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The Impression of Craft in New Media

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Recently, in a conversation that I was having on Rhizome, a colleague was mentioning that although a particular body of work wasn’t their cup of tea, that they surmised that it must have been interesting in that it must have been difficult or challenging to do. This is only one example, but it gives me a rhetorical touchstone for what seems to be a larger phenomenon.

In thinking about the creation of New Media, I’ve come across a multitude of artists who believe that the merit of a work is linked to the artist’s technical prowess and the degree of difficulty involved in the creation of the work [1]. The link of New Media Art to craft seems to elide the conversation of art and objecthood initiated in 1917 upon the fateful inscription of “R.Mutt” upon the urinal by Duchamp. And, with the force of the Conceptual Art movement in the 60’s and 70’s in working to problematize the whole idea of the art object, why does a material discourse (i.e. craft) reemerge in a de-objectified movement like New Media? This is a (somewhat) puzzling phenomenon.

The most simplistic meditation on this conversation relates to the ongoing questioning of the nature of art by individuals since the advent of Modernism, and furthermore in the Postmodern. Why do students still ask “what is art?”, and even more shocking, why did one of my classmates in grad school ask “What is ‘good’ art?” in 2005? To address this question is staggering; it suggests trying to address the American mass attitude of art as a dilettante’s folly, and not a ‘real’ job, because art is perceived as “fun”.

This seems to talk about a representational issue and a utilitarian one as well. In a society which is ruled by capitalist desires for productivity, and the “use value” of a body of work? Both are linked to a conflict between qualitative and quantitative criteria for valuation of art as culture and as a job. In my experience in the United States in 2006, mass culture materialism equates the valuation of art with its marketability and the practice of art with one’s job prospects in commercial art. At the risk of sounding Greenbergian, this might be a reassertion of the split in his essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch. The idea that the mass market privileging of art/practice and a confusion with culture is a fracture (if not an inversion) of Greenberg’s distinction between high culture and mass market kitsch, which demands only our money, and not only our time… From this, the American work/production mythos and the utilitarian seems to be a real problem in regards to art as ‘work’…

The notion of the slaving, starving artist is truly a romantic one, and like it or not, often does not hold in the realm of high art. It also does not hold well as well in the realm of global marketing, as brands seldom make their goods, or minimize labor by subcontracting the work (i.e. Nike shoes). This holds well for artists like Koons and Kostabi, who have their works constructed. In the New Media culture, artists like Cory Arcangel have created major works by changing small amounts of code, Eduardo Kac has brilliantly recontextualized bioengineered experimental animals for mass dialogue, and Miltos Manetas employs basic corporate branding schemes with tremendous effect. In fact, in a 2005 lecture at the University of Akron, Arcangel stated that in any body of work, he tries to communicate his concepts while doing as little as possible. While the labor-oriented or utilitarian person would resent the conceptual artist as being disingenuous, contemporary art practice has been far more about context and concept than craft.

The representational issue comes from the concept that art should somehow be invariably produced for the audience as entertainment object. This reiterates itself in my college classes in my students as resentment against artists like Matthew Barney for not addressing their lives and/or culture. The radical extension of this argument might be to valorize art like that of the WPA Social Realist work of the 30’s in that it creates an idealized image of the common folk. Of course, this is a gross exaggeration, and oversimplifies a populist opposition towards “challenging” work that seeks to defy analysis.

On the other hand, the linking of craft/difficulty to qualitative judgment in New Media belies an irruption between New Media and larger art traditions. The New Media tradition comes as much from a technocapital and engineering lineage than an art one. This creates a short conceptual leap to technophilia, and a perception that more interesting work implements the latest technology and more complex systems. Perhaps the technophilic assumption may be a bit strong, but it certainly follows the research & design mentality within digital culture as described by Peter Lunenfeld in his essay Demo or Die. His description of the demo-ing of projects at the MIT Media Lab as if they were marketing proposals for new products tie creative and technical development in material terms. Perhaps this is where the link between technical virtuosity as potential valuation index for New Media art comes from.

Perhaps the valuation of craft in New Media art is also linked to the academic tradition of formalism in which there is the criteria of virtuosity in a given medium or technique. The iterative, extended exploration of form is often the criteria of academic “master”-y. In saying this, I denote the criteria for the award for a terminal degree in art, and furthermore, the consistency desired in gallery marketing and museum curation. Does this suggest the desire for media artists to be part of an ostensibly material culture, especially New Media artists, who may arguably be the most ephemeral of media artists? This is a real schism in New Media practice; the frission between objective art, capitalism, the questions that media art brought about regarding object-based art, and so on. It’s a series of questions that shift in regards to context and audience.

I hope that in these rambling musings on New Media and craft that some issues may come to the fore that spark conversation. I think that considering the history of 20th century contemporary art, I am still surprised that issues of craft still emerge in the media arts, especially when they are so close to a Conceptualist tradition. But in their defense, I have also made many of these assertions, not against any personal dispute any appreciation for virtuosity, but phenomenologically from my observations in regards to the contemporary art history as I know it of the last 90 years. As usual thanks for reading, and I hope there’s something of use to you.

Valuation of Art

"Why do students still ask “what is art?”, and even more shocking, why did one of my classmates in grad school ask “What is ‘good’ art?” in 2005?"

Actually those questions are what I call "dumb discourse" or perhaps thoughtless thinking. The more interesting question is, "What creates value in art?" Any analysis of globalism must take into account "the market." I also wonder about an "anti-market" somewhat in the manner of anti-art.

You refer to Duchamp's Urinal which was entered into the 1917 Society of Independant Artists unjuried exhibition show under the pseudonym of "R.Mutt." The piece was rejected as being not art.

The point is that some people equate value with "labor value." This is true for New Media as much as old media. The other part is that the market and the objects in circulation as well as the goods and services of the art world create a use value. This might be equated to Wittgenstein's maxims that,"the meaning of a word is it's meaning and the meaning of a word is it's use." What becomes interesting is if you substitute value for meaning.

dumb discourse...

Your substitution: "what creates value in art" for "what is (good) art?" Yes, I see the difference: if the question of art is a question of value, then is it obvious that value is only thinkable in terms of capital? Duchamp's "Fountain" may have had another value, perversely by being "only" a commodity, but now it's canonical. So, I would rephrase your, "what creates value in art?" with "can art still articulate a difference between the commodity form and some other form of value." Who are today's Duchamps? Is this a good question? Or merely nostalgic?

And to connect with the broader question: is there a labor/craft that can interrupt (even for a moment) its own appropriation as commodity?


labor/ craft disruption

Actually Marc Garret just put up a post about a couple of artist who are producing and distributing cube cola. When you read about what they are doing it's a very odd relational art work.

There's also a seed discussion in the forums under peipatetics:

This reminds me of a point in the 1970's when people began to question the art object and it's position in the art world. I still believe that the digital realm is the place where experimental art has the most promise to expand art discourse. The cube cola has an online component as well as a phsical manifestiation.

changing perspectives?

Hi Patrick, I appreciate your "rambling musings on New Media and craft." Reading the post it occurred to me that "craft" means something different depending on whether you adopt the perspective of the artist or the audience--and I don't take these latter terms for granted either.

So-called conceptual artists might look upon their work as "craft," as "hard work," even if what's hard about it is, as you write, "doing as little as possible." That sounds hard, doesn't it? And so audiences sometimes judge/dismiss as easy, things that are hard. Further, if we say of some works (I'm thinking of modern muscial composition) that they're demanding, then it's the audience that must craft the experience; the work puts the audience to the test. Barthes disinguishes between readerly and writerly texts this way. From the perspective of the reader/audience/public the work demands active engagement. I no longer passively enjoy or consume the work; it makes me work; it puts me to work.

But I think I've confused two things here: what artists do and how audiences see this doing, on the one hand, and what artists do and what audiences do.

Also, "craft" implies skill, but does skill imply time? Practice perhaps, but not time during execution. I might call a work, a poem, a film, etc. well-crafted, but this doesn't imply that the maker took a lot of time to make it. The artists you mention (Kac, Archangel, Manetas) may make simple moves, but I wouldn't have been surprised to see the word, "elegant" in your description, a word that would be part of the lexicon of craft.

You write, "contemporary art practice has been far more about context and concept than craft." I don't accept the distinction, not without further elaboration. Do you presume that objects are crafted and concepts and contexts are not? Why not just say that one mode of craft supplants another? Why not say that one material supplants another?

Or perhaps you're saying that artists no longer appeal to their skill the way they once did, but that audiences still expect this appeal.

Thanks in advance for considering these remarks...


The Technology Trickster

Patrick--lots of food for thought here, similar to our previous discussion re: Cory Arcangel on Rhizome...I'll throw out some thoughts randomly..
There definitely is somewhat of an American/Horatio Alger-ish 'work ethic' at play in the market valuation of artwork. But there is also the pressure of history in the sense that 'Art' has a longer tradition of craft/training/expertise behind it; e.g. the 'Arts and Sciences' are pinnacles of human intellectual thought and artisanship. "Doing as little as possible" comes off as "I'm lazy", "I'm cheating", "I'm laughing at you", etc...despite the general shift of Art from objecthood to experiential since the 60s and more importantly since the 90s with the serious advent of Internet/New Media. So, it's going to take a little more time for the dorks and netnerds to upset the thrust and expectations of that tradition.

But, what I'm also sensing here is a resentment against *having* to take on that historical responsibility if one is studying or desiring to be an artist. 'New Media' is still media, is still fundamentally a production of image and/or experience. For example,some very interesting video and interactive installations have been inspired by Baroque spectacle lightshow 'technologies.' The origin of the word 'technology' (teknos) is in fact linked more to the idea of 'craft' and 'cunning creation' than to, say, engineering. The challenge of New Media is that, frankly, New Media *is* in everybody's hands these days: cellphones, cameras, video cameras, web design...and this shift happened very quickly, within half a generation, and the expectations that artists should be 'artisans' are not so quickloy dissolved.

Nor is this just a demand of the audience, whatever their expectations... coding, 3D modelling, video editing, game design, etc. is hard work. It just *is*. SO, artists (engineers, designers, et al) engaged in these practices want valorization and reward for their efforts, and this comes in the form of audience approval, peer recognition, and market valuation. Cory may do 'as little as possible' with his art but he *works* his audience and plays a role that is calcuated to sustain these rewards.

When you mention "the academic tradition of formalism in which there is the criteria of virtuosity in a given medium or technique", I think this is spot on. But as for the so-called 'ephemerality' of New Media art, I'm not so sure. We are both a material culture and an information culture; however the physical reality is that material culture presupposes the informational commodity. This is true to the degree that Media is made possible (obviously) through material production: the TVs, monitors, computers, handbooks, videotapes, CDs/DVDs, hard drives etc etc. New Media/Information Arts is not a phantasm--it has a materialism and a formal relationship to the physical senses. So lets not romanticize the so-called transendency of the medium as being somehow...*evolved* beyond the grossness of mere physical representation.

I think the video artists of Nam Jun Paik's generation were dealing with this 'frission' as you called by framing the television itself within a sculptural/performance practice--although perhaps you view this type of work as a form of 'transitional' practice still rooted in traditional methods.

“art”, digital craft legibility, technophilia


Thanks for starting this great conversation.

There are a couple of things that I think are important here: the semantics of “art”, the legibility of craft in digital work, and the persistent problem of technophilia.

The semantics of “art”:
I think when most people discuss what is art, or what is good art, what they’re really asking is either, “How do I recognize whether something is art?” or “How do I make work which will be experienced as art?” I find the discussion, and the volumes of writing on aesthetics and the aesthetic experience, for the most part, fascinating. Obviously, it comes down to trying to define a subjective experience. Where it gets tricky is that many people can have a similar, though still subjective, experience with the same work. So, we reason, there must be some sort of law here. I’m sure there are certain laws, which can be applied, as we’re finding out in regards to predictive metrics for pop songs and Hollywood movies. However, I think we’re pursuing the wrong path when we start discussing art as some sort of relationship to mental or physical labor. Partially because defining labor gets very tricky very quickly, and partly because I think that labor is only one of many aspects of creating art.
I think the most useful way to describe art is, “something which inspires a transcendent experience.” This transcendent experience can be triggered through concept, execution, experience, etc. And I think this is what we’re going for; getting people to move beyond their normal way of seeing, thinking about, or experiencing the world. And this can come from a high, low, or anti-craft perspective.
The value issue can be argued from a few perspectives: monetary market, ideological resonance, longevity of resonance, and, for lack of a better word, emotional resonance. Galleries are, naturally concerned about the first which can be boosted by the latter three, or simply popular affinity. Museums tend to be more concerned with the middle two. And audiences with the second and forth. So, when seeking value, I think it helps to decide which type of value(s) one is seeking.

The legibility of craft in digital work:
As a somewhat obsessive maker, the discussion of craft is important to me, however, I realize that it is not legible to most people. Digital art has the least legible craft of any medium. In any other medium, the skill of the maker is evident. This is as true in the conceptualization and execution of pieces in other mediums, regardless of whether the artist or an employed fabricator (machine shop, video editor, studio assistant, apprentice painter, dancer, actor, etc.) has made the work. In digital art (especially as processors are ever-faster) the in/elegance of craft is completely hidden from view. One notable exception is the CodeDoc ( show Christiane Paul curated for the Whitney. For the most part, craft is something other makers can admire, but very few else. Even when we exhibit the reams of code or circuit diagrams, who looks at that? Who understands it, other than ourselves?
Which sort of begs two questions:
Is the lack of observable craft one of the reasons curators, gallerists, and collectors (with notable exceptions, of course) have been slow to embrace digital art?
Why are we, as makers, so concerned with our audience being aware of our craft?

Of course, the technophilia problem is persistent and we continue to see examples of people confusing new technologies or widgets with new ideas. But it’s hard to suppress X years of media and cultural training, moving beyond any one technology to focus on the ideas and resonance of a given work. This seems to be as hard for the makers as for the audience. We can all list works that fiddle endlessly to no consequential outcome, though, clearly, a lot of time and effort has been put into the fiddling. This is not to say that one shouldn’t be concerned with the formal properties of one’s medium--I’d argue vehemently to the contrary--only that those properties should be employed to a more substantial end. But, these days, I find pure formalism boring.

Craft is Crime

I'm not sure I agree with Adam's definition of art as "something which inspires a transcendant experience." Not that it can't, just that this sounds like a gauzily Romantic vision of the 'heroic artist'. I would choose to remove the notion of Art away from the viewer for a moment and talk more about the 'act of making Art', which seems relevant to the discussion of craft, labor, value, etc. Subjectivity is scalable to all degrees of taste and intellect.

The act of making art, of critical importance since early modernism, is concerned with the process of the medium, the notation of the artist's movement or presence. Digital art does not reveal these gestures as easily; showing thousands of lines of code as evidence of the artist's labor is about as useful as showing, for example, the squeezed out paint tubes discarded in an artist's studio. They don't say anything about the process or the final work. These notations or traces of the artist's making (as visible in a final artwork) are more easily understood and discursively supported from critics, gallerists, collectors, etc. But this wasn't always the case; in fact I believe that it is photo & cinema (of which New Media is the legacy) that opened up the possibilities of art to do more than represent the 'real.' This is history of Art of the past and current century: 1) A painting is not the Thing. 2) Let a painting be a painting (abandon representation). 3) Do away with objects altogether; art is a social interface.

The simple fact about why gallerists, museums, collectors et al haven't 'embraced' these relational aesthetics (to graft Nicholas Bouriaud's term) is that they're fundamentally uncollectible in a lot of ways! It's possible that the existing art world will not be able to ameliorate themselves to the practices of New Media. There's also a real concern about the rapid obsolescence of what *is*--no getting around it--a technology market-driven medium: computers, cellphones, drives, the internet itself. What would be your response to this: that painting/drawing/photography is 'good Art' because pencils, paint, and images on paper don't crash?

Redefine the Parameters

"The simple fact about why gallerists, museums, collectors et al haven't 'embraced' these relational aesthetics (to graft Nicholas Bouriaud's term) is that they're fundamentally uncollectible in a lot of ways! It's possible that the existing art world will not be able to ameliorate themselves to the practices of New Media."

It's more interesting to talk about defining whole new areas of art rather than worry about the markets or the galleries catching up. Permanent obselecence is actually good. All those lame utopian ideas of "everyone is an artist" or the machines make the art or the market determines the art are way out-dated. Instead lets say that artists creativity can be uncoupled from goods and services. It can become a revolution of ideas that are constantly evolving. It can take any form both physical and conceptual. It can be as Marc Garrett has pointed out a small scale system for distributing alternative coca-cola.

As Antonin Artaud says, "No more masterpieces!"

Redefine the...wha'?

"Instead lets say that artists creativity can be uncoupled from goods and services."

three sentences later:

"It can be... a small scale system for distributing alternative coca-cola."

umm...sure, I *guess* it can be both--

I don't necessarily see the importance of hacking existing products but that's just my personal bug-up-the-butt. Uncoupling 'creativity' from 'market value' implies that the artist's vision represents some sort of Universal Truth and has value in and of itself ('art for art's sake') which sounds a little transcendent and naive. 'Creativity' is a mode of cultural production. But by that same token there is no inherent 'value' in so-called 'new ideas' over that of hacking or sampling, I guess...

:sean capone

The Object is Incidental

This gets down to the question why make art in the first place. I personally dislike glib phrases like "cultural production" as being so vague as to be meaningless. I never mentioned "universal truth' which is another meaningless phrase. I tend to see art as an evolving language.
So why make art? It serves no practical function. Except for one thing,art and creative pursuits are where humanity advances. Those areas of thought and creativity make it possible for a society and a culture to exist and continue. Otherwise we are merely animals satifying our needs.

Craft is Crime p2

I forgot to talk about why I called the post 'craft is crime' previously--

Patrick's initial questions brought to mind Loos' famous dictum 'Ornament is Crime' which set the stage for Modernism in architecture but which was also part of the serious discussions around the end of the 19th century concerning the proper use of Ornament & decoration within the fine and applied arts. Loos argued against the superfluous and increasingly senseless stylizations that adorned every surface and basically viewed it as an irresponsible and immoral practice.

Patrick, are you calling for a type of New Media Modernism--in which the senselss and gratuitous application of 'Craft' grounds one's transparent New Media objects on the physical plane of gross matter?