Analytic Table of Contents

Chapter 5: Contexts for Web Art


A room in the Louvre

Figure 5.1
A Hall in the Louvre
Corbis Corp.

At latest estimate, there are over three billion websites on line, most of them only a few clicks away. This is getting to be a very large ocean in which one's site is easily lost, or in which it may find strange, wildly unanticipated fellow fish. The Web offers wonderful possibilities for self-publication, but it offers them to almost everyone. Search engines work extraordinarily well to make relevant sites visible, but they only response to text items; there is no general scheme for indexing images. Foucault claimed that some regulation and restriction of discourses is necesssary if any are to have value: if all voices can be heard, how can we separate out the valuable, significant ones from the babble of all? How can one site be linked to others that provide a meaningful context for it? How can sites find viewers who have the background knowledge to interpret them in something like the right way? What will perform the functions of the gallery and museum system on the Web?

Our first task will be to review what those functions are, among which two are of particular interest: the ability to support "appropriation" by focusing our attention on images as examples of signifying practices, and the providing of a body of works deemed to be great, sometimes called the History of Art, which can be alluded to, parodied, and even remade. We have already touched on remakings by Jeff Wall and Calum Colvin, and we will develop this point further by looking at remakes of the "classics" by Barry Kite, Yasumasa Morimura, and Joel-Peter Witkin.

The image at the left of a grand hall in the Louvre reminds us how works, sometimes quite diverse, are clustered with viewers and configured in a space to be walked through in the classical museum. It is also intended to function as an emblem of the attempt to appropriate the classical museum and its treasures in the digital medium as an asset of a particular corporation. (Intended by me, that is, not Corbis.)

net.art is in many ways the antithesis of museum.art. It has in it a strong streak of anti-art which it inherits from Dada and the Conceptualists and a dream of using its unique distribution system to circumvent the exclusionary jury-gallery-museum apparatus. At the same time, it is acutely aware of the danger of disappearing into the vast sea of sites, and of the missing context and framing effects of the gallery. Net.art has no clear profile of who walks in its "doors," and it draws upon certain kinds of common experience (or experiences common to imagined net.art viewers), among which we can discern three: experiences of growing up, experiences of the mass media, and experiences of life on line.

It would be quite confining, however, for web artists to have to restrict themselves to learning and functioning in an emerging "global" culture. People's lives and experience unfold locally, and a good portion of the assumption of "common experience" may be a convenient fiction which casts viewers in the role of politically detached, technically smart, consumers. How net artists can engage their local cultural and political issues with "the Web" as an audience will be the subject of the third section.

5.1 museum.art

The museum-gallery system is the material and institutional basis of Fine Art. When you go to a gallery or museum, you expect to find certain unique material objects set out for you to look at for your pleasure and/or enrichment. You will most likely also find some text, printed or (increasingly) spoken, saying why each object is accorded the special treatment of being displayed. If the objects are offered for sale, you will also find a price attached and would upon rendering payment, receive a certificate of uniqueness and authenticity. Further, you might even receive a clipping from a local newspaper, city magazine, or art journal describing the exhibit and its contents.

The museum-gallery system focuses cultural attention on the works its experts select (and art-buyers buy). Art critics describe movements and schools of Art and successions of these; they sort out the original from the derivative and imitative; they discern influences and filiations. All of this work creates a context for artists and a set of reference points for placing and interpreting their works.

Section 1.4 discussed Martha Rosler's "The Bowery in Two Inadequate Representational Systems," which first appeared in book form, but was, she says, truly a gallery piece in its expectations of the viewer which include grasping that one of the inadequate representational systems was Walker Evans style documentary realism, with or without the human subjects whose experience cannot be photographed. The piece fits, that is, into a specific concern current in the 1970s about the truth or adequacy of photography to represent reality, a concern that she hopes would readily come to mind to gallery goers of that era. In anthologies and other contexts, the work depends more on its title than its context to help position the work, but the title is erudite and somewhat enigmatic. In addition, the work (24 framed pairs of image and words for drunks) is meant to be hung in a grid with four rows of six frame, contrasting with standard gallery display of the single, beautiful image. (Anthologies, collections, and on-line references often sample The Bowery down to a few illustrative image and text pairs.)


These meanings arise because the work was exhibited in galleries on the East and West coasts of the US numerous times in the late 1970s. They are harder to get from the original book publication, and serve as examples of how galleries can focus and activate relevant contexts for a work. Galleries can of course also create new meanings not perhaps intended by the artist. In the case at hand, Abigail Solomon-Godeau notes that Bowery was exhibited in 1985 in the Light Gallery with the work of a number of other "postmodern photographers" of quite different perspectives (Frank Majore and Stephen Frailey among others). (The Bowery was offered for sale--set only-- for $3500.) Solomon-Godeau does not regard this as an illuminating grouping for The Bowery, seeing it rather as a move in the formation of Post Modernism as a new "style" of photography regardless of the purposes or meanings of the individual photographers.


Gustave Courbet: The Origin of The World (1866)(artchive)

Figure 5.2
Gustave Courbet: The Origin of the World

The power of the museum-gallery system to frame something as art and thereby to generate strong readings has been noted by many. Emma Barker points out that when a certain painting of a woman's torso and pubic hair by Courbet came into the hands of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris recently, the museum was able to exhibit the work with few or no objections to its rather pornographic look. (Its title," L'Origine du monde," also frames it as homage.) Richard Howard also comments on this power of museum framing to allow looking at views which are quite generally suppressed outside of the walls of Art (84-7). In no other public place such as an office or hospital, Barker says, could such a painting have been hung without outcry. People do not choose to come to see paintings when they go to an office or hospital and so may experience art work they see there as forced upon them. The painting itself has been in private hands since 1866, when it was painted for the Turkish Ambassador and never shown in Salon. It presumably was one of those pieces that gentlemen showed their better male friends after dinner when the women had withdrawn. This line of thinking suggests that exhibiting it in a museum makes a shift not so much from pornography to art as from private to public. Museums are after all public places with very careful limitations on the views of the naked female body that it offers, among which at that time was the centuries-old convention of the smooth or hairless pubes. In any case, High Art had limits to the aesthetic gaze in the Second Empire. And of course during his lifetime Courbet had not yet become a classic figure. Now, however, as a striking work by one of the greats, this canvas becomes the focus of scholarly and critical study, as for example of its provenance. We now know that from 1955 to 1995 it was kept in Jacques Lacan's country house behind another painting, an abstract version of it, which was mounted on a sliding panel. This panel could be released by a secret switch to reveal the original canvas to those guests Lacan chose to favor with the view. His possession of the canvas was a closely guarded secret, giving an intensely focussed meaning to "exhibition value," and being so rich in implications that it provides the impetus for an entire book by Shuli Barzilai.

noticing, appropriation, and critique

More broadly, Solomon-Godeau points out that museum-gallery power to reframe underlies the practice of appropriation (discussed in relation to Victor Burgin and others in the third section of Chapter One. For further discussion of the term appropriation, see Robert S. Nelson's entry in Critical Terms ford Art History, pp. 116-128). Appropriation refers to the practice of copying an image (or part of an image) from a different sphere, often advertising, and displaying it in such a way as to suggest a different meaning for it than it was meant to bear in its original context. The cases discussed in Chapter One all involved the pairing of text and image, where each became the new immediate context for the other and helped to trigger the displaced meaning. A number of those cases did not directly involve exhibition in a gallery. Solomon-Godeau discusses the slightly different practices of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. Levine exhibited photographic copies she had made of famous photographs by recognized masters as her own work. Doing so clearly challenged notions of authorship, originality, and ownership then prevailing, and her aappropriations were defended and celebrated by several critics, notably Solomon-Godeau herself. As time passed, Levine grew uncomfortable with the intentions being ascribed to her work and announced that she had been misunderstood.

Richard Prince: Untitled (fashion  trio), 1977

Figure 5.3
Richard Prince: Untitled

Richard Prince was rephotographing images from advertising, most famously Marlboro Man Western scenarios with mounted cowboys, removing text, and exhibiting them. These photographs also were read by critics as critical takes on Reagan era images. Prince has gone on to do several other kinds of things as well, but most involve the appropriation of media images in ways that have seemed shrewd commentaries and critiques to some critics. 1 Other critics are not so sure. Solomon-Godeau remains convinced that Prince was critical, but considers other, "second generation" appropriators that seem to her merely to be playing with "looks" and styles with very little else in mind. An artist who appropriates is at the very least saying "Notice that" or, one might say, "Notice that as a practice of image-making." Such a noticing, Solomon-Godeau points out, is not in itself a critique, and the consciousness of medium arising from it is not necessarily subversive, particularly not today when the audiences for advertising are scarcely dupes. Indeed, it is perhaps as likely to foster complicity as resistance. Museum.art, it would seem, is more successful in generating significances and commentary than in presenting a focused single meaning and in general resists programs for art as critical social critique, if only because such programs find special value in works with a bearing on social and political life. For further discussion of gallery art that cites media images but without a discernable set of critical commitments, see John Welchman's Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s.