William Ivins

Ivins, Wm. M. (Jr.), Prints and Visual Communication. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (1953) This is surely one of the great books of our very great time. The print being the lowest of definitions in informational terms, it has a great deal in common with the television image. (Report on Project in Understanding New Media, 1960)

McLuhan first read William Ivins (1881-1961) in the late 1950s and was helped by him, as by the other art historians McLuhan came to read at that time, to his proposal of the sensus communis, aka tactility, as the elementary structure of experience and of its resulting science or sciences.  This decisive ‘art history’ phase of McLuhan’s work lasted from 1958 to 1962 and it was in this period that his concern with Ivins was concentrated.

The Electronic Revolution in North America (1958)

  • In his Prints and Visual Communication, William Ivins explained the stages of development of a visual syntax which codified complex information in a ‘net of rationality’ as the engraver’s lines were called. Exactly repeatable visual statement developed steadily until the photograph. At that stage, line1 disappeared, syntax ended, and statement became not partial but total.

Myth and Mass Media (1959)

  • In his Prints and Visual Communication (…), William M. Ivins explains how the long process of capturing the external world in the “network of rationality”, by the engraver’s line and by ever more subtle syntax, finally reached conclusion in the photograph. The photograph is a total statement of the external object without syntax. This kind of peripety [from the extreme of one medium to a different one] will strike the student of media as characteristic of all media development.

Printing and Social Change (1959)

  • As William Ivins analysed it in Prints and Visual Communication, the woodcut and engraving moved through many stages of statement about the visible world, achieving an ever more subtle syntax, until photography suddenly presented us with total statement minus syntax. The suggestion that print from movable type created a new kind of codification of reality, a new way of representing and communicating mental activity is readily assented to. But to relate this new form of expression and statement to the science and culture of its time needs the scrutiny and collaboration of many minds.
  • …until the Renaissance, classroom time was spent to a great degree in making rather than in studying the text. The stress which William Ivins has given, in Prints and Visual Communication, to the new power of exactly repeatable information has not yet found its analyst and commentator (…). Such a commentator would be obliged to examine the effects of this exact repeatability in developing a new consumer orientation in market place and study alike.
  • I suggest that the real reversal which has overtaken print technology [from within print technology itself] is to be found in the photograph and the movie, and that these forms of total ‘statement without syntax,’ as William Ivins describes it, are utterly unlike telegraph, radio, and TV. Somehow we must unriddle the complex of new messages involved in this new situation which has been created by print technology itself. So far nothing has been done to explicate the situation because we still imagine that these forms of codifying information can co-exist [as atomic units in successive time and space] without transforming one another. This attitude, now suicidal, is yet a natural legacy of print culture.

Report on Project in Understanding New Media (1960)

  • It would be a sufficient justification to include this section on prints [in McLuhan’s Report] if only to bring to the students’ attention the work of William M. Ivins, Jr. His Prints and Visual Communication (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953) stresses the meaning which prints have had in the development of science. Until there was some uniform and repeatable means of transmitting non-verbal information, it was impossible for scientists to communicate. Mr. Ivins helps us to define a “backward country” as “one of those that have not learned to take full advantage of the possibilities of pictorial statement and communication” (p. 1). He spots, at once, the disadvantages to knowledge of the “persistent habit of regarding prints as of interest and value only insofar as they can be regarded as works of art” (p. l).
    He will receive increasing recognition as a master of media analysis, because of such critical awareness as this: “Historians of art and writers on aesthetic theory have ignored the fact that most of their thought has been based on exactly repeatable pictorial statements about works of art rather than upon first hand acquaintance with them. Had they paid attention to that fact, they might have recognized the extent to which their own thinking and theorizing have been shaped by the limitations imposed on those statements by the graphic techniques. Photography and Photographic process, the last of the long succession of such techniques, have been responsible for one of the greatest changes of visual habit and knowledge that has ever taken place and have led to an almost complete rewriting of the history of art as well as a most thoroughgoing revaluation of the arts of the past” (p. 2). Mr. Ivins does not merely offer valuable data, he offers us better ways of perceiving data,
    an approach rather than conclusionsWe must look on prints “from the point of view of general ideas and particular functions, and, especially we must think about the limitations which their techniques have imposed on them as conveyors of information and on us as receivers of that information” (p. 3). To extend this kind of awareness, not only to prints but to all media, is the aim and scope of understanding mediaThe approach of Mr. Ivins readily reveals why historians until recent times “have rarely found anything they were not looking for” (p. 4).
  • Art and Geometry, Wm. M. Ivins, Jr: This book is concerned, among other things, with the nature of Euclidean space. One of its themes is that it was not until the Renaissance that  Western man finally freed the visual from the tactile. We have seen how print culture strongly stressed segmental one-thing-at-a-time approach to problems of organization of space and time.
  • Wm. M. Ivins suggested, in Art and Geometry (Cambridge, Mass., 1946) that the Greek geometric sense was profoundly tactual and that Euclidean geometry thus had to wait further development until the visual sense had been abstracted from the tactual sense in the Renaissance. (…) In fact, it was only the pictorial abstractness of print that made possible the diminishing of the tactile values sufficiently to advance mathematics to its eighteenth century phase.
  • William M. Ivins, Jr., in his Prints and Visual Communication (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1953) traces the stages of lineal syntax in prints and woodcuts all the way to that point of no return where photography provides a total statement without snytax. “With photography, however, we come to a kind of print that no one could have made before the nineteenth century,” (p, 116). He proceeds with his theme (p. 128): “At last man had discovered a way to make visual reports in printer’s ink without syntax, and without the distorting analyses of form that syntax necessitated. Today we are so accustomed to this that we think little of it, but it represents one of the most amazing discoveries that man has ever made — a cheap and easy means of symbolic communication without syntax” (pp, 128-9).
  • In his Prints and Visual Communication, William M. Ivins, Jr., traces the rise of the print with its “network of rationality” or mesh of lines for capturing the external world. The minute mesh of lines, or statements about the external world suddenly yield in the photograph an image without lines. Reality is there as a total statement without syntax. It was as if by reversal that things drew themselves instead of being drawn.

The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962)

  • William Ivins, Jr., in Prints and Visual Communications, stresses how natural it is in the world of the written word to move towards a merely nominalist position such as no non-literate man could dream of: “Plato’s Ideas and Aristotle’s forms, essences, and definitions, are specimens of this transference of reality from the object to the exactly repeatable and therefore seemingly permanent verbal formula. An essence, in fact, is not part of the object but part of its definition. Also, I believe, the well-known notions of substance and attributable qualities can be derived from this operational dependence upon exactly repeatable verbal descriptions and definitions — for the very linear order in which words have to be used results in a syntactical time order analysis of qualities that actually are simultaneous and so intermingled and interrelated that no quality can be removed from one of the bundles of qualities we call objects  without changing both it and all the other qualities. After all, a quality is only a quality of a group of other qualities, and if you change anyone of the group they all necessarily change. Whatever the situation may be from the point of view of a verbalist analysis, from the point of view of visual awarenesses of the kind that have to be used in an art museum the object is a unity that cannot be broken down into separate qualities without becoming merely a collection of abstractions that have only conceptual existence and no actuality. In a funny way words and their necessary linear syntactical order forbid us to describe objects and compel us to use very poor and inadequate lists of theoretical ingredients in the manner exemplified more concretely by the ordinary cook book recipes.” Any phonetic alphabet culture can easily slip into the habit of putting one thing under or in another; since there is constant pressure from the subliminal fact that the written code carries for the reader the experience of the “content” which is speech. But there is nothing subliminal in non-literate cultures. The reason we find myths difficult to grasp is just this fact, that they do not exclude any facet of experience as literate cultures do. All the levels of meaning are simultaneous. (GG 71-72)
  • It is necessary for the understanding of the visual take-off that was to occur with Gutenberg technology, to know that such a take-off had not been possible in the manuscript ages, for such a culture retains the audile-tactile modes of human sensibility in a degree incompatible with abstract visuality or the translation of all the senses into the language of unified, continuous, pictorial space. That is why Ivins is entirely justified in maintaining in his Art and Geometry (p 41): “Perspective is something quite different from foreshortening. Technically, it is the central projection of a three-dimensional space upon a plane. Untechnically, it is the way of making a picture on a flat surface in such a manner that the various objects represented in it appear to have the same sizes, shapes, and positions, relatively to each other, that the actual objects as located in actual space would have if seen by the beholder from a single determined point of view. I have discovered nothing to justify the belief that the Greeks had any idea, either in practice or theory, at any time, of the conception contained in the italicised words in the preceding sentence.” (GG 112)
  • William Ivins has made a more thorough analysis of the esthetic effects of prints and typography on our human habits of perception than anybody else. In Prints and Visual Communication he writes: “Each written or printed word is a series of conventional instructions for the making in a specified linear order of muscular movements which when fully carried out result in a succession of sounds. These sounds, like the forms of the letters, are made according to arbitrary recipes or directions, which indicate by convention certain loosely defined classes of muscular movements but not any specifically specified ones. Thus any printed set of words can actually be pronounced in an infinitely large number of ways, of which, if we leave aside purely personal peculiarities, Cockney, Lower East Side, North Shore, and Georgia, may serve as typical specimens. The result is that each sound we hear when we listen to anyone speaking is merely a representative member of a large class of sounds which we have agreed to accept as symbolically identical in spite of the actual differences between them.” In this passage he not only notes the ingraining of lineal, sequential habits, but, even more important, points out the visual homogenizing of experience in print culture, and the relegation of auditory and other sensuous complexity to the background. The reduction of experience to a single sense, the visual, as a result of typography leads him to speculate that “the more closely we confine our data for reasoning about things to data that come to us through one and the same sense channel the more apt we are to be correct in our reasoning”. However, this type of reduction or distortion of all experience to the scale of one sense only is in tendency the effect of typography on the arts and sciences as well as upon human sensibility. Thus the habit of a fixed position or “point of view” so natural to the reader of typography, gave popular extension to the avant-garde perspectivism of the fifteenth century: “Perspective rapidly became an essential part of the technique of making informative pictures, and before long was demanded of pictures that were not informative. Its introduction had much to do with that western European  preoccupation with verisimilitude, which is probably the distinguishing mark of subsequent European picture making. The third of these events was Nicholas of Cusa’s enunciation, in 1440, of the first thorough-going doctrines of the relativity of knowledge and of the continuity, through transitions and middle terms, between extremes. This was a fundamental challenge to definitions and ideas that had tangled thought since the time of the ancient Greeks. These things, the exactly repeatable pictorial statement, a logical grammar for representation of space relationship in pictorial statements, and the concepts of relativity and continuity, were and still are superficially so unrelated that they are rarely thought of seriously in conjunction with one another. But, between them, they have revolutionized both the descriptive sciences and the mathematics on which the science of physics rests, and in addition they are essential to a great deal of modern technology. Their effects on art have been very marked. They were absolutely new things in the world. There was no precedent for them in classical practice or thought of any kind or variety”. (GG 125-126)


  1. in Principles of Art History, Wölfflin put forward ‘line’ as one of his principles.