McHale was equally interested in the question of where this expanded visual environment left fine art. By working through McLuhan’s ideas over the course of a decade, McHale came to understand the potential dangers of the mass media but also—as indicated in his initial letter to McLuhan—to appreciate what the fine arts could learn from its advanced methods of persuasion.12 The distinction he made between the two was based on their longevity or lack-thereof. The fine arts—the traditional preserve of ikon-making—stood the test of time, while mass media was characterised by rapid and continual change, its ikons only ever as relevant as the last photo-shoot, movie, or song released. This expendability, McHale argued, gave a more accurate picture of the cultural environment of the mid-century but it also represented a challenge to those artists who acknowledged its didactic potential as they grappled with the question of fine art’s function in a mass media age. The Independent Group, whose first series of seminars (1952–1953) had focused on technology, turned their attention to the relationship between fine art and mass media for their second series (1955–1956), and explored it through exhibitions, including Parallel of Life and Art (1953), curated by Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alison Smithson, and Peter Smithson at the ICA; Collages and Objects (1954), curated by Lawrence Alloway at the ICA; and This is Tomorrow, coordinated by Theo Crosby at the Whitechapel Gallery (1956).13

In “The Expendable Ikon”, McHale focused on popular ikons like the pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley that pervaded popular magazines. Elsewhere, however, he also applied the term to his own artworks, writing in the catalogue for the exhibition Three Collagists (1958) that his works were “in the nature of ikons” because they captured the human image in the “extended environs” of the mass media.14 A photograph of McHale posing alongside his Self Portrait (1955), taken for the journal Uppercase, reflects this through its mirrored composition, the subject split between McHale’s exterior appearance and his symbolic representation of self as a television-shaped head covered with advertisements (Fig. 3).15 The exaggerated sensory features of Self Portrait—its enlarged eye, mouth, and outstretched tongue—emphasised the sensory overload of this new media environment, not merely a new visual education but a titillating sensorium. The work disregards formal likeness and instead seeks to capture the impact of the 1950s on the artist’s sense of self. Depicted as a generic receptacle filled with vivid advertising imagery, Self Portrait presents McHale as a product of his environment, his identity forged by the consumer boom he experienced while living in the USA in 1955.16 As this essay will show, collaged ikons such as these served as tools for analysing new media languages and their impact on human experience, a task McHale carried out in parallel and crossover with McLuhan. In this regard, they are not only the products of this expanded visual environment, but they are also a form of research that contributed to the burgeoning field of media ecology.17

Read the rest of this essay at

Telemath VI 1957 by John McHale 


  1. Letter, John McHale to Marshall McLuhan, 1959, John McHale papers, Buffalo NY (uncatalogued).
  2. Letter, John McHale to Marshall McLuhan, 1959, John McHale papers, Buffalo NY (uncatalogued).
  3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964). Marshall McLuhan set up the “Culture and Communications” seminars with Edmund Carpenter at the University of Toronto in 1953. The seminars, which ran for two years, brought together academics and graduate students from Anthropology, Economics, English, Psychology, and Town Planning to explore how the methods used in each discipline codified reality. The findings were published in the journal founded by McLuhan Explorations: Studies in Culture and Communication.
  4. John McHale, “The Expendable Ikon 1”, Architectural Design 22 (February 1959): 82–83.
  5. Letter, John McHale to Marshall McLuhan, 1959; Marshall McLuhan, “Myth and Mass Media”, Daedalus 88, no. 2 (1959): 339–348.
  6. Letter, John McHale to Marshall McLuhan, 1959.
  7. Marshall McLuhan’s archive contains fourteen correspondences between McHale and McLuhan dating between 1959 and 1979: Marshall McLuhan papers, Library and Archives Canada, MG 31, D 156, Vol. 31, file 34; McLuhan and McHale also met in person when McLuhan visited him and Buckminster Fuller at Carbondale, Illinois, where they had established the World Resources Inventory Office.
  8. Lawrence Alloway, “The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty”, in David Robbins (ed.), The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty (Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 1990), catalogue of an exhibition at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College [et. al.], 1–18 February 1990, 59. According to the art critic and historian Irving Sandler, McLuhan only became influential among American artists after the publication of Understanding Media in 1964: Irving Sandler, American Art of the 1960s (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 79.
  9. McHale, “The Expendable Ikon I”, in John McHale, The Expendable Reader: Articles on Art, Architecture, Design, and Media (1951–79), edited by Alex Kitnick (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 49.
  10. Lawrence Alloway, Reyner Banham, David Lewis et. al., This is Tomorrow (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 1956), catalogue of an exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, 9 August–9 September, 1956.
  11. McHale, “The Expendable Ikon I”, in Kitnick (ed.), The Expendable Reader, 51.
  12. Letter, John McHale to Marshall McLuhan, 1959.
  13. The Independent Group programme for 1955 is reprinted in Anne Massey, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945–1959 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 142–144; Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alison Smithson, and Peter Smithson (eds), Parallel of Life and Art (London: The Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1953), catalogue of an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 30 November–4 December 1953; Lawrence Alloway (ed.) Collages and Objects (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1954), catalogue of an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 13 October–20 November 1954; Theo Crosby (ed.), This is Tomorrow (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 1956), catalogue of an exhibition at The Whitechapel Gallery, 9 August–9 September 1956.
  14. Lawrence Alloway (ed.), 3 Collagists: New Work by E.L.T. Mesens, John McHale and Gwyther Irwin (London: Cambridge Contemporary Art Trust, 1958), catalogue of an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 3–29 November 1958, unpaginated.
  15. Theo Crosby (ed.), “John McHale”, Uppercase, 1 (London, Whitefriars Press, 1958), unpaginated.
  16. McHale spent a year in the USA studying at Yale in 1955–1956.
  17. Alex Kitnick lays the groundwork for this study in his discussion of McHale and McLuhan in Alex Kitnick, “Hip-Artificer”, in The Expendable Reader: Articles on Art, Architecture, Design, and Media (1951–79), edited by Alex Kitnick (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 12–30…

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