Why Have There Been No Great Net Artists?1

To my mind, one of the premiere investigations of art world “power” in relation to a disenfranchised class is Linda Nochlin’s seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?2 In it, she uses a “silly” question to give a long answer that is not about women artists but about the very notion of art and the patriarchal hegemony of the art system. In a similar vein, I would like to explore the similarly silly question, “Why have there been no great net artists? “power” in relation to a disenfranchised class is Linda Nochlin’s seminal essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”2 In it, she uses a “silly” question to give a long answer that is not about women artists but about the very notion of art and the patriarchal hegemony of the art system. In a similar vein, I would like to explore the similarly silly question, “Why have there been no great net artists?”

Rather than trying to assimilate net art into our existing understanding of art history, there may be a way that it can be understood to problematize many of the very assumptions we take to be normal, if not natural.

As Nochlin wrote:

Even a simple question like “Why have there been no great women artists?” can, if answered adequately, create a sort of chain reaction, expanding not merely to encompass the accepted assumptions of the single field, but outward to embrace history and the social sciences, or even psychology and literature, and thereby, from the outset, to challenge the assumptions that the traditional divisions of intellectual inquiry are still adequate to deal with the meaningful questions of our time, rather than the merely convenient or self-generated ones.

Following is a series of modified questions culled from Nochlin’s article, which I hope to relate to the current status of net art.

Why Have There Been No Great Net Artists?

According to Nochlin:

The feminist’s first reaction is to swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker, and to attempt to answer the question as it is put … By attempting to answer it, [such attempts] tacitly reinforce the negative implications.

One would hope, of course, that after 30 years of ingesting law and order TV dramas from Dragnet (www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/2420/) to the Sopranos we understand viscerally the trap of “prove you don’t beat your children” questions.

At the same time, we know from sports, crime, and the international biennial circuit that “stars” focus attention. Whether the spotlight of attention illuminates a broad field of endeavour or whether it creates an even larger penumbra of un-attention is a critical issue.

One of the first times I saw this dynamic in action was when Heath Bunting posted a reporter’s questions to him on one of the mailing lists, 7-11 or American Express, I think. Some members of the list proceeded to answer the questions themselves, for the reporter and the list, while others debated whether Bunting was becoming too much of a star.

Bunting’s readme.html: Own, Be Owned, or Remain Invisible3 (1998), links the words of an article about him in the Telegraph of the “Wired 50” to eponymous dot com web addresses is a brilliantly simple net.(decon)struction of the commerce of the celebritization process. Bunting’s seemingly offhand posting of the reporter’s questions to an open mailing list, however, is the more transformative act. Transformative not necessarily because of any sense of solidarity or community, which may or may not have existed, but because of the way it disrupts seemingly neutral and perhaps even ‘natural’ relationships of power – of who is reporting to whom about whom.

The goal here, it is important to understand, is not (necessarily) some kind of radical equality or postmodern levelling of differences. But it is a challenge to the implicit question behind the question, ‘Why are there no great net artists?’ AKA

Ok – I’ll – finally – pay – attention – to – this – weird – computer – net – technology – digital – art – trip – stuff – thing – even – if – I – don’t – fully – understand – it – if – you – can – only – just – give – up – a – couple – of – names – I – can – focus – a – spotlight – on – so – I – don’t – have – to – spend – all – that – time – waiting – for – and – wading – through – all – those – websites – that – take – so – long – to – download – and – usually – require – some – plug – in – or – orther – but – if – you – will – just – cut – to – the – chase – because – you – can’t – really – believe – that – it’s – all – as – good – as – my – favorite – artist – afterall – and – then – I – can – see – if – I – can’t – slice – and – dice – your – stars – with – mine – and – fit – them – into – the – art – firmament – constellation – and – guage – their – true – brightness – greatness… – or – lack – thereof.

A Different Kind of Greatness

According to Nochlin:

Another attempt to answer the question involves shifting the ground slightly and asserting, as some contemporary feminists do, that there is a different kind of “greatness” for women’s art than for men’s, thereby postulating the existence of a distinctive and recognizable feminine style, different both in its formal and its expressive qualities and based on the special character of women’s situation and experience.

While it may be tempting to create psychological profiles of the prototypical net artist or California net artist or Silicon Alley net artist or the net artist who works down under, the real parallel is the debate over whether net art is a unique medium or a medium with distinctive characteristics or a tool like a pencil or not a medium at all or just art or something else or all of the above.

One of the best summaries of “other criteria” comes from the critic Leo Steinberg’s essay by the same name:4

The critic interested in a novel manifestation holds his criteria and taste in reserve. Since they were formed upon yesterday’s art, he does not assume that they are readymade for today. While he seeks to comprehend the objectives behind the new art produced, nothing is a priori excluded or judged irrelevant. Since he is not passing out grades, he suspends judgment until the work’s intention has come into focus and his response to it is – in the literal sense of the word – sympathetic; not necessarily to approve, but to feel along with it as with a thing that is like no other.

Nevertheless, there is this constant apparently inherent need to try and categorize and classify. In Beyond Interface5, an exhibition I organized in 1998, I “datamined” ten categories: net.art, storytelling, socio-cultural, biographical, tools, performance, analog-hybrid, interactive art, interfacers + artificers. David Ross, in his lecture here at the CADRE Laboratory for New Media, suggested 21 characteristics of net art.6 Stephen Wilson7, a pioneering practitioner, has a virtual – albeit well-ordered – jungle of categories. Rhizome has developed a list of dozens of keyword categories for its ArtBase8. Lev Manovich9, in his Computing Culture: Defining New Media Genres symposium focused on the categories of database, interface, spatialization, and navigation.

To my mind, there is no question that such categorization is useful, especially in a distributed system such as the Internet. But, in truth, to paraphrase Barnett Newman, “Ornithology is for the birds what categorization is for the artist.

Nevertheless, I did make the argument in Beyond Interface that we should distinguish between unique or inherent qualities and distinctive characteristics of a medium – a distinction based on David Antin’s seminal essay, “Video: the Distinctive Characteristics of the Medium.”10 What I keep returning to; what I consider to be the distinctive characteristics of new media are simply computability, connectivity, and (perhaps) interactivity.

What remains critical, especially at a time of rapid change and explosive growth of the underlying infrastructure and toolsets, is that description follows practice and not vice versa. As the physicist Freeman Dyson put it: “The effect of concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways. The effect of tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explored.”

Thus, it seems to me, that the assertion of “a different standard of greatness” is really a way of theorizing what a medium is or should be and not exploring how it is being developed and abused in practice.

There Have Been No Supremely Great Net Artists

According to Nochlin:

The fault … lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty spaces, but in our institutions and our education -education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals.

Just as in the 1980s it was nearly impossible not to quote Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” at the turn of the millennium, it is nearly impossible not to mention the millennium or Marshall McLuhan’s dictat that we always understand new media via old media: the horseless carriage, moving images, interactive TV.

For many of us, our formative education, the fishtank we unknowingly swam in, was television, photography, film – image-based media. Without wanting to claim that only net artists who are under 30 have the mojo to be great, it is not hard to imagine that someone who has been programming since she was five, whether it is levels of Doom or StarLogo; who has to go to a museum to know what a dial telephone is; who doesn’t automatically equate a keyboard with clerical work; who thinks that chatting online is as real as chatting on the phone; it is not hard to imagine that such a person has had a different education, a different upbringing than those who currently manage the art world apparatus. It is not hard to imagine that she might do something different; something that may have a relation to old media, but which is not necessarily trying to make broadband TV or interactive video or digital photography or electronic music or computer art. It is, however, hard to imagine what this will be; what it will look like; how it will act.

It is just possible that the failure is in our ability to imagine great net art, not in net art’s ability to be imaginative.

The “Problem” Problem

The problem with net art is that it is so opaque. The problem with net art is that it is so obvious. The problem with net art is that not everyone can see it. The problem with net art is that it takes too long. The problem with net art is that it’s ephemeral. The problem with net art is that it’s too expensive. The problem with net art is that anyone can make it. The problem with net art is no one supports it. The problem with net art is that it is being usurped. The problem with net art is that it’s boring. The problem with net art is that it’s too challenging. The problem with net art is all those plug-ins. The problem with net art is that it is so reliant on industry standards. The problem with net art is that it’s old hat. The problem with net art is that it’s too new. The problem is that there is no great net art.

According to Nochlin:

Thus women and their situation in the arts, as in other realms of endeavor, are not a ‘problem’ to be viewed through the eyes of the dominant male power elite. Instead, women must conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects … Thus the question of women’s equality – in art as in any other realm – devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them.

Peter Lunenfeld has said that a medium only achieves its true potential in its post-utopian moment. Look at video. It is only when it gave up on changing the world that it has achieved its greatest success, becoming almost de rigeur in the contemporary art scene.

Generally, I agree with this statement. However, I want to believe the opposite. If greatest success means acceptance into the art world, then yes, perhaps that is a post-utopian high. But it is precisely now, when, as Tom Stoppard put it so elegiacally in his play Arcadia, “It is the best of all possible times to be alive, when everything we thought we knew is wrong.”

I still believe that net art and net artists, if they care, can change institutions before they are changed, I think.11 The issue for institutions is to hope (some of) these artists do care, perhaps even give them a reason to do so.

The Question of the Nude

According to Nochlin:

From the Renaissance until near the end of the 19th century … careful and prolonged study of the nude model was essential to the training of every young artist, to the production of any work with pretensions of grandeur … Needless to say, central to the training programs of the academies since their inception … was life drawing from the nude, generally male, model.

Unfortunately, any nude models at all, male or female, were completely unavailable to the aspiring woman artist.

Access to the essential resources necessary to hone one’s skills is critical at any time, of course. For artists working with technology, especially early computer-based installations, access to the necessary resources was a huge problem. Who could afford a million dollar SGI Reality Engine or even timeshare on a mini-computer? Obviously, this is a moving target. What is exotically expensive one year can be a consumer item the next. Nevertheless, very few educational institutions have been set up to provide the equivalent of a digital studio space for their students until very recently, and still, for many museums, the idea of putting computer-based projects in the galleries is as much a technical nightmare as a poverty of imagination.

For net art, access to technology is a different story. Arguably, the “view source” function of a browser was-and still is to some extent—a kind of artistic fusion device, which allows for the creation of more energy than is expended in creating it. Obviously, this has led to heinous crimes like overuse of the HTML blink tag, but it has also encouraged a fertile environment for experimentation, where you are far more likely to be “taught” by someone on the other side of the world than a clueless professor in the art academy, who often could not get past the apparent lack of control over the medium to even begin to pay it any attention.

On the other hand, as the net becomes increasingly broadband, access to programming languages, digitized content, server-side applications, fast connections, high-end display systems and interfaces to analog devices all increasingly become an issue.

As Gerfried Stocker, director of the Ars Electronica Festival has argued, museums – and presumably educational institutions – need to change focus from being a site for presentation to a platform for production.

It is hard to create great art without the right kind of support for it.

Genius

According to Nochlin:

To encourage a dispassionate, impersonal, sociological and institutionally-oriented approach would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based.

C5, rtMark, Bureau of Inverse Technology, Terminal Time, Homework, 7-11, irational, General Hospital, Xerox PARC, Browser Archaeology, Adrift, ASCII Art Ensemble, Critical Art Ensemble, I/O/D 4: Web Stalker, äda’web, Refresh, Desktop IS, Bodies, Inc., Rhizome.org, Memento Mori, Blast Theory, FACES, Jodi, Electronic Disturbance Theater (rdom.thing.net//ecd/ecd.html), fakeshop, The Thing, Airworld, PHON:E:ME

On the net, collaboration is not the exception that proves the rule. Whether it is collectives or role differentiation – concept, programmer, designer, sound mixer, coder, digitizer, writer, fabricator, server administrator – it is even unusual to have a single artist who does everything on a given project. And even when she does, more often than not, the work is literally – not just figuratively – not completed without the participation of a … participant. Such a milieu does not lend itself to the notion of genius, which, as Nochlin points out, diminishes the likelihood of being identified as a great artist and, consequently, the creation of great art.

According to Nochlin:

The question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, ‘influenced’ by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially by ‘social forces’, but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.

And here ends our reading of the source text.

Innovation on Internet Time

What I would like to do now is end with two questions more specific to the time or the medium.

In the time that it has taken me to talk so far, Bill Gates has earned xx million dollars. If an artist is going to play in the cutting edge tech field, the pace is brutal. Not only has Bill Gates’s wealth increased x percent in y minutes, but there is now an updated version of Macromedia Director; two new releases of Realplayer; three enhanced versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer; Microsoft has broken up into four companies: Microsoft Classic, Diet Microsoft, Microsoft Lite, and Internet Microsoft; there are five new video codecs; six American Online (AOL) virus messages in your email; seven competing music formats and matching players; each Microsoft has issued new patches for Windows comprising a total of eight; nine new iMac colors have been introduced; ten new dot coms have announced Initial Public Offerings (IPOs); 11 new memes have circulated, and 12 new artist websites have been announced on Rhizome.

In other words, art at play in the field of the Internet is constantly at risk of seeming, if not being, an outdated version of itself. It is hard to be considered great one moment when you just might be last minute’s underbid in an eBay attention economy the next.

Normally, the older an artifact is, the more it acquires a certain aura of great interest, if not necessarily greatness. Prehistoric footprints are an amazing find; once reviled Baroque painting is now eagerly collected; and even Andrew Wyeth, with the passage of time, becomes acceptable subject matter for a serious museum show.

With net art, this does not presently seem to be the case. The time frame is always the next five minutes, and historical art – art that is older than five minutes – more often seems outdated than historic. That is, if it even works with current configurations of hardware and software.

The Net Itself is More Interesting Than Net Art

The sheer fecund energy of the net can be overwhelming. Eddo Stern has speculated that he finds the net as a whole more interesting than any individual art project. I think it was Brad Brace who wondered why anyone would bother to archive or collect individual net art projects when Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive is archiving the internet itself. Just query it.

From this point of view, all net art can be viewed as a kind of para-site of the internet. As Leo Steinberg put it in Other Criteria about a slightly different context:

A dramatic narrative painted by Giotto resembles neither 19th-century easel painting nor a movie screen. When it is not wrenched from its context (as in most art history books), it works within a wall system, each wall supporting multiple scenes set between elaborate framing bands, within which, in turn, other scenes on different scales are described. You are shown simultaneous and incompatible systems whose juxtaposition cancels or checks the illusion. Similarly, the Sistine ceiling when seen in its entirety: the work is a battleground for local illusion, counter-illusion, and emphasized architectural surface – art turning constantly back on itself.

Steinberg was arguing against the prescriptive formalism of Clement Greenberg and specifically what Steinberg considered to be his misreading of Renaissance painting. Taken in context, Renaissance painters could be seen to be experimental, playing with the formal properties of the medium every bit as much as a Frank Stella or Barnett Newman.

Taken In Context

Just as easel painting – or the movie screen – are not the proper contexts in which to understand Renaissance “installation art,” contemporary installation art is not necessarily the right context in which to understand net art. It is the net itself. The system. In this twilight zone of contemporary practice, we may, in fact, need to get up from our couches and adjust the TV set to understand what constitutes ‘greatness’, whether as producers of or participants in net art.

To come full circle, as Lisa Jevbratt said about A Stillman Project for the Walker Art Center, it is “a parasitic art system that recognizes the web as a public/conversational/living/smart space.” I am optimistic about this space and about net art, and while we may not know all the best questions, I do know that part of the right answer is money. It is of far more use spending it than saving it for a great artist.

Notes

  1. In this edited version of what was originally a talk, curator Steve Dietz suggests a way of thinking about new media art. His starting point was artist Lisa Jevbratt’s A Stillman Project for the Walker Art Center, which he commissioned for the Walker Art Center’s Gallery 9. In this project Jevbratt uses the idea of a host-parasite relationship to create her artwork which feeds off the Walker’s own website.^
  2. Nochlin, Linda. ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ ArtNews Jan. 1971: 22-39^
  3. http://www.irational.org/heath/_readme.html^
  4. Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, 1982, OUP^
  5. http://www.yproductions.com/beyondinterface/^
  6. Transcription of Lecture by David Ross, San Jose State University, March 2, 1999. http://switch.sjsu.edu/web/ross.html^
  7. http://mercury.sfsu.edu/~infoarts/^
  8. http://www.rhizome.org/artbase/^
  9. http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~culture/main.html^
  10. Antin, David, ‘Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium’, Video Art, 1974^
  11. In 2003, Walker Art Center eliminated its entire new media curatorial program as a “cost saving” measure, which makes it harder to believe this, and perhaps, as many would argue, I am ignoring the point: such is “the very nature of our institutional structures.”^

Credits

  • Steve Dietz is a freelance curator. He is Director of ISEA2006 Symposium | ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge August 5-13, 2006. He is Curatorial Fellow at the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre, Canada. He is the former Curator of New Media at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, where he founded the New Media Initiatives department in 1996, the online art Gallery 9 and digital art study collection. He also co-founded, with the Minneapolis Instite of Arts the award-winning educational site ArtsConnectEd, and the artist community site mnartists.org with the McKnight Foundation.
  • This is an edited version for the Arts Council of Great Britain’s New Media Reader: Practice and Context in the UK 1994-2004
    It was originally a talk at CADRE, San Jose State University November 30, 1999.
    It has since been published in Vuk Cosic’s catalogue Net.art Per Me (2001) for the 49th Venice Biennale and online for: