(Why) Are You Doing What You're Doing?

Posted by Rhizome | Mon Nov 25th 1996 1 a.m.

Peter Lunenfeld from Art Center College of Design wrote:

Why Are You Doing What You're Doing?
A Short Rant about Form, Digital Artists & Cultural Production

We live at a moment in which we can have no faith in the inherent
progressive potential of form. The is not the age of Vertov and
Eisenstein, who saw the very physical qualities of montage as embodying
a dialectic of liberation. Today, even MTV seems like a series of quaint
still lives to a generation of electronic gamers. These thumb candy
addicts know that the cut is simply something that slows them down in
their quest for ever more Doom.

For too long, those of us interested in digital media have been relying
on the new forms that it generates -- interactivity, hypertextuality,
networking -- to persuade ourselves and others that this is a
"revolutionary" moment. Yet, the problem is that no matter what
progressive impulses generate formal innovation, those innovations are
almost immediately appropriated by commercial media, which has deftly
negotiated the shift from mass production (the model of Time and Life
and the three networks) to its present state of just-in-time production.

From the factory floor to the multi-media conglomerate, producers are
able to react to consumer demand within an ever shortening feed-back
loop. What once could truly be described as mass media are now
fragmented into a vast number of interlocking subsets of subcultural
media systems -- all of which are hopping onto the digital bandwagon,
sucking up formal strategies at a stupendous rate.

Not that this formal "experimentation" changes the intent of the overall
system, of course. The system still pushes "the dramaturgy of the
supermarket" (to appropriate Erik Barnouw's lovely turn of phrase); the
semi-autonomous units of just-in-time commercial cultural production are
free to mimic virtually any style that will sate the desire of the
consumer for product and of the product for consumer.

If no particular formal strategies of mediamaking are in themselves
inherently progressive, how do we work beyond the intoxications brought
about by new forms? I propose three strategies ranging from the obvious
to the heretical. First, interrogate content ever more carefully.
Second, avoid the knee-jerk irony that pervades too much of what we see
and how we see it. Third, and here is the heresy, why not start thinking
and talking about why an artist makes a work in the first place? We are
supposed to have been inoculated against the notion of ascribing any
particular merit to the artist's intentions, but I can't help think that
the artist's own intentions are an absolutely vital cue as to how to
interpret and interact with contemporary electronic work as we approach
the end of this particular millennium.

CrAsh responded with a citation from R. G. Collingwood's _The Principles
Of Art_:

The artist must prophesy not in the sense that he foretells things to
come, but in the sense that he tells his audience, at the risk of their
displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artist
is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is
not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own
secrets. As spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are
theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether
knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community
deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means
death. For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet
suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the
poam itself. Art is the community's medicine for the worst disease of
the mind, the corruption of consciousness.
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