In the new January edition of Artforum, Lauren Cornell and Brian Droitcour responded to Claire Bishop’s controversial “Digital Divide” article from the September issue:
“…It was discouraging, after reading several pieces on Artforum’s history of developing critical languages to address emerging art practices, to then arrive at an essay that is clearly not rising to the challenges of contemporary art practice and our new visual environment. The current rise of amateur cultural production and the accessibility of tools for creating visual media pose new challenges for the art world. Institutions should serve not only as custodians of the past, determining how art from their collections is shared and experienced online; they must also work with artists to become guides to the present, shaping conversations around developments in visual culture and identifying critical moments. From her position, Bishop can only picture such a situation as a “utopia,” and not as the thoughtful response of cultural workers to their social and technological environments. She ends on an apocalyptic note: “At its most utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialized, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture; at its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself.”
What exactly does “visual art” mean to Bishop? When she discusses Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poetry in the paragraphs immediately preceding this dire conclusion, she clings to the traditional barriers between literature and art. With poetry, she writes, “the flow of capital is meager,” whereas “visual art’s ongoing double attachment to intellectual property and physicality threatens to jeopardize its own relevance.” Digital technologies limit the distinctions between words and images to file formats, and artists who work with them take advantage of this flattening. Bishop, however, strengthens the divisions between visual and verbal arts, while erasing the distinction between art and its market structures—a narrowness of perspective that goes along with her easy dismissal of digital art as a “specialized” field. Most professors of art history can attest that the social contexts within which art can exist are far more varied than today’s art market and high-profile institutions. Art isn’t in danger of irrelevance. Positions like Bishop’s are.”
Claire Bishop responds:
“This letter is typical of the online feedback that has followed the publicationof my article, so I will use this as an opportunity to answer both. To recap myargument: “Digital Divide” examines the mainstream art world’s disavowal ofdigital media in its ongoing fixation with the analog, the archival, the obsolete, and predigital modes of communication and presence. I argue that contemporary art’s attachment to these modes is largely a consequence of its being wedded to a market that prefers and privileges auratic forms. The article is first and foremost a critique of the dominant tendencies in contemporary art since 2000, as found in museums, galleries, and biennials: those that receive the majority of curatorial, critical, and art-historical attention. It’s not an article about new media or digital art.”
“Rather than simply affirming new media’s ubiquity, we need analyses of the way in which—as Hito Steyerl suggests—we are becoming one with the pixel, and of what this implies for anthropocentric models of perception. Without these investigations, the “apocalyptic” conclusion to my article only remains corroborated by Cornell and Droitcour’s argument. Because as long as there is a mainstream art world that is still invested in the analog, the archival impulse, and “dead tech” and that is slow to invent new vocabularies with which to talk about perception in the digital era, there will have to be a self-marginalizing alternative called new media art that asserts its own relevance for the future. One is obsessed with the technology of the past, the other with the technology of the present; they are mutually constitutive products of similarly blinkered thinking. In this light, the inability of both to speak meaningfully about our contemporary experience of the digital seems to be a structural blind spot, produced both by the mainstream art world’s insistence on individual authorship and auratic materials and by new media niche advocacy that misses the point, fixating on the centrality of digital technology rather than confronting it as a repertoire of practices and effects that increasingly lodges capitalism within the body.”
I have huge respect for Cornell and Droitcour as well as for Claire Bishop. I think both camps make very trenchant points. I wish they didn’t have to be so acrimonious about it, but I think the back-and-forth is very productive.
I think it really is the case, as C&D point out, that Bishop seems blind to the many artists, institutions, and projects that engage fruitfully with the condition of digital mediation without merely fixating on the “new” and strictly technological aspects of new media. However, as Bishop points out, there certainly is a new media ghetto that does fixate exclusively on those aspects. That these different spheres exist may not be a bad thing, especially given that they’re communicating more than ever these days.
I’m particularly intrigued by Bishop’s last sentence, in which she characterizes digital technology as “a repertoire of practices and effects that increasingly lodges capitalism within the body.” That sounds like the beginning of a very interesting line of inquiry and I would like to see more in that direction.