McLuhan's concept of art as 'anti-environment' forms the dialectical counterpart to his concept of technology as environment, and represents McLuhan's ethical position in respect to the disturbing and disruptive effects of technology.
While the inventor of technology 'creates products and processes that transform environments', 'The artist makes new perception'.2
'Art as an anti-environment is an indispensable means of perception,' McLuhan says, 'for environments, as such, are imperceptible.'3
The relationship between technology and art, environment and anti-environment, is conceptualized dialectically; every technology is in the first place a work of art, while every work of art, in its repeated use, becomes a technology.4
McLuhan does not distinguish between art and science as such; the artist is a person 'in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time'.5
Later, McLuhan and Eric McLuhan suggest that the 'laws' of media (i.e. Extension, Obsolescence, Retrieval and Reversal) apply to the arts as well as the sciences and in fact 'erase the distinction between them'.6
Art is not the only province of the anti-environment, however. To McLuhan, all 'anti-social' activities are anti-environmental, because they raise the unconscious environment to conscious attention.
This argument owes much to Wyndham Lewis, who wrote in the first Blast pamphlet in 1914: 'The artist of the modern movement is a savage (in no sense an "advanced," perfected, democratic, Futuristic individual of Mr. Marinetti's limited imagination [in The Futurist Manifesto, 1909]) ...'7
McLuhan invokes the tale of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' to illustrate the way that only someone outside of a certain environment is able to 'see' it for what it actually is.
To McLuhan, the 'artist' (like the antisocial brat in 'The Emperor's New Clothes') is one who is 'rarely "well-adjusted," he cannot go along with currents and trends'.8
While technologies inspire somnambulism, the artist 'sharpens our perception'.9
McLuhan says: 'Poets and artists live on frontiers. They have no feedback, only feedforward. They have no identities. They are probes.'10
He finds 'aesthetic bonds between the poet, the sleuth, and even the criminal', likening Arthur Rimbaud and Ernest Hemingway to action film hero James Bond and the rogues played by Humphrey Bogart to argue that all are 'figures who explore the shifting frontiers of morals and society. They are engaged in detecting the social environment by probing and transgression. For to probe is to cross boundaries of many kinds ...'11
McLuhan says that 'The child, by delinquent behavior, is aping the exploratory artist. Dostoevski was aware of this in Crime and Punishment. He saw the criminal as a sort of cross between the saint and the artist.'12
As anti-social activities are those that reveal the hidden environment, McLuhan says that 'Professionalism is environmental. Amateurism is anti-environmental.'13
Amateurs, like 'small children', are less apt to conform to the established mores of a situation.14