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.