Artforum’s New-Media Uproar

09/07/2012 10:02 AM |

“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).