“No, really, you need to read this issue of Artforum,” a friend told me Tuesday. She knew she had to clarify: “It’s actually good.”
So it is. For its 50th anniversary, the magazine has put together one of its most relevant issues in years, headlined by a series of essays that look at the magazine’s hot-and-cold relationship with new-media art. Most begin with a photograph of some old Artforum cover depicting a new-media artist, as if to say: “See? We were there!”, while a series of short, boxed-off profiles aim to prove that that tradition isn’t yet dead. One of them, on page 407, uses a screenshot from FAILBlog.
The most interesting essay—and the one that has New Media circles talking—is “Digital Divide”, in which Claire Bishop questions the mainstream art world’s fear of New Media. Firmly ensconced in the establishment, Bishop takes it for granted that contemporary artists in the Chelsea set have generally avoided commenting directly on technological developments; she then sets to looking for more indirect evidence of a Web 2.0 zeitgeist, in an attempt to prove that our newly digital society is affecting its artists, consciously or no. It’s a well-written essay, and if nothing else it cobbles together a number of new media’s best conversation-starters: “Debord is out, Manovich is in”; “Hey, you can copy a video-art DVD”; “Man, everybody’s curating everything now.” It ends with a fatal pronouncement: “At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.”
By only discussing a vaguely-defined “mainstream,” though, Bishop manages to piss a lot of people off. For one thing, she starts out with the question “Whatever happened to digital art?”, which is the kind of lede that makes New Media adjuncts everywhere shit themselves. She then explains away New Media art as “a specialized field of its own” that “rarely overlaps with [commercial galleries or major international exhibitions],” and therefore falls outside her consideration; that’s all true, but it’s certainly not what those specialists want to hear.
Online, the battles have begun. The most obvious line of attack pushes along the criticism-as-evangelism front, asking why Bishop would write a piece bemoaning the lack of new-media art without also writing a piece trumpeting the greatest of new-media art. They ask: hasn’t she heard of so-and-so? Does she not know that Cory Arcangel, the commodifiable distillate of internet art ca. 2006, had a show at the Whitney just last year? Why continue this ghettoization of capital-N New Media, rather than taking action to end it once and for all? It’s a line of rhetoric that aims to distract from the often-depressing task of criticism and observation in favor of the uniformly pleasurable experience of seeing your friends' names in Artforum. It’s not an argument that does much for the world, unless you really need to prove to somebody that you’re smarter than Claire Bishop.
Other lines of attack go at that task more directly. When Bishop calls code “inherently alien to human perception”, she sounds dumb to programmers. Many programmers would like for you to know this. Nearly every point might have been made with a slightly more fitting example, or else phrased differently, and at one point, Bishop uses “digital art” to mean “new media”, a specialist faux pas; each of these facts angers a different segment of the internet.
Artforum’s actual readership—mainstream gallerists, parents of art students who never changed their mailing address, and coffee table owners—has pretty much been silent. They’re not a crowd, by nature, that sets itself to long internet arguments about the state of art today. But we shouldn’t forget that they are for whom Bishop was writing: a great analog horde who can hear the digital apocalypse coming but don’t know which way to run. Rather than reading Bishop’s article as ignorant navel-gazing from art’s ruling class, we should read it for what it is: a proposal for change, the beginnings of a pivot, and a way for mainstream art to claim it’s moving forward without either making everything free (because of digital reproducibility) or lolcats (because lol).
Take the growing ubiquity of selection as a creative act. We know it’s valuable, because we like Tumblrs. We know it’s creative, because some Tumblrs are better than others. But if you want to make the case that it’s contemporary art, you’re better off making Bishop’s roundabout half-argument about Rashid Johnson’s shelf art—in short, that it’s new because the connections matter more than the objects—rather than pointing to one of net art’s many surf clubs, where the difference between creation and curation has been eroding for years. Our new value system must be emerging and exciting and occasionally unprecedented, but we should be able to see it in the art we already own, and we’d prefer that it didn’t drive anyone out of business. After the requisite decades of outright exclusion, the assimilation of new-media art will be slow and spotty, like the rehabilitation of a rebel militia. The establishment will pick out a few grassroots stars who aren’t too dangerous, artists like Arcangel or Ryan Trecartin who work in bankable media, while pushing out a few trusted souls like Bishop’s artists to scout the new frontier. As with video art, we will endure decades of necromancy, as gradually more confident gallerists unearth one more very influential new media artist every six months. There will be no parade, but a few people will eventually be able to pay their bills.
It’s not a glamorous endgame, and it’s certainly not the one many new media artists and writers had in mind. In comments on Artforum.com, responses across the Internet, and new media mailing lists, a certain revolutionary utopianism peeked through, declaring that history would side with the Internet. “[New Media art] is exactly … who will most likely be the focus of art historians in the mid-21st century,” writes one artist, while a marketer hawking her art-tech conference begins her pitch with “For those who wish to get a glimpse of the year 2040 right now...” Marc Garrett, a founder of influential London-based new media nonprofit Furtherfield, opines that “In the future we will look back and see that … media art, like any other critically engaged or challenging art practice, was not accepted during its flourishing period,” while curator and researcher Sarah Cook, another of the great champions of new media, states the dream outright: “[T]here is a good chance that... the trappings of the Art World could [become obsolete], and for some in the new media sector, that’s what we’ve been working toward—not getting included within Art’s boundaries, but obliterating boundaries altogether, seeing art not as a noun but as a verb, as something one does, one practices, not something that is. Hooray for that!”
New media art, in that telling, seems able to shatter the grip of the establishment, throwing copypasta in the face of a trade defined by rarity and age.
It’ll never happen. The taste for uniqueness and physicality runs deep, as does the hate for too-novel novelty. Already, new media has discovered that its fans and funders are neither better, nor more revolutionary, but simply different. They like sharing more than hoarding, and they read Wired sometimes. They read Artforum online, but only when someone sends them something good. They write about each other all the time, on blogs, mostly because Artforum isn’t doing it for them; their history is not official, but neither is it lost. If a wave of art-for-art’s-sake sentiment washes over us, it will not need Claire Bishop’s approval. And if the established art world is slow or picky or self-interested in its assimilation of new media artists, that is to be expected. For now, the establishment’s pet glossy has dedicated its 50th anniversary issue to a month of new media. And that doesn’t seem all that bad.