Wayne Myers on Thu, 19 Feb 1998 09:02:54 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Re: "communication art"

Time I stopped lurking, I guess.

Alise wrote:

> One can dare to declare that the advanced possibilities of today's
> technology have destroyed some kind of essential border, a barrier which
> previously seemingly separated "art" (I suppose everybody understands
> something different with this word because unfinished discussions about
> question "what is art" have proven to be unsuccessful - no all-round,
> all-wise definition of the art is found) from other forms of human
> activities.

One can dare it if one wishes. I dare to disagree. I have a short answer
and a long answer. The entirety of my short answer is that I may not
know much about art but I know what I like. Many people reading that
will assume I am an idiot, in order to prove which my (extremely
long-winded) answer follows.

I suspect that the apparent destruction of the 'border' described is a
result of confusion. This confusion is not only brought about by
technology; there is also the confusion between art itself and the
discourse around art, which are so far removed from one another at
present, in my humble opinion, as to beggar belief. As any fule kno, the
heavy black curtains placed around all art forms in the West by
capitalism and the artist's practical problem of how to survive make it
very hard to separate art from politics, from theory, from semantic
quibbling and passionately argued ideological positions. I like
impossible challenges best, so I'm going to have a go at doing just

There is a tortured relationship between ideology and art, wherein
ideology, the lesser of the two, has attempted to annex art itself. That
this is a nonsense is no matter - it is a plausible nonsense, and
moreover it is a nonsense peddled by people tagged with the label
'expert', so it is a powerful nonsense. Such nonsense it is that it
tends to obscure the fact that there are several cultures of people who
appear ostensibly to be devoting their lives to art who are in fact not
doing so. They confuse us.

Academics, critics and historians working in the 'art' field do indeed
provide useful information and can no doubt theorise all day and all
night, but nothing they say or produce is important in terms of art
itself, except for the (limited) intellectual gallery space they
collectively create. These are the people who used to tell you about the
importance of the separation of high and low culture; these are the
people who nowadays may as well tell you the first thing that comes into
their head for all you can second guess the opinion, school of thought
and ideological alliegance of any given unknown individual. Why should
we listen to them when it is so clear that there is no consensus any

This may look like a breaking down of the barrier between art and other
things; it is in fact an intellectual laxative for constipated notions
like that of an objectively valuable canon. Theory has got to the stage
where you pays your money, very literally indeed, and takes your choice
(or, more likely, get what you are given and assume it's all like that),
and while it's grand if it turns you on it isn't likely to tell you much
about art. When theories of art forget that their task is intrinsically
impossible they lose all value; anyone who can point me in the direction
of theories or schools that have not forgotten this will make me very
happy, but I haven't found any yet.

Meanwhile the wheels of commerce, lubricated by the oil of media
exposure, ensure the perpetuation of small teams of agents, gallery
owners and wealthy collectors and investors, which results in the
creation of a tiny proportion of artists suffering from bouts of extreme
commercial success, while the majority struggle on any which way (or not
as the case may be). If we push artist A that sells but is crap, goes
the justification, we can afford to push B, C and D who are great but
will never sell - and many branches of 'the art world' fail to get as
far as B, C and D. Not news, I know, but it seems clear that this kind
of thing more than blurs the border between that which is and that which
is not art - you cannot replace aesthetic with commercial critieria (as
is effectively the case in most of this part of the art world) and do
anything other than be talking complete crap when you tell me what art

This blurs more than the border between art and not-art. It also blurs
the line between art and politics.  There are those who have confused
the two completely and cannot look at art without seeing politics (or
the lack of it) and who choose to reduce the whole of art to its
political subset. Then again, there are people who reduce the whole of
sex to its political subset too. While only a fool would deny the
existence and validity of the political in art (and only a damn fool
would deny the existence and validity of the political in sex), it seems
to me very sad (if not just plain wrong) to assert that no artwork may
be viewed outside its political context. On a more personal note, I find
sex improves the less politics has to do with it.

The 'border' then, between that which is and that which is not art, is
therefore something about which we must be very careful. Before such a
border can be said to have been eroded by a set of events that took
place in the twentieth century (FX: sound of date-stamp) we need at
least a vague idea of where the border is, or was, in the first place.
As we have seen, this is not easy to identify.

We cannot trust the academics and theorisers. It is in the nature of the
small p politics of the intellectual world that getting it right is far
less important than being in with the right team in the vast majority of
cases; in this world the facts can always be conveniently bent to fit
the latest fashionable theory held by the guy whose approval we need to
get that job / promotion / article published / invite to slap-up dinner
at high table / [insert your own ulterior motives here]. We certainly
cannot trust the salesmen or the investors. If we are honest we cannot
trust the artists either, except for the ones we like, wherein lies a
clue. I think I know where the 'border' is'. Tell you in a minute.

All hell has broken loose since the realisation dawned among (some)
intellectuals and academics that the objectively valuable canon was in
fact nothing more than imposed intellectual snobbery that only made
sense to a tiny minority of the world population and was in fact not the
final say in the matter. Likewise it has become increasingly clear,
from, say, the most cursory examination of the history of classical
music, that the relationship between art and commerce is not so far
different now from how it has always been. What percentage of major
classical composers were either wealthy or had wealthy patrons? As I
recall (and I am no expert in this), the answer is - all of them (ok -
most of them). If an artist can get enough money to pay to support him
or herself, he or she can get on with it and create. If you starve to
death you stop creating. You might do something wonderful before that
(and someone else might find that and sell it later) but the chances are
it will be burnt at around the same time you are.

The political struggle for equality, human rights and the establishment
of some form of human society worth calling civilisation is not art,
though art can refer to it and take part too. Art need not do so,
however. Anyone who says otherwise is putting politics above art; then
again, politicians (real ones, who truly reckon they can sort things
out) tend not to put anything above politics, and why should they? A
career is a career. What beats me is why so many politicians go into
art. Why can't they go into politics? Politics needs politicians to
re-colonise it from the actors who have taken over, and soon. But I

So where is the border between art and not-art? The 'border' is in your
own head. It consists of the set of things you like, and it serves to
exclude the set of things you don't like. If you don't like Chagall,
then for you, he is essentially not an artist, though you may take the
trouble to be polite and keep such opinions to yourself when you are
around Chagall fans like myself. There is no justification for an
objective canon any more than there is justification for me to prove to
you that you are wrong not to like Chagall or to value his work as great

Sure, there is nothing wrong with looking at artists who have had great
impact, but once we remember how and why they had great impact, what
everyone else has said about them, how they fit into this or that theory
and read several long boring books with no pictures in and small writing
we are in grave danger of forgetting the point of art. Does it move you?
Did you like it? If not it must be crap. If you think something is crap
it doesn't matter if Isaiah Berlin or Walter Benjamin or Natalie
Bookchin or Vivienne Westwood liked it. Criticism can be entertaining,
but it veers perilously close to pornography. If you need someone else
to tell you what is good and what is important then you presumably get
other people to have sex for you too, and just watch. That's fine, if
that's what you're into, but I don't see it as having a great deal to do
with practical art appreciation on the individual level.

So... Without wishing to be too catty...

> Starting even from the very beginning of XX century this border has been
> gradually destroyed with countless new "art tendencies" and names worth
> mentioning - Malevich's "Black square", Marcel Duchamp and his
> "Readymades" and Rrose Selavy, Andy Warhol and his Campbell's soup,
> Jackson Pollock and his big brushes, Lichtenstein's comics esthetics,
> opart, the golden age of installation and environment art, then videoart
> and, at last, interactive and net.art in the age of computers.

Er.. so lots of people did lots of different things this last century.
As I recall, there was a similar number of things in the century before
that, but I can't remember what many of them were. Not as many as I can
remember about the twentieth. Let me get back to you.

> At first the concepts about the esthetical conditions of art were
> exterminated (the artwork does not have to be something original -
> colored portraits of Marilyn Monroe or Yoko Ono's actions with urine
> jars can be called "art", and so forth, not talking about the artists'
> fascination with everything ugly, creepy, dirty, perverted,
> "prohibited", cheap and shocking, together with the sex revolution of
> 60ies the previously so cherished border between the private and the
> public was swept away).

Presumably, iconography and other artwork that conforms to a rigid
structural tradition (haikus, landscapes, the sonnet, most pre-twentieth
century music both classical and folk) isn't your bag either. Art has
never had to be something original. This is not an innovation of the
twentieth century.

> Then also concept of the ethic essence of the art disappeared - the
> meaning of the artwork is the cult of violence, wish to shock with
> something unpleasant (I can relate to Dali/Bunuel film "Un Chien
> Andalou" in the era of surrealism as one of the first examples), showing
> the mean, the negative, the repugnant with only one goal - to fill a
> viewer with disgust, differently from, for example, Renaissance when the
> visions of hell and nightmare had ethical role.

You might not like it but it does seem to create a response, doesn't it,
this lack of ethics. Mind you, I have a personal problem with the ethics
of many works of art from across history, since they frequently differ
from my own. As a non-Christian, for example, I struggle to see the
enormous value placed by so many on the to me allegedly great body of
work produced in the name of selling Christianity. Then again, when I
visited St Peters in Rome I was completely blown away. (Perhaps really
good artwork transcends the immediate political and ideological content
and context. Dunno.) Meanwhile, if you have an ethical problem with
representations of violence, it is indeed unlikely that Un Chien Andalou
(or Tarantino of the blessed cotton socks) will figure significantly in
your life. There are also those who have no such ethical problem with
it. Clearly.

> Also a border between the pop-culture and concept of the art as a
> "higher sphere" disappears, pop-music and mass fashion also is
> considered as a form of art, which consists of everything colorful,
> tasteless, simplicity and cheapness offered by the street - for example,
> some smart guys notice the dirty and always hopelessly stoned punks and
> Sex Pistols in the music industry are born, and Vivienne Westwood
> repeats the same trick on the catwalk, etc.

All pop-culture is tasteless, huh. You and me don't agree on this one.
At all. I am struggling not to say something rude and call you a
crashing snob. I won't, but only because I shall merely point out that
you are allowing your personal opinion to shape your theory of art in a
very clear way here, which goes to prove my point very precisely - if it
don't ring your bells you think it's crap. Just don't tell me what to
like and what not to like.

> In the information age it seems rather hard to talk about the presence
> of "art" at all. Of course, there are people calling themselves artists,
> internationally known term net.art exists, massive discussions about it
> take place. All previously used media are dead for the art ... 

The information age is all very well for those of us lucky enough to be
a part of it, but it is still early days yet, and if all previously used
media are dead for art then I for one have some very bad news for my
friends the painter, the singer, the film-maker and so on. Funnily
enough, my very strong suspicion is that if I try to convince them that
their chosen media are dead for art I will fail to convince them of my
case. Why might that be, do you think?

> ... does that
> mean the end of humanism? Human-friendly forms, sizes, materials and
> media are replaced by only one thing - the computer which "can do
> anything". Digitally process an image, making it into rows of symbols
> recognizable by other computers. Isn't it the same as to kill a soul and
> to exhibit made-up, well-dressed but dead body?

No, no and no. Humanism will not die until the computers look at the
pictures instead of us. The computer cannot 'do anything', nor will it
ever be able to. If you find digital images soulless then you haven't
found any you like yet. Maybe you never will, especially if you know
whether or not they are soulless before you have seen them.

> Of course, technology only proves the power of human brain, talent,
> possibilities and undoubted superiority comparing to all other live
> beings. But at the same time it subordinates us, makes us adapt
> ourselves to it.

As do the brush, the pen, the conductor's baton and any other set of
tools necessary to make art of any kind.
> Technology provides (relatively) equal chances to publish every kind of
> "art" in WWW. "No stars", says the technology age. DJ's are as anonymous
> as their audience.

Every kind? I have yet to see an on-line opera (but maybe I just haven't
been looking). There seem to be a large number of 'stars', many of whom
are extremely wealthy and not all of whom are actors in Hollywood or
musicians in London. DJ's are less anonymous by the day - it's a new
form and it's taking time. I could be boring and list a few, but you may
not have heard of them. That's my point too.

> Street fashion is face-less, cheap and bitchy - let's
> take a look at all this sportswear on the streets which is a nasty kick
> in the ass of "a good taste" and sense of style.

In who's opinion?

> The "cult movies" of
> our time - Tarantino, Arachi, Lynch and others - only repeat the
> classics, laughing about the viewer.

Only? ONLY? So. Reservoir Dogs. Not an essay on machismo then, as well
as laughing about the viewer. Maybe I should see it again...

> In the virtual world there are no
> more differences of sex, race, nationality, age and others. Everybody
> can become anybody.

Ok. Become me. Become Heath Bunting. Become John Perry Barlow. Don't
stint, don't cheat, don't merely spoof a few emails, don't hack into
other people's accounts. Actually become someone else. You can't. Even
if you could, you could only assert that some people can become anybody.
For myself, I remain... myself. Dreary, pedantic, long-winded... yep.
That's me. I'm doing it again. And I don't agree with you.

> Sometimes it feels like the human being as a measure of values is lost
> in this process. The goal is communication process - anonymous, global,
> face-less, delusive and seemingly safe.

Communication between who? Between human beings! Like this one, right
now, between you and me, where I'm telling you that I don't agree with
you and anyone else who has bothered to scroll down this far is
listening in. The human being as a measure of values (since that's
exactly what we are arguing about) is first in this process.

> The cyberspace becomes a great
> place to be in the age when one of the most popular sentences is "your
> body is your enemy", our bodies are threatened by drugs and lethal
> diseases.

And I thought you thought little of the popular. Seems I'm being guilty
of making assumptions about you. As an aside, I have tried both 'your
body is your enemy' and 'your body is your friend' on for size and can
report a distinct improvement in everything as a result of the latter.
And you thought I was the populist. (Not that I've ever actually heard
anyone say 'your body is your enemy' though, so what do I know.)
> The possibilities to communicate now are unique - communication is the
> only goal, the cult with its decadent temple called WWW. At the same
> time - it has never been so easy to lose yourself, there are no values
> out in the information highway, no speed limits, age limits, no taste,
> no style and no rules.

Quite so. Lovely isn't it. No-one is holding your hand and telling what
to do, where to go, what to like, how to be, what to think. You've got
to work it out for yourself. As it happens, I come across values, speed
limits, age limits, taste, style and rules all the time on-line. Each
individual or collective I come across has their own. Some of them I
like, because they are similiar to mine, and those are the places I
return to. Some of them do not ring my bells much, and those ones tend
to pass me by.

Objectivism is about subordination, hierarchy and the impositions of the
opinions of the few on the many. Subjectivism is whatever you want it to
be. Humanism is not dead, but it was dead when a few people got to tell
everyone else what was and wasn't art and everyone else had to keep
their mouths shut. Now everyone has a voice (*cough*) we might be a step
closer to it. Still, a step closer from a long way away is still a long
way away, and the border between art and not-art is, frankly, the least
of the problems affecting humanism (if by that, we mean valuing the
individual). Have they started dropping the bombs yet? Harumph.

On the other hand, you have every right to disagree with me, and I look
forward to hearing why I'm wrong.

Cheers etc.,

Wayne Myers

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