Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Pastoralism of New Media: A Rant About Contemporary Art

We live in a world where the implosion of meaning and the end of history Baudrillaud wrote about so dramatically in Simulacra and Simulation (and which accelerated in the internet era) have now been around for a while. Philosophy, art, literature, in fact, all of the humanities were sucked into a theoretical black hole (which we can blame largely on Wittgenstein and the way that media operates to render information meaningless): meta to the nth.

But here we still are, getting up and going to work (if you're lucky enough to have a job), people in a meaningless, ahistorical world.

But Science, as post-structuralism dismantled feminism, humanism, and all metanarratives, held its ground, upholding it's empirical reductionism like a politician upholding family values.
And in the debris of postmodernism, it remains. Science.

Science, and Science alone retains the subject and the object, the signifier and the signified, the Future and the noble goals of mankind. Science, and not philosophy, will tell us the Truth about ourselves, the world, and through fossils and conjecture about early humans, the Nature of Man.

...Oh, and artists remain, bewildered by the absolute meaninglessness of their art history educations.

And two major trends have emerged: relational art, which represents, produces, or prompts inter-human relations (check out Gabriel Orozco and Miranda July); and art that imitates or employs as its medium science and technology, creating abstracted data visualizations, substituting scientific approaches for aesthetic approaches, using the forms of science to imbue work with meaning. (Check out Gail Wight and the sound-memory neural networks of Debora Aschheim).

As these trends expand there seems to be a sentiment that a given project which is sort-of about science or is sort-of interactive is automatically art, even if it can't satisfy the questions "What does it mean?" or "Why should I care?"

But, back to Science. While some art that borrows from science and technology does so critically or works with the concepts creatively, some are just aesthetic objects inspired by science. And I love beautiful things, I do. I just don't want art discourse to be lost to the pastoralism of abstract, uncritical new media work.


  1. I love Olafur Eliasson so much. I remember when I saw his show at SFMOMA with a dear friend visiting from the other side of the world. And exiting the elevator into that yellow room where reality is monochrome. Art that is cleanly focused on the experience.

    What's pastoralism?

  2. Pastoralism in painting is idyllically portraying rural landscapes, celebrating simple pleasures. They usually are technically excellent, the most characteristic examples being Baroque landscapes like Claude Lorrain. It's a kind of genre painting (like still life or nudes).
    I love Olafur Eliasson, too. I am referring a lot to his treatment of his native Iceland in photography that exhibit, but also to the installation of rainbow mist, etc.
    The point I am making critically is that, like pastoral art his work is gorgeous and technically excellent but that it stops there.
    One could as easily argue that it is refreshing and sincere, because it is.

  3. I can see what you mean with respect to the Iceland photography. But the rainbow mist, I don't think it stops at gorgeousness or technical excellence.

    I think the experience keeps going. It is true that the experience is not prescribed, which is what makes Eliasson so refreshing. From the mist, for example, one could start thinking about the play between light and color and water, or one could think about how fog blurs reality and makes it more magical.

    In other words, Eliasson's work opens the mind, at least for me and my friends. Maybe idyllic rural landscapes used to do this for the audiences of the time? Certain calming stimuli give me perspective, but that might just be as contrast to the modern hustle and bustle.

    Does this painting count as pastoralism?

    I saw it at the Brooklyn Museum and found it beautifully calming.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. I've noticed this relational/scientific phenomenon too and they're both things that can be really problematic. Even if artists are trying to contribute to discourse they're always running the risk of having the majority of people dazzled by technical display or made so warm and fuzzy by endearment or whatnot that the prospect of considering the work critically doesn't even enter their minds.
    There was an Olafur Eliasson exhibition in my hometown of Sydney recently and just watching people respond to the works left me doubting whether the reception would have been different if the same objects had been placed in the Powerhouse Museum (our science/technology/design museum).

    Um. Hm. I was going to say more but I'm afraid I've forgotten. Either way, this was really just an excuse to tell you that I've just started reading your blog and I'm finding it very interesting.