February 15th 2008

the horses for courses issue

I went to the Breaking the Rules exhibition at the British Library recently. I wasn’t that impressed by it, weirdly. I think it was largely to do with the curation, which didn’t grab me at all. The flow of the show didn’t draw me in to the avant garde project and seemed to be lacking in focus. But my ambivalence was perhaps also due in no small part to the fact that I’d seen a lot of what was there in books and on websites. Or at least I’d seen similar.

Having been stupidly, and surprisingly, excited about seeing a couple of Vermeers and a de Kooning among other things recently, I’d begun to think there was something massively important about seeing art in the flesh, in front of you. The original object. With texture and stuff. Now I’m not so sure. Breaking the Rules reminded me that I’ve always been excited by a website or animation that knows what it’s trying to do and does it well. It’s a question of using the available tools in the most appropriate way possible.

I don’t think digital art does this a lot of the time. One of the things both Saussure and Derrida said about writing is that it’s a copy of speech. A broken form fallen from the mould given by speech, with no immediacy and as such no integrity. I don’t agree with this at all but I do think you could sometimes level that charge at digital art. Partially because it’s new, it spends a lot of time trying to do things that we can do anyway, and compensates by sticking a shiny button on it. I think we all know that digital art is not a shiny button. But it’s important that digital art be an object in its own right, offering its own unique texture to the landscape to stand with any conviction.

Jonathan Kearney spoke near the beginning of the course about the importance of the aura in art. I agree with him but think the aura of the work begins to disappear when it’s reproduced. A quick web search for a Vermeer throws up so many different versions of the same picture it’s just incredible. My emotional response is different to all of them because of the changes in colour balance and contrast. The aura is massively compromised.

I think the key is that art has to be shown in the intended format. It’s not possible to do justice in reproduction. But this is, in a funny way, part of digital art’s advantage. Nothing is reproduced. My website is pretty much always seen as I want it to be seen. So the appropriate aura is always retained. Beyond our going to to the relevant museum, no Vermeer will ever have that privilege. Is this a part of the joy of seeing Vermeer, though? I think perhaps it is.

Which is not to say digital art is ‘better’. There’s still a massive issue of craft. We’re going to need put in a lot of love to reach the dizzy heights of Vermeer and other such luminaries. But that’s part of the aura as well, isn’t it? The fact that time and hard work has gone in to something that is in front of us. I wonder if similar beauty can be achieved with javascript and other scripting languages. There’s a lot of craft (is that the right word?) there. One for another time, I think. Though there are times when my heart has a little flush of wonder when I see something really well done on the web. I coukld easily waffle on here, but no, before I get started again, I’ll go.

Category Art Context | Tags: ,,,

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