Whither Art? David Joselit’s Digital Art Problem

Andy Deck, "ASCII Jam" (2001) (image via the artist)
Andy Deck, “ASCII Jam” (2001) (image via the artist)

In After Art, David Joselit, Carnegie Professor in Art History at Yale, OCTOBER editor, and critic for Artforum and Art in America purports to examine art production today, so as to reflect on how works of art emerge from our condition of image overload. In Joselit’s view, the modern period — in which individual artists commandeered the intervention of the image — is a small glitch in history, preceded by an era of classical pre-modern image icons and swiftly outflanked by our current flood of unpreserved art images that have little power in their own right. With this I can readily agree, while radically differing with his inferred assumption that art that plays out nihilistic negativity by intensifying its forces into an affirmative nihilism is no longer possible to see because it loses its connections. To endeavor to convince us, he attempted to define the shift in the status of art under the pressure of digital technology while avoiding, or remaining unaware of, the historical record of digital art — the very history of artists working from within the belly of the beast.

After Art by David Joselit cover

Alas, that incomprehensible omission makes this slim (136 pages) and otherwise beautifully articulated volume such a disappointment. Is it still possible to imagine a book purporting to be about the circulation of images and art within the saturated global network that never mentions the existence of net art and digital art?

In what sealed off ivy node does Sherrie Levine’s incredibly boring “Postcard Collage #4” piece (a grid of identical, individually framed postcards) deliver a better example of the “manipulation of populations of images,” than the work of already well-known early net artists like Vuk Ćosić, Heath Bunting, Wolfgang Staehle, Olia Lialina, or — while at the same time purporting to dispense with the standard market value of art? In what potted grotto do the aesthetics of Tania Bruguera’s performance of “Generic Capitalism,” (a fake manufactured radical rupture of good faith community connectivity) overshadow the connective recurring strategies of Alexei Shulgin, Alexander R. Galloway, Annie Abrahams, or Andy Deck?

The fact is that net art is a circumvention of the traditional dominance of the gallery and museum system (and does not simply suggest such a thing) so it is difficult to understand the omission in favor of the work of art stars such as Matthew Barney, Ai Weiwei and Pierre Huyghe (commodified and co-opted by the socio-economic system that is their lifeblood). Does Joselit not know the extensive work of The Thing? Or has Joselit failed to read Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito’s 2006 book At the Edge of Art, where they examine prominent new media artwork and artists, arguing that the confines of the established art world (lazily soaking in the warm bath of appropriation) are failing to recognize digital art and net art?

And I mean it when I say that this blind spot in the Joselit network is a real misfortune, because the book has a great deal of interesting points of contact to establish between art and architecture and the scalable power of digital technology. In a large way, Joselit’s outlook is an antidote to the dour attitude taken by Jonathan Crary in his recent book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, as Joselit sees the state of things as mostly constructively exhilarating. But the above-mentioned gaping holes in Joselit’s network of information are difficult to close the eyes to.

Alexei Shulgin performing as part of the Open Source Lounge at Medi@terra 2000, Athens
Alexei Shulgin performing as part of the Open Source Lounge at [email protected] 2000, Athens (image via

Particularly interesting to me would have been a more robust flushing out of how Bruno Latour’s Actor-network theory (ANT) interfaces with post-conceptual art tactics. With more Latour, he may have better shown how the digital network performs translations of cultural artifacts into code — and code into cultural artifacts — in the new expanded field of complex inter-connectionism. If one wishes to value works of art in a different way than the bloated, money-laundering market does, as Joselit claims, then one should take seriously conceptual art’s notion of the circulation of propositions as defining what art is and does.

Indeed, if Joselit’s stated intent was to “understand the form of networks as they are aggregated or concentrated in objects,” I think that he should have looked harder at forms of art-from-code, as well as art that uses distributed creative management, such as pervasive internet mash-up art/music, and particularly art as artificial life swarms. A more thorough understanding of the issues of media ecologies, human-machine symbiosis and theories of inter-networked complexity may have enhanced the establishment in After Art of art’s undeniable influence on cultural soft power and help move that power towards an open system of collaborative commons underwritten in the adaptability of scripted code. Such material would have expanded the scope of the book and the lectures that are collected in it.

Vuk-Cosic--Deep-Ascii 1999 from
Vuk Cosic, “Deep-Ascii” (1999) (image via

Joselit does well to establish that in an age of accelerated digital imaging and communication technologies, artists and architects are emphasizing networks and visualizing patterns of dissemination. But I maintain that we must go further than that and address aesthetics and the art context within our broad-spectrum data-monitoring info-economy, and think through and deploy noise art within the larger environment of ubiquitous computing cognitive capitalism. Indeed, After Art has understandings of contemporary life that other art historians would benefit from, but it does no more than bolster what The New School philosopher Simon Critchley described in 2010 as contemporary art’s dominant trend: an inauthenticity of “mannerist situationism” based in rituals of reenactment. Critchley went on in 2012 to articulate the circumstances further, as the “cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world.” Clearly something deep-seated must be reevaluated. So Joselit could have made a difference and stressed a deeper understanding of media ecology in terms of the after-image of art, and, in my opinion, delivered a stronger response to better answer the question of what happens when images begin to circulate as populations, as opposed to single works.

Unsurprisingly, what happens is that art practice meanings migrate towards the meta. They form emergent patterns. Take note NSA. Indeed this approach is not too far from that of NSA data mining when Joselit maintains that the art world is in fact an apparatus, a kind of digital object, where content can be revisited and reformatted. For him, content is not the most important part of an art practice, but rather the qualities of its formatting. So, Joselit does effectively outline how the accepted time in which we live is one where value is measured through an objects connectivity, flexibility, and ability to channel power, rather than by the amount of cultural noise it energizes. Subsequently the problem with stressing formatting as connective power is that it runs on instant neo-pop reconcilability, what Joselit calls “format” the “dynamic mechanisms for aggregating content” (thus leading to even greater art standardization). By contrast, what noise art aesthetics have to offer is the possibility to understand things in a different way, shifting boundaries, departing from established functions. This approach relates to my book Immersion Into Noise (2011) where I have mapped out a broad-spectrum of aesthetic activity I call the art of noise by tracing its past eruptions where figure/ground merge and flip the common emphasis to some extent.

Joselit’s theory at large spends little time exploring acts of subversion, nihilism or resistance (so sorry, Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, and Bradley Manning), instead caving into facile image expenditure. Such is the state of the “currency of art” that Joselit defines as “neoliberal” (investments sold in prestigious auction houses, infinitely reproducible and migrant), “fundamentalist” (native objects that derive value from being rooted to a specific place), and “documented objects”  (art that is accompanied by so much information that it can move without drastic loss of value). This glorious formatting leads Joselit to theorize art as a  “diplomatic portfolio” that can be used as leverage in games of power — in which museums play a major part. Through addressing such processes of formatting, he asserts the power of art is in its “capacity for replication, remediation and dissemination at variable velocities.” Does that not sound like the power of digital-based art to you?

Wolfgang Staehle Ludlow Street, May 4, 2006 2006
Wolfgang Staehle, Ludlow Street, May 4, 2006 (image via the artist)

After Art does put forward an analysis of how contemporary art became a form of currency (one whose circulation entails the power to project visibility) but fails to criticize from within that form – that formatting – rather accepting it passively. This infuriated me, as I am only interested in a new contemporary aesthetic labor based in a certain exquisite untouchablity and unseeablity (with an affinity for disconnectedness) that focuses on a commitment to a nihilistic aesthetic of becoming imperceptible.

I am only now interested in an aesthetic where personal anthropomorphic eccentricities and indiscretions are tolerated and protected. One that is bent on a wider vision of political awareness — including private spiritual, ecstatic, or numinous themes accessible through the generative subjective realm of each individual; an aesthetics of perception politics based on resonance — not a politics of visibility — which reveals in minute particulars the full spectrum of extensive social-political dimensions. This book could have been wonderful if it would have gotten outside of itself and pondered a materialist nihilism of no that (if it goes far enough) can transform a metamorphosis subject to the flickering formative forces of emergence. But it did not.

The book opens with this claim: that the ‘age of art’ is over. I would suggest otherwise: that only some lazy eyes might be heavy with new sleep.

David Joselit’s After Art (Princeton University Press, 2013) is available directly from the publisher and on Amazon.

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