Sunday, January 8, 2017

[Yasmin_discussions] Is STEM art good enough?

Plenty of grist here in the past week! I'll tackle the argument that new media art will not prosper until it produces works of sufficient quality to be universally appreciated.

Others have written at length about how a fresh genre or medium--or even gender--doesn't always measure up to the criteria inherited from older creative forms. Three texts that come to mind are Leo Steinberg's _Other Criteria_, Linda Nochlin's "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" and Steve Dietz's "Why Have There Been No Great Net Artists?" [1][2][3] (I hope no one will take Ken Friedman's call for rigor to mean you have to footnote your Yasmin posts, which I do only to feign respectability.)

Rather than reprise these critics' skillful arguments, I will just remind us that the darlings of art history today were often the wallflowers of their own time.

Let's take so-called classical music, which I agree with Glenn is one of Europe's finest contributions to world culture (and coincidentally a success story for variable media). Today you'll find Johann Sebastian Bach at or near the top of most any musicological leaderboard. Despite his superstar status today, during his time Bach was a talented keyboardist whose legacy was simply to have fathered sons who went on to be famous composers. Bach was always groveling for work; his Brandenburg Concerti, today widely regarded one of the greatest orchestral compositions of the Baroque era, were written as a job application to the Margrave Christian Ludwig. Upon receiving Bach's obsequious letter with the score attached, the good Margrave chucked it on a shelf without even bothering to write Bach a rejection letter. When Ludwig died, the manuscript was sold for the equivalent of $24 and not re-discovered until 130 years later.

After Johann Sebastian Bach's death in 1750, all of his works fell into obscurity until 1829, when Felix Mendelssohn famously revived interest in Papa Bach with a performance of his St. Matthew Passion. If it took the creator of "the greatest musical work of all times and all people" [4] a century to find an appreciative audience, shouldn't we give new media art more than a couple decades?

Ken cites Peter Adamson's rules for a history of philosophy, the last of which notes that not every text rewards continual re-examination. I agree, but we should acknowledge that we are not always in a position to decide this for recently emergent art forms. In _Other Criteria_, Leo Steinberg conjured a critic who "holds his [or her] criteria and taste in reserve. Since they were formed upon yesterday's art, [s]he does not assume that they are ready-made for today."

Who then can sustain the memory of the "novel manifestations" Steinberg champions while waiting for posterity to judge them? Although it could not have been much consolation to Bach, his works were maintained by a coterie of connoisseurs in the century after his death. There are stories of the Brandenburg manuscript being discovered after it was used as wrapping for fresh meat, and later being saved under the coat of a librarian who escaped a train under aerial bombardment in World War II.

I don't know if those legends are true, but I do know from personal history that valleys can look like pinnacles with enough time and dedication. Steinberg was an art historian of the Renaissance--he would have been tickled by last week's news of doctors discovering an organ that Leonardo had described 500 years earlier [5]--but he turned his gaze to the art growing up around him in New York in the 1950s. Steinberg wrote a review of my father's artwork, which Glenn described so kindly, at a time when most galleries only showed artists from Paris. Only artists went to openings; superdealer-to-be Leo Castelli was just a guy who invited painters to his apartment for cocktails. Although the public audience for these creators was practically nonexistent, their private audience--the one that really sustained them--was indispensable.

Tomorrow I'm heading to NYU for an opening at the Grey Art Gallery that focuses on this fertile matrix. "Inventing Downtown" rediscovers the transformation of the art world by artist-run galleries in New York City from 1952 to 1965. My father co-founded one of the most important of these, and eventually other galleries joined in, bringing the world in the process the culmination of Abstract Expressionism and the birth of Pop art and Minimalism. The catalogue includes interviews by, of all people, Billy Kluver of Bell Labs/Experiments in Art and Technology. [6]

Yasminers in New York Monday afternoon are welcome to shoot me an email--I'd love to meet.

Jon Ippolito
Professor and Program Coordinator, New Media
Co-director, Still Water
Director, Digital Curation graduate program
The University of Maine

[1] You can find a relevant excerpt of Steinberg's 1972 book at

[2] Nochlin's essay focused on women artists was originally published in ARTnews in January 1971, and now mirrored at

[3] Dietz's 1999 update of Nochlin's text for Internet artists can be found at

[4] Although this phrase 19th-century musical editor Hans Georg Nägeli applied to Bach's B-minor Mass has been echoed by countless commentators, the preferred accolade seems to be "pinnacle," as reflected by the 27,000 Google search returns on the phrase "bach b-minor mass pinnacle."

[5] "Another organ has been hiding in your belly all along,"

[6] "Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965,"

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