Stallabrass Art History and Net Art, Stallabrass

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165
CAN ART HISTORY DIGEST NET ART?
Julian Stallabrass
From its beginnings, Internet art has had an uneven and confl icted relation-
ship with the established art world. There was a point, at the height of
the dot-com boom, when it came close to being the “next big thing,” and
was certainly seen as a way to reach new audiences (while conveniently
creaming off sponsorship funds from the cash-rich computer companies).
When the boom became a crash, many art institutions forgot about online
art, or at least scaled back and ghettoized their programs, and that forgetting
became deeper and more widespread with the precipitate rise of con-
temporary art prices, as the gilded object once more stepped to the forefront
of art-world attention. Perhaps, too, the neglect was furthered by much
Internet art’s association with radical politics and the methods of tactical
media, and by the extraordinary growth of popular cultural participation
online, which threatened to bury any identifi ably art-like activity in a glut of
appropriation, pastiche, and more or less knowing trivia.
One way to try to grasp the complicated relation between the two realms
is to look at the deep incompatibilities of art history and Internet art. Art
history—above all, in the paradox of an art history of the contemporary—
is still one of the necessary conduits through which works must pass as
they move through the market and into the security of the museum. In
examining this relation, at fi rst sight, it is the antagonisms that stand out.
Lacking a medium, eschewing beauty, confi ned to the screen of the
spreadsheet and the word processor, and apparently adhering to a discred-
ited avant-gardism, Internet art was easy to dismiss. The most prominent
recent attempt to capture the history of modern and contemporary art,
Art
Since 1900
, contains no reference to Internet art (and little to new media
art, generally).
01
166
Julian Stallabrass
Yet, the subject has a surprising slipperiness and complexity to it—in part
because both art history and Internet art have been changing (the latter,
naturally, a good deal more rapidly than the former). Some Internet art looks
a lot prettier than it once did. Certainly, the stern avant-garde rejection of
aesthetics characteristic of early Net art (and often proffered tongue-in-cheek)
is no longer held to. Art history, as we shall see, has undergone a rapid
colonization by other disciplines, such that many of its core and fundamental
precepts are open to question. Direct engagements between the two re-
main fairly rare, for most of the writers on Internet art have different back-
grounds: in fi lm studies, media studies, visual culture, or most often as
practitioners, organizers, and curators of the art itself. Even so, art history
remains important to any Internet culture that wants to call itself “art”—
and that designation has had an enduring attraction. Art uses art history and
vice versa, so for an online cultural worker references to avant-gardism
or conceptualism are the swiftest and surest way to get what you are do-
ing to be called “art.”
That few art historians have ventured into the study of online art should
not be cause for surprise. It is suffi cient to refer to art history’s ghettoization
and neglect of other “new media”—notably photography and video. The
literature of photography long remained separate from that of art history.
Photography’s early theorists were photographers themselves—or poets,
philosophers, and cultural theorists (Baudelaire, Stieglitz, Kracauer, Freud,
and Benjamin). It was only the art market’s interest in photography from the
1970s onward that began to bring art historians to the study of photography,
along with a sympathetic postmodern turn in art theory, which was inter-
ested in photography as the major tool of appropriation. Even so, right up
01
Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh,
Art Since 1900
Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism
(London: Thames and Hudson, 2005).
Can Art History Digest Net Art?
167
to the present, some of the most signifi cant writing about photography has
been penned by practitioners (and not generally by art historians): the
writings of Victor Burgin, Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and Jeff Wall stand
as prominent examples. Likewise, the art-historical writing on video art
had to wait for that art to be drawn into the museum in the 1990s through
the device of video projection. The recent apotheosis of photography in
the museum offers a warning: the art-historical texts that accompany, for
example, Andreas Gursky’s major show at the Museum of Modern Art in
New York (2001), or Thomas Struth’s show at the Metropolitan Museum
(2003), certainly break photography out of its ghetto but at the cost of sup-
pressing the history of photography, the comparisons being with the grand
tradition of painting.
02
It was as if photography could only be validated
by (doubtful) associations with the already sanctifi ed tradition of Western
art. Benjamin’s account of that same urge, in which art is considered “a
stranger to all technical considerations,” still resonates: it is the attempt to
“legitimize the photographer before the very tribunal he was in the process
of overturning”—a situation he took to be patently absurd but which is still
in force seventy years after he wrote those words.
03
In this, present photo-
graphic practice—the peculiar, mannered, and fetishized museum print with
its stately deportment—becomes the end-point of a history designed to
bring it about; a partial history in which documentary practice, for example,
is despised and written out.
02
Peter Galassi,
Andreas Gursky
, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2001; the Metropolitan
exhibition originated in Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art,
Thomas Struth, 1977–2002
, Dallas 2002.
03
Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in
Selected Writings: 1927–1934
. vol. 2, ed.
Michael W. Jennings et al. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999),
508.
168
Julian Stallabrass
Nevertheless, a striking feature about the literature on Internet art—even
when not written by art historians—is that it draws on some of the standard
devices of art history. One of the most persistent is the construction of
traditions or historical lines. Rachel Greene, in her introduction to
Internet Art
,
constructs two parallel lineages, one technological and one art-historical.
The two do not meet or interact, and the claims being made for the relations
between the phenomena in each line are quite different.
04
In the techno-
logical line, a causal relation is posited: without this invention or idea, the
following step could not have taken place (without the browser, there
would be no Web art). In the art-historical line, there is no clear causality:
the importance of an event may be an issue of unconscious or semi-con-
scious “infl uence,” conscious use or retooling, the innocent reinvention of
some prior idea, or a vaguer issue of zeitgeist. We are left with the quasi-
Hegelian air of development toward a pre-ordained present. This atmosphere
is also present in the book
At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on
the Internet
, with the surely laudatory aim of bringing attention to a variety
of interactive and networking practices such as mail art, which are given
focus by their new role as part of the legacy of Internet art.
05
Alexei Shulgin, Form-Art,1997
Can Art History Digest Net Art?
169
Another fundamental issue (and one I have struggled with in my work on the
subject): what is the art object?
06
Is it singular? Is there really something
that connects Paleolithic cave painting, a Cézanne landscape, and a shopping
trip by Sylvie Fleury or a dinner by Rirkrit Tiravanija? The problem is par-
ticularly acute with Internet art, in which the usual institutional assurances
for the viewing of art are often absent. It has led some critics to try to hang
on to autonomy and medium-specifi city (even going to the extent of citing
Clement Greenberg) so as to defi nitively fi x the art status of Internet art.
Tilman Baumgärtel does this in the introduction to his book
net.art 2.0.
07
It
is a hard position to maintain because the Internet is not a medium, as
painting is, but rather encompasses simulations of all reproducible media.
Baumgärtel eventually (after some ironically tinged avant-garde pronounce-
ments on Net purity) gives up the game: Net art’s material, he says, is
“utterly anything having to do with the Internet.”
08
The issue is quite similar
to the paradox of photographic autonomy, and presents the same diffi culties
for art history: that concentration on the essential characteristics of the
“medium” leads not inward to such qualities as painting’s fl atness and ab-
straction, but outward to a more accurate depiction of the world, and with
it all of the world’s variety and contingency.
Rachel Greene,
Internet Art
(London:Thames & Hudson, 2004), 14–28.
05 Annmarie Chandler and Norie Neumark,
At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the
Internet
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
06
Julian Stallabrass,
Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce
, (London: Tate Gallery
Publishing, 2003); “The Aesthetics of Net.Art,”
Qui Parle
14, no. 1 (Fall/ Winter 2003–2004), 49–72.
Tilman Baumgärtel,
net.art 2.0: New Materials Towards Net Art
(Nürnberg: Verlag für Moderne
Kunst, 2001), 27.
08 Baumgärtel,
net.art 2.0
, 28.
04
07
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