Initiation and the Academy

Copyright © Paul Brown 1998
All Rights Reserved
This essay is based on a presentation I gave as part of a panel called The Art Mainstream as the Enemy at ISEA 98 - Revolution in Liverpool, England in August 1998.

A historical model
Mapping the Model to the "new" New Media
The Academy - A European Perspective from the 1960's


The theme of the panel The Art Mainstream as the Enemy held at ISEA 98 was as follows:

"The art mainstream (which includes the academies, the commercial, state and philanthropic galleries) ignored the field of art & technology for almost 30 years. After it had become fashionable in the early 90's they did adopt it but did so in a way that ignored or undermined the `significant' agenda and served only to perpetuate their own outmoded paradigm.

"In particular the art mainstream promote work where the value (whether aesthetic or monetary) is intrinsic to the work. This places the mainstream's adoption of art & technology as an extension of modernism (and of the concept of the avant garde) rather than a change to an extrinsic value system (in the context of post-modernism)."

In my own presentation for this panel I expressed my belief that new media have the potential of redefining art both as a process of production and of consumption. In particular I focussed on the failure of the academy to either acknowledge or address this new, emergent process.

A historical model

Historical models suggest that there is a 40 year hiatus between the invention of new technology and emergence of a mature aesthetic or language which may govern it's use as a creative medium.

For possible models we can look at either photography or motion pictures.

In both cases we find that early use of these "new" media was metaphorical - photography copied painting and film aped both the "still life" and the theatrical narrative. The important point is that the photographic image is significantly and fundamentally different from the painted image just as motion pictures form a different class of aesthetic experiences than the theatre.

Equally important is the insight that this difference was not possible to predict. It was not, and could not have been, recognised until after the mature form of the medium had emerged.

That process of emergence for both photography and for film took about 40 years.

Elsewhere I have speculated that this 40 year period was not just a product of the need for the technology itself to mature. During this period in film we see close-up lenses, improvements in camera transport and support systems and more sensitive emulsions being developed.

However what's more important about this 40 year period of transition is its provision of sufficient time for a new generation of creative talent to emerge. This new generation were not shackled by the governing paradigm of their predecessors. They broke, or more probably they simply ignored, the rules of the governing status quo. Through experimentation they defined the intrinsic nature of their tools and processes. Film ceased to be a metaphor for theatre and became a unique medium in its own right.

It's remarkable to reflect that the fundamental structure of narrative and documentary film has hardly changed since it was first codified by the revolutionary film makers of the early Soviet period in the 1920's.

Mapping the Model to the "new" New Media

If we want to apply this historical 40-year model to our new electronic media it's necessary to identify a starting point. I believe that there are significant events in the 1960's that can help us to date the beginning of this new movement:

  • in 1962 John Whitney Snr., who had a significant history of working with earlier analogue computer systems, became the first person to be an artist-in-residence at a computer company (IBM);
  • in 1963 Ivan Sutherland completed his research on interactive computer-aided drawing and published his PhD thesis "Sketchpad" at MIT;
  • the same year (1963) a group of engineers at Boeing who were working on an animated 50 percentile human figure for ergonomic modelling coined the phrase "Computer Graphics";
  • in 1968 the journal Leonardo was founded by Frank Malina and;
  • that same year Cybernetic Serendipity, the first major review of artists using computers and digital technologies, was held at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London.

If we add 40 years we get into the next decade of the new millennium. During that decade I expect to see a new generation of artists emerge who will be doing significantly new and different things. I believe that they will define the new media in a similar way to those soviet pioneers who framed the cinema.

Furthermore I suspect that this new talent will emerge from outside of and despite of the academy.

The Academy - A European Perspective from the 1960's

In the 1960's, the same decade that computer graphics emerged, art education in Europe want through a radical shift. In the United Kingdom William Coldstream, then professor at the Slade School of Art in London, was commissioned by the British government to report on the field.

The Coldstream Report recommended that the long established National Diploma in Design (NDD) be replaced by the Diploma in Art and Design (DipAD). The NDD had been a highly prescriptive program. In order to graduate students had to provide set numbers of examples of specific kinds of work: 3 drawings from casts; 2 paintings from life; etc...

By contrast the DipAD would acknowledge freedom of expression for the first time in art education in the UK. In consequence the late Sixties became a time of experimentation. During that decade we see the establishment of both high modernism and it's complement - avant gardism. This was the "Swinging Sixties" and London was the international headquarters for the emergent youth culture. Political initiatives like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) blurred into the hedonistic drug culture of the day.

It's particularly important to recognise that it was during this decade that the academy opened it's doors for experimentation for the first time. In the early `60s art schools offered majors in "traditional" media like painting, sculpture and print making. By the end of the decade several allowed specialism in Conceptual Art, Art Language, Performance Art and other emergent artforms. Historically we can recognise these as part of the emergence of what has been called post-modernism.

However, and despite the fast acceptance of many other artforms, the recognition and accommodation of digital media lagged behind. Back then I assumed that it would take the art mainstream between 5 and 10 years to acknowledge this new and experimental area of art. This is roughly how long it took Pop Art or Performance or Conceptual Art to graduate from the 'alternative' venues and into the mainstream.

Video, for example, became popular with artists in the mid sixties, just three years before Cybernetic Serendipity took place. By 1974, only nine years later, the Arts Council of Great Britain recognised its emergence in The Video Show at the Serpentine Gallery in London in which I and many of my colleagues exhibited.

So why didn't new digital-based arts get accepted?

The answer requires more time and space than I have available here however I believe that there are two primary causes.

The first is the usual (and perfectly understandable) fear of something new and difficult. Most non-scientific disciplines are considerably intimidated by computers, particularly when they are first introduced.

The second is more important and is a consequence of the increasing conservatism of the academy and art mainstream. Put simply they have the arrogant belief that they are right, they know what art is (and are equally convinced that they know what is isn't) and the digital domain challenges their prejudice.

In consequence the academies teach students how to push a mouse about and use `shrink wrapped' software applications which emulate traditional media. This is acceptable because the metaphors the software uses are based on the established (and acceptable) media.

Nevertheless the academies simultaneously undermining attempts to develop a curriculum that can address `significant' issues and knowledge development. Their fear is that the new emergent knowledge will question and may potentially overthrow their own established knowledge base.

In fairness I must also acknowledge that they are also constrained by the new `rational' economics of higher education which prioritise funding for developments that earn immediate benefits (like enrolment income) rather than for `prestigious' developments like a leading-edge arts program.

The digital domain offers an emergent metamedium which has not yet consolidated and therefor cannot be named. However, attempts to deal with long-term `pre-strategic' research are often put aside in favour of programs that apply existing linguistic modalities and exploit historical media metaphors.

This seems to me typical of the way the artworld has misappropriated the post-modern. Elsewhere I have commented that science - because it is involved in logic - has better managed the shift to post modern concepts than the humanities who rely on rhetoric to defend their ideology.

This in itself is threatened by the new media fusion of art and science.

Academic teaching is obsessed with late modernist rhetoric and the application of language where `scholarship' replaces metalinguistic activities like creativity.

The emergent culture questions and undermines the academy and it's role in the initiation of new creative talent. As I've suggested above historical models like the development of photography and motion pictures suggest that the new media are likely to mature outside of and despite of the academy.

Some years ago I described the then relatively new venues like ISEA, Ars Electronica and the longer established SIGGRAPH Art Show as constituting ... "an international salon des refuses". At the time this was a "throw away" remark but, over the years, I have come to believe it provides a useful historical model for our present conflict.

In the late 19th century the artworld was dominated then as now by an extremely conservative mainstream represented by the London Royal Academy and the Paris Salon. As we all know a group of disenfranchised artists created the Salon des Refuses. That group, the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, created a major revolution, a major paradigm shift in the arts. They wrote the agenda for the arts of the 20th century, the agenda we now call Modernism.

It's my belief that the creative talent that will emerge in the next decade has the potential of creating a similar revolution and of writing the agenda for the arts of the 21st Century. It seems unlikely that such an explosive challenge could either be accommodated by, or emerge from, the academy it is likely to usurp.

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