John Blackinger on György Kepes at MIT


On the Universal Grammar of visual communication:

Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate…
— Gyorgy Kepes, 1944. 'The Language of Vision', p. 13

Noam Chomsky was certainly not the only left-wing intellectual to feel uneasy about the military research and development priorities of MIT during the early Cold War years. György Kepes taught there from 1946 until the 1970s, often finding himself in tense debates over the role of music and the arts in a university so heavily committed to military research priorities.

Writes historian John Blakinger:

The colleagues Kepes collaborated with on various book projects included a metallurgist who prepared fissionable material for the first atomic bomb, an engineer who created one of the earliest digital computers for the United States military, and a mathematician who invented novel ways to simulate thermonuclear war. Though Kepes was politically on the left, and vocally protested the war in Vietnam both on the ground and in numerous written statements, he was still trapped in a conflicted position within what we might call the military-industrial-aesthetic complex.

For the full text, click here.

In my book, Decoding Chomsky, I argue that core features of Chomsky's work in the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT reflected an underlying determination not to produce anything which the military could possibly use. Chomsky rejects my argument on the basis that

  • No military research was done on the MIT campus.
  • The issue of military funding was irrelevant, since the Pentagon in those days funded almost everything.
At the time, MIT was almost entirely funded by the military, including the music department, etc.
— Noam Chomsky 2016

Here is a Blakinger's perspective on this:

MIT’s administration colluded with the military-industrial complex as part of a grand bargain: by generously funding the arts, the Institute justified its even more generous funding of the sciences, especially scientific activities with dubious educational value, like the work than proceeding at the two Special Labs. One culture – art – justified the corrupt activities of the other.
— John R. Blakinger, 'The Aesthetics of Collaboration: Complicity and Conversion at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies', Tate Papers, no.25, Spring 2016,, accessed 6 November 2016.