tom moody

New Media vs Artists with Computers

This post on William Eggleston a few years ago discussed the difference between two movements, "art photography" and "artists with cameras":

[Jim] Lewis' phrase "new art photographers" glosses over a not-so-old schism in the world of Museum-collected photography, between "art photography" and what might roughly be called "artists with cameras," a distinction outlined in Abigail Solomon-Godeau's famous essay "Photography after Art Photography." Almost exclusively shot in black and white and practiced by the likes of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander, art photography was firmly ensconced in the museum in the '60s and '70s under the stewardship of MOMA curator John Szarkowski; it emphasized darkroom practice and objective standards of quality in photos.

The "conceptual photography" of [Richard] Prince, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and others, however, emerged from the world of painting, sculpture, and video. These artists used photos to document a performance, advance a theory, or critique the mass media, and didn't much give a damn about photographic values (including the old prohibition on color). In addition to this generation change in America, developments in European contemporary art gradually came to light in the late '70s: Gilbert & George, for example, used vivid colors in their photopastiches at least as early as 1975, and the conceptualist Jan Dibbets had no qualms about color in his images of tilted landscapes and car hoods. And finally, as Lewis mentions, color printing technology was vastly improving during this period.

Thus, while Szarkowski may have taken a big leap vis a vis older art photographers by giving Eggleston a one-person museum exhibit in '76, other trends were fast making that radicality a non-issue. The Europeans and young Americans weren’t invited into the tea circle of art photography because William Eggleston opened the door: instead, they found their own critical advocates, and after a few years of publicity and sales, they simply took over the show--and color came along with them.

The same types of distinctions could be made between "new media" artists and what could be called "artists with computers." The latter care about their laptops as much as Cindy Sherman cared about her camera. Necessary mechanical skills can be learned but the habits accompanying those skills need to be unlearned. Also, artists may not always and at all times be "with computers"--it's a tool to be picked up and put down as needed.

New media suggests a respect for hardware & software and belief in their newness, something artists with computers don't care about. New media involves a finicky devotion to programming and process, whereas artists with computers are bulls in the Apple Shop. New media artists tend to germinate in design or media arts programs whereas artists with computers incline to studio arts backgrounds or autodidacticism. Rhizome.org has traditionally been a bastion of new media whereas Paddy Johnson's blog (particularly last summer's IMG MGMT series) has provided a platform for artists with computers. (She may not appreciate being lumped into this diatribe.) Lastly, new media artists define themselves in relation to Lev Manovich's principles ("new media objects exist as data," etc.) and artists with computers find those confining, impractical, and overly utopian.

The so-called surf club artists come from both schools. Nevertheless, resistance to the clubs (comparing them to George Bush and closed source programming) and sarcasm of certain reactionaries seen in the Rhizome chat boards in June of 2008 could be construed as evidence of the split. New media artists scoff at the art world's notions of art yet want very much to be approved according to those criteria.

[This may seem like a strange time to pigeonhole Rhizome since they are in the middle of a fundraiser (this blog just kicked in for a seedling membership). The staff can't be held accountable for the obscurantists in the chatrooms; there is some sentiment within the organization for "artists with computers" so giving is recommended, enabling the institution to thrive so it can be colonized, ha ha.]

- tom moody

November 29th, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Posted in general