Let’s All Argue About Digital Art

Aaron Sherwood's "Firewall" (Image via Vimeo)
Aaron Sherwood’s “Firewall” (Image via Vimeo)

You’re digital! I’m digital! We’re all digital! No better way to stir the pot than to bring up the post-IRL condition that has us all confused: What does it mean that we spend so much time online? How are artists engaging technology? Everyone’s arguing, from the curmudgeonly Artforum-approved art historian Claire Bishop to curator Lauren Cornell and author Eleanor Heartney. Here’s what they’re saying.

Claire Bishop is the one who really kicked off this most recent wave of new media dialogue in the mainstream art world with her September Artforum article dismissing the current crop of digital artists as making work more about fascination than critical questioning. There was plenty of pushback from the art and technology communities, but others approached the topic differently.

Wired, by Drue Kataoka 

Over at Wired, artist Drue Kataoka echoes Bishop’s critique that works of new media art rarely “make the viewer ask questions.” “New art has to resonate at a deeper level than simply provoking the viewer to think ‘Oh this is weird!’ or ‘Oh cool!’ or ‘Oh how pretty!'” Kataoka writes. That artists go for the novelty factor too much is a totally valid complaint, but Kataoka’s own work, which will soon be presented at Davos, of all places, combines a brain-computer interface with a live tree and traditional paintings. If I’m being honest, it sounds more gimmicky than critical as well.

Artforum, by Lauren Cornell and Brian Droitcour 

Curator Lauren Cornell and critic Brian Droitcour wrote a letter back to Artforum responding to Bishop’s article. They critiqued the art historian for overlooking a wide swath of critical new media artists. “We would argue that even here the ‘divide’ she describes is actively being bridged and, because of a critical blind spot, she is forcing it back open,” they write. “Art that critically engages network technologies proliferates and art institutions recognize the undeniable importance of the Internet.”

Artforum, by Claire Bishop (Part II) 

Claire Bishop writes in response to Cornell and Droitcour’s response! Celebrating accomplishments of new media is “beyond the purview of my article,” she writes. Meaning that it’s okay to ignore examples that disprove your argument? “The article’s core question was why so little mainstream art reflects on what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital,” Bishop argues. “I’m not talking about individuals and institutions using new media, but about how new media changes us.” I’m definitely on the Cornell-Droitcour team here — Bishop continues to be aggressively ignorant.

Brooklyn Rail, by Eleanor Heartney 

Writing in the Brooklyn Rail, author Eleanor Heartney cites the controversy surrounding Bishop’s article as an example of the vitality of criticism and how critics, participating in the community, can “enrich the art world.” It’s nice when people get up in arms, because it inspires actual debate! Taking sides, it sometimes seems, is an increasingly rare act in the postmodern milieu of dozens of small, interconnected art worlds. “When substantive issues come up in art magazines, as in Claire Bishop’s recent commentary on new media art in Artforum this fall, the response from readers is close to overwhelming,” Heartney writes.

Maybe that’s because we need more grist for our outrage mills. Any volunteers?

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