Sunday, May 9, 2010

Walton and Categories of Art: Implications for New Media

With a dry and reductive approach, Walton in Categories of Art explains how the perception of representation works. He claims that for any category of art there are standard, variable, and contra-standard properties. The representation a viewer perceives when viewing a work of art is determined by the variable properties of the category.

For example: "The shapes of a painting or a still photograph of a high jumper in action are motionless, but these pictures do not look to us like a high jumper frozen in midair. Indeed, depending on features of the picture which are variable for us (for example, the exact position of the figures, the swirling brush strokes in the painting, slight blurrings of the photographic image) the athlete may seem in a frenzy of activity; the pictures may convey a vivid sense of movement. But if static images exactly like those of the two pictures occur in a motion picture, and we will see it as a motion picture, they probably would strike us as resembling a static athlete. This is because the immobility of the images is standard relative to the category of still pictures and variable relative to that of motion pictures."

Obvious? Well yes, but it has interesting implications for new media. In establishing, say, interactive video programming as artistic medium, we must conclude that we must also establish standards for that medium: for a particular work to represent something, it must have categorically standard properties. It is almost by subtracting out those standard properties that the meaning and particulars of the work become apparent.

Outside of the art world, technological things (for lack of a more specific term) are usually put on display only for their technical and functional innovation. And so, often, when people approach a new media work in a gallery, their first reaction is to miscategorize the work as technology and to look for what is functionally innovative and novel. If they don't find anything novel, their reaction might be, "That's been done before."

Perhaps the work's functionality has been done before, but painting things has also been done before. That's what makes a painting a comprehensible, particular, and meaningful object: paintings have certain recognizable and standard forms of representation.

New media will be more meaningful and readily understood when thought of as standard medium rather than technology both by those who view it and those who make art with it.

1 comment: