New Media in Late 20th-Century Art

Yiannis Mikalis
Art 335
Book Review

New Media in Late 20th-Century Art. By Michael Rush (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999, 224 pp.)

“All art is experimental, or it isn’t art” (US Film and video critic Gene Youngblood). As a main opening stance for New Media in Late 20th-Century Art, author Michael Rush sets a premise for his collective exhibition of new wave 20th century work. This concept of experimentation lays the foundation for Rush’s exploration of the gradual shift from the perception of representation, once dominated by painting, moving into a new forms such as photography, video, and interactive digital space. Overall, the work attempts to use a semi-thematic succession of art pieces and styles that evolved over the 20th century in order to convey a sense of revolution in the persecution and construction of art, mixing themes of surveillance, uniformity, and political turmoil. Yet the biggest hurdle the book is met with is whether any of these new

The book both begins and ends with the discussion of time-art, establishing the major theme of detached time that unifies much of the digital art discussed. It continues into a discussion of the avant-garde in regard to cinema, and works its way into the use of the digital in most aspects of work including virtual reality. Eadweard Muybridge’s La Nature: Studies in Animal Locomotion, 1878 are mentioned, making a distinction between the previous perception of an art pieces role within time. Rush clarifies, “with photography, humans began to participate in the manipulation if time itself” (p. 12). This manipulation acts as a parallel to the manipulation of space, in which has already been worked with in many forms such as architecture and sculpture. With an inclusion of time, a shot defined a moment, yet that moment could exist without context. In this way, cinema could speed up or slow down shots, ultimately eliminating any structure in its time. Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912 displays a similar concept, yet through a still photograph. Her shot of a dog in motion, placed together allowed a still image to emulate motion. As a representation of memory, photography offers a crisp visual that can be claimed as more objective. While a painting offers a visual perspective of the artist, a photograph is captured though the visual of a machine, eliminating a bias of what is included in the shot.

An argument can be made however, of whether a lack of bias can ever express the true emotion of the moment. While a camera can be precise, a painting or sculpture allows for the input of the artists feelings in the work. But while the magnitude of artists input into the work seems to feel distanced, Rush offers a new take on the purpose of art itself. Rush uses examples such as Eye Blink (c.1961) to justify the impact the simplest of actions can hold. Yoko Ono’s right eye is filmed in multiple shots of time, revealing the smallest of details to an everyday action. Rush argues that the value of the video comes in its multitude of perspectives. With the multiple views of reality come multiple understandings of that same reality.

A key component of Rush’s declaration of the groundbreaking nature of the “new” media comes in the relationship of the work to the viewer. With introduction of video, artist could capture the responses of viewers to document the impact of a work. What was once a personal interaction between works to critics could now become the work itself. In this way the fundamental nature of the purpose of art adopted a new perspective. When Marcel Duchamp entered the artist scent in the early 20th century, he collapsed the previous conceptions of what could be considered art. Releasing works such as “Fountain” 1917, Duchamp posed the question of “What is Art?”. The Fluxus movement took used chance and chaos to redefine art. A radicalization of work exploded during the mid 20th century, and “fluxus events thus became the perfect embodiment of Duchamp’s dictum that the viewer not only completes, but actually becomes the work of art in his or her direct participation in the events” (25). As video evolved, the moment suddenly became an expendable concept for the utilization of the artist. Studio performances grew in popularity, and “the physical process of art making became the work itself” (p.48). Viewing the creation of the work was just as important as experiencing the final product.

Although these examples offer a unique way of visualizing and understanding the basis of time, in many ways, they remain limited to just that, an understanding. Both Muybridge and Balla display a representation of either a moment, or moments in time, but are bound to the same product that previous art has exhibited. It becomes apparent that as time progressed within the 20th century, art became less involved with new subject matter, and more involved with new perspectives. The documentation of the reactions of the viewers finally becomes visable, but doesn’t truly change anything in regard to what art has done for centuries: provoke. What is less clear now is whether art can be considered unique anymore.

From the early 20th century to today, photography has become a staple in today’s art forms, with almost all phones containing a camera of some form. From just a few photographers in the early days of the camera, to the millions today, the title of photographer and cinematographer has become more than an occupation. While this book offers a strong insight up to its publication in 1994, the entirety of art exhibition has changed dramatically, almost becomes out of date. The Internet was at an experimental stage during this point of publication, but since then, social media has reshaped the process of sharing a work. Youtube and Instagram release hundreds of thousands of ‘art works’ everyday, with no standard requirement for what can be viewed. Rush only brushed the surface of what would become of the ‘artist’.

With so many different expression of life, has “New Media” created a new form of art, or just found a new way to look at the same art? Art has become more interactive than ever, with video games and web codes responding to the consumer of the media. But each passing year, older art become “outdated”, making way for the new. As such, art begins to reflect the ‘modern’ culture, where quantity overtakes quality. Ironically, as time becomes more easily controlled, the impact of the moment seems to lose its edge, and an individual works seems to lose its importance. Rush ends his book with mentions of virtual reality to expand on the potential and possibility the future holds for ‘art’. The lasting question is whether this potential can ever become greater than life, or whether there truly is a limit to imagination. Just as Rush’s take has become dated, the perspectives of today will soon be dated. But in the end, these moments in time that constitute art will forever become part of the human experience. Rush leaves this book off with uncertainty of what is truly more important: the reaction or the stimulant.


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