Originally published in the YLEM newsletter, San Francisco, USA, 1998
Does new media art differ from "traditional" art?
It all depends on how you define art. It is possible to see art from two quite distinct, although not mutually exclusive, points of view.
Firstly there is the view that "art" is embodied in the status of the artefact. This is largely the preconception that Walter Benjamin held in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Benjamin saw the status of art as being inextricable to the object, in particular the social value of the object. He called this its "aura".
Benjamin never really addressed the core subject ((re)production) implied in the title of his essay. His focus on the object denies him access to this approach; the view which regards art not as a function of the object but rather as a process. It was this view that Duchamp was exploring in his work, the urinal signed R. Mutt.
Duchamp took a mass-produced object, an object that few would regard as embodying anything like the status of art, and then by simply signing it and presenting it as art he shifted its value as an object. Duchamp was in part playing with the manner in which social value is placed upon things, but his means was the process of art itself. He recognised that the underlying dynamic that gives a process a certain status is "intent". If the intent is to make art then a work of art can emerge.
Although distinct, each of these views share a common factor...that of "value". Value concerns the social economy of signs. In this sense Benjamin's argument is applicable and yet rather off the point. It is the means by which the aura was assigned, and then the manner by which further value was ascribed to the object from an initial social value associated with it, which distinguishes what is art from what is not art.
The status of the aura of a work of art is "read" through the traditions associated with its production. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the precise status of an object. If the object carries within it a signifying field that exposes its means of production then it is that much easier for that objects value to be established. In this sense a painting is easily categorised as art, as it was "painted" and framed, and then hung in a gallery.
It is possible to imagine the production of an object that is identical in every way to a painting and yet, if we knew about how and why it was produced, we would have no problem at all in dismissing its value as art.
In the case of new media art many of the traditional signifiers that indicate the status of a thing as art are absent, or have been shifted in some radical manner.
Arguments concerning the trace of the artist have been sustained so that the economy of signs that is art can be continued and inflated. But with new media art this is what is implied; a dismisal of a set of values which too many of us do not want to see disturbed.
What happens when someone writes a computer program which when executed proceeds to do things that sort of seem artistic, but where the crucial element of an instance of human intent is absent? Can what results be regarded as art, particularly if what is produced is then presented outside the conventional contexts where we familiarly encounter art?
A lot of people would argue that such a thing would not be art. Even those people that accept the Duchampian approach, whom agree that it is the intent behind the production of a thing that assigns it value, would have a slight problem with this, as the crucial factor of intent is absent. It might be that our "artist" had artistic intent when they wrote their program, but that which the program produced is secondary. So, the question of intent is at least partially diffused, especially if some people argue that what is produced is art. If it is art, and if the means of production does not equate with any known artistic means, and if the intent to be art is absent, then where does the status of art come from?
Perhaps it all comes back to another very old idea; that art is in the eye of the beholder. As such, it is in the interpretation of the thing that art is produced. Thus we depart Rue Benjamin, and enter Boulevard Derrida; a route where significance and value are very much a tertiary activity, embodied in the thing itself. A route where the value of things is always contingent; where what was not art can become art, and that which was art becomes simply a thing. A place where everyone is an artist and not an artist, even if they "do/do not" want to be.
Copyright Simon Biggs, 1998 London UK