by Brett Stalbaum

"Two situations, both critical and insoluble. One is the total worthlessness of contemporary art. The other is the impotence of the political class in front of Le Pen."


In an essay entitled " A Conjuration of Imbeciles "1, Jean Baudrillard suggests a similarity between contemporary art and contemporary French politics. He does not discuss art at all, preferring to instantiate the idea of art to serve as a metaphor for his analysis of politics. Conversely, French politics is positioned as a metaphor for contemporary art. The essay's commentary is that 1), the energies and strategies of the French left have dissipated into a vapid pedagogy, and 2) the strategies of artists have dissipated and become similarly impotent. The end results are the left's unwitting culpability in supporting the rise of the "Savage analysis" of the far right, and a similar unwitting culpability on the part of contemporary artists in their own worthlessness. As his critique of the French left proceeds, so does his critique of art:

It has become a purely moralistic... structure, a representative of universal values, a sacred holder of the reign of Virtue, and an incarnation of antiquated values such as Good or Truth. It now acts as a jurisdiction which asks everyone to act responsibly while still granting itself the right to remain irresponsible...

In this essay I wish to explore and ground this particular postmodern sense of the post-usefulness of art in relation to art practice as it is emerging on the world wide web. In trying to fill in some of the gaps relative to art left by Baudrillard in "A Conjuration of Imbeciles", I turn to some of his theoretical writing. I examine the modernist formulation of art and artistic identity and show how these are playing out on the web. In considering the recent emergence of the avant-garde or formalist strategy of web art, I position the movement as simultaneously derivative of modernism, and as a sophisticated pastiche of a historical model which successfully positions the web as a medium; not merely a form of documentation. I conclude with an analysis of the social role that art can play on the www in terms of Faucaultian "Technologies" of production, sign system, domination and self. Here I suggest a turn toward sign systems.

Deterrence machinery: art simulations as incantations to resurrect the dead

To understand Baudrillard's critique of art (either to support it or take it to task), we need to look at some of his other theory. In Simulacra and Simulations2 he theorizes a new set of foundations for social experience, which when stripped of some of his more extreme conclusions forms the basis of a useful critical perspective with which to treat the the issue of art on the world wide web. The basic idea is that models of the real have become more fundamental than the real:

It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory-precession of simulacra (1) (italics his)

Based on this, Baudrillard theorizes contemporary social space as one in which meaning and foundations of difference based on the real implode. For example, all distinction between the political behavior of the right and the left is lost, but the model survives in a state more real than real. The implosion of the real and the power of the model then become the dominant social facts in the construction of existence and being, and simulation becomes the central process through which this "hyperreal" is mediated. The explication of simulation as culturally central has serious consequences for the evaluation of art on the web, specifically because the web is a major and expanding cultural center of simulation. If the imposition of simulacra as a prescient model (no longer as second order representation) is a phenomena that applies to art at all, it surely applies to art as it is represented in the world wide web.

Steven Best and Douglas Kellner3 point out that when the theory is pushed to its (hyper)logical extremes, as is Baudrillard's tendency, it closes off social and even physical phenomena which are readily observable.

Baudrillard argues that the masses become bored and resentful of their constant bombardment with messages...[and] thus become a sullen silent majority in which all meaning, messages, and solicitations implode as if sucked into a black hole. The social thus disappears and with it distinctions between classes, political ideologies, cultural forms...(121)

While we can analyze such collapse of meaning in many kinds of social events and ideas, it is nevertheless clear that the social world is still grounded in economics and distribution. Certainly these concepts, (implosive cultural meaning and representation on one hand; the social distribution of wealth on the other), are interconnected as parts of a complex fabric. This means, for the purpose of analysis, that Baudrillard's theory is simultaneously vital, and yet inadequate in how it deals with productive and distributive forces in the economy.

How is art manifested in this implosive space of "meaning, messages, and solicitations"? The important notion to glean from Baudrillard is that simulation serves a social purpose: simulation masks its own hyperreality. The simulacra or map overtook the real in order of social importance, while simultaneously deterring a social awareness of their role in doing so. In Simulacra and Simulations Disneyland is analysed as such a simulacra which serves to reconstitute the real:

Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the "real" country, all of the "real" America that is Disneyland... The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp. (13, italics mine)

Based on this idea, the critical perspective which emerges regarding art on the world wide web forms around this question: to what extent does representation on the world wide web which positions itself as art act as deterrence machinery to reify art, artists and art practices as real? Under an analysis of art on the WWW as a deterrence machinery, the simulacra on the web serves a similar function as does Disneyland in Baudrillard's example: art on the web functions to conceal the fact that it is the rest of the artworld that is "Worthless". Art as represented on the web, the hundreds of museum, gallery, education and working artist sites, serve to conceal that it is art practice itself that is dead. A perhaps more accurate way of positioning art within such an analysis is that art is an impotent cultural form living on artificial life support through art administration and institutions. Art in this sense, on the web or in the world4, exists to rejuvenate the fiction of art. This notion of art as living meaninglessly on artificial life support impacts a variety (perhaps a plurality), of less theoretical social perspectives.5 It would be sad if artists were the last people to either understand or accept that this analysis has both enough theoretical validation and public support to undercut the cultural impact of almost anything called art. If this were the case, there would be no time to escape what amounts to a burning house.

There is, however, a way to view this situation so that the precession of models leads to an understanding capable of enabling routes of escape. There are deeper level models invested in the figure of the artist which need to be drawn out and eviscerated. These are for the most part related to the latent selfhoods of artistic identity from the modern era. This basically Faucaultian critique emerges from the idea that art is a historically determined notion based on practices and objects, which in art's case also meet various semiotic conditions. The gallery, the museum, the materials, the objects, the patronage and the simulacra which form the art market are then seen not as deterrence machinery but rather as social practices which emerge from complex and contingent conditions. The focus then changes from contemporary art's worthlessness to how it can be made useful again. In this sense it is not enough to say that art is catatonic, but rather to understand how contemporary postmodern/postindustrial contingencies effect art practice and to situate that practice strategically within them.

Habitual modernism as the root of all worthlessness

Theorizing art practice on the world wide web is problematic because the intersection of 'art' and 'the world wide web' introduces multiple and discursive fields of inquiry into the questions at hand. The western concept of 'art' has been theoretically reconsidered in a variety of guises related to the postmodern turn.(2)6 When combined with the emergence of the internet as a serious social and economic force as well as the accompanying identity issues raised by it, the increasingly unavoidable question that arises for artists is "What strategy do I employ in relation to this thing?" For the most part artists and art institutions have evaluated the web as marketing tool, either to sell objects or bring people past the ticket window.7 In this sense, the web is not used for art expression beyond what words and pictures can document about objects and practices that lie outside of the internet.

An expanded way to look at the situation is to consider how closely this strategy of marketing is a reflection of modernist constructions of what art is. Mary Anne Staniszewski provides us with a clear description of modernism in the arts:

Art-as-we-know-it is an emblem of [the] rights of modern subjecthood. In modernity, visual culture does not embody the mysteries of myth and ritual conjured by powers beyond humanity. It is not produced upon the command of the church or crown. Its marker does not subscribe to the dictates of an academy run by the state. Traditionally, great modern Art is made by one creator, who is inspired to produce it. This kind of inspiration has been understood as the rare gift of genius.

Art functions as a demonstration of its maker's freedom, and it exemplifies the modern subject's right to own something and exchange it. A work of art has traditionally been seen as the artist's absolute property, a surrogate for and realization of his or her essential self. The artwork when exhibited and exchanged within the "free market" acquires meaning and value.(104)8

That art making is an act that springs from "inspiration", that it is the result of "genius", and that such art is "rare" roughly form the nexus of modernist assumptions and beliefs regarding art which many people, especially artists, hold very closely. That art is also a product of worth in the market place, and that it derives its value relative to that marketplace are equally common assumptions. On the web these assumptions are both reproduced verbatim and simultaneously challenged by the ontologically implosive method of reproduction and distribution. It is easy to see in the most typical of art sites, (the individual artist's homepage or 'gallery'), a clear focus on the individual artist as both the inspired creative wellspring from which the work emerges, as well as explicite reference to the value-added nature of the production via its position in the marketplace as an aesthetic product. One example:

"My intent in painting the landscape is to center myself in the presence of nature so that each painting might emanate Its energy. I strive to make paintings that are an open door to the experience of nature rather than simply a representation of it."

"Prices available by phone, regular mail, & email."

Here we see that the artist is central to the work, acting as a kind of medium (in the paranormal sense), mediating an experience between the viewer and other worlds, in this case "nature." And of course it is a mediated experience through an object which is for sale. The specific problems here are that the experience of nature is culturally determined just as the experience of art is, and by painting a reference to it, then further pushing it into the hyperreal by scanning it and posting it on the web, the artist is constructing an idea of art from modern models unstrategically and without reference or relevance to contemporary social contingencies. There is no question raised about whether landscape painting, electronically presented on the web, is a productive sign system which could ever actually mediate an experience with nature. (It's an equally valid question whether a painting can accomplish this.) The role of the artist is here assumed from a vast cultural pool of unquestioned knowledge about what artists do.

Art institutions maintain a very similar dependence on these notions of modern artistic persona and value-added commodification. The only differences in the web practice of, for example, an individual painter and a museum, is that the museum web site also serves to promote the quality of the institution's collection, curatorial expertise, art knowledge, historical value and the general quality of experience a consumer should expect in terms of the institution being a tourist destination. But the museum system is nevertheless dependent on the cultural expectations surrounding art and artists, and these are still grounded to a large extent in the same modernist notions which focus on individual achievement. As such, a museum's collection is as much a collection of names as it is works. The focus of research, curation, cultural/recreational value and the marking of historical significance is pointed to by the one-of-a-kind products of important artists.

It may be fair for the reader to object at this point that I take to task fairly soft targets such as the museum system (which is perhaps maligned by contemporary critics far more than is fair), and landscape painting. I do so only to make a point. The reader should take a break and spend some time looking at sites to see if my characterization of art on the www as primarily based on a philosophically modernist figure of the artist rings true. The following links are to Yahoo!'s categories10:
(see also appendix 1 and appendix 2 )

'Pastiching' the modernist avant-garde: a postmodern strategy

Sensing the limitations of contemporary art on the web, a number of artists have created sites which incorporate more sophisticated strategies which fall under the nevertheless modernist rubric of formalism. It is both productive and ironic that these sites turn to a specific historical manifestation of modernism as an escape avenue. The strategy of formal sites involves the exploration of the HTTP protocol, HTML, and browser specific features as a unique medium in a Greenbergian sense:

The avant-garde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape-not a picture- is aesthetically valid; something is given, increate, independent of meanings, similars, or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself...

In turning his attention away from subject-matter or common experience, the poet or artist turns it upon the medium of his own craft... These themselves become the subject matter of art and literature.(23, italics mine)11

Such sites, via the formal exploration of the www as medium, may employ a feature of the web such as navigation via hypertext (which was designed to clearly and quickly provide management of and access to information), and repurpose it to instead obscure navigation inside of hypertext spaces where the information is no longer contextualized as information. Such a strategy may force the viewer to navigate through non-obvious or even totally random links which lead to further abstractions.

Other features common to formal sites include user interface tricks (fake buttons and menus as examples), use and repurpose of data from outside the site elsewhere on the web, the redisposition of data into alternate MIME types (Example: parsing the data of a JPEG and presenting it as gibberish text instead of an image), improperly sized images to form abstract visuals, secret messages, hidden meanings, (sometimes in the form of the meta-structure of the site yet obscured by the opacity involved in navigating or viewing it), and the alternate, extended, 'wrong' or 'creative' use of HTML or browser features to achieve unexplored effects in ways which were not intended in HTML or by browser design. Stated far too simply but conveniently: web formalism is the use of the web for the web's sake. The most important of such sites seems to be jodi .12

The application of this art-of-the-web strategy is dependent nevertheless on a closely related modernist conception. This dependency is the discourse of the avant-garde, where it is the artist's role to drive the medium, conquer new aesthetic territory and open his/her audience to new experiences. The only difference between this and the strategy of the avant-garde in painting is one of media. Whereas one can view historical examples of avant-garde painting as simulacra on the web, formal art of the web reuses the strategy of avant-gardist painting via implementation of a variety of web protocols and techniques. But, implemented as they are in the web context of art systems on life support, the return of the avant-garde in its of-the-web manifestation serves as a marker delineating a division between the application of habit and the application of ideas. In this sense, web formalism is not a reification of the modernist subject, but rather an oppositional and strategic pastiche of a modernist conceptual framework intended to self-referentially conquer a living territory.

But as with many things postmodern, this strategy could be easily subsumed and reincorporated. It is reasonable to assert that just as the avant-garde in painting was eventually deflated by minimalism and short circuited by the closed loops of post-modernist appropriation, so too will web-formalism enter into the socio-cultural circuitry of art and be imitated to death, reappearing on life support as deterrence machinery. Jodi, for example, is very important in terms of repositioning the web as a medium, but there are already signs of it taking its place in art history through art institutions. In the end it may be easily reabsorbed as a brilliant example of art to be imitated endlessly. This may in small part be due to its debt to the modernist avant-garde. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the real achievement of web formalism is to refocus art practice on the www as conceptually based.

Moving away from art as a technology of the self

There are certainly many ways of correctively approaching the problem of post-usefulness in the arts. Perhaps the first hurdle is to understand that the arts, virtual or in the world of objects, have been valued based not on their own terms but rather by various 'markets'. Art's value in any cultural or productive system of economics is a result of the complex interplay of technologies, resources, production, distribution and thought. Michel Foucault has perhaps been the most influential thinker in terms of staking out genealogical methodologies through which to analyze such contingencies. Late in his career Foucault began to look at ancient Greek, Roman and Christian documents in an attempt to locate the emergence of and changes in the ancient sense of individuality and self. In "Technologies of the Self"(16)13, he discusses ways in which human self-knowledge has developed and the methods or "Technologies" through which self-knowledge is formed. He describes four basic types of these technologies:

1) technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform or manipulate things; 2) technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols, or signification; 3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; 4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality.(18)

This paradigm is applicable to an analysis of the post-useful problem in contemporary art. One note to make in the course of this evaluation is that these technologies overlap, often serving social purposes described by more than one of the above categories. Therefore their usefulness as critical categories is not individual, but is rather in their disposition as influences relative to cultural forms and socio-economic developments. Technologies of sign systems, for example, have always played an important role in facilitating technologies of production. As the written word, for example, dispersed knowledge via the printing press, it played a role in spreading technologies of production; facilitating widening production and communication and eventually culminating in the various phases of industrial revolution through today.

Our current postindustrial situation is then best described as an exponential increase in the importance of technologies of sign systems in the control of production, the application of power through telematic control systems, and in the sign's dispersion into technologies of the self through discourses of consumption. Sign technologies are not only increasingly situated as advanced control systems for the other technologies, but have ascended to the status of being economically central activity. As pure electronic simulacra, signs have attained the status of hyper-product. Cinema and television are old phenomena in this respect. Software, currently the privileged paradigm of hyper-production, is an active sign system(s) capable of execution, further productive behavior, interaction with people, and perhaps even autonomous agency. Used either in management analysis or in the automation of human tasks, computers are adding new efficiencies to the economy. The sign systems called software are the major force behind this phase of the industrial revolution.

The cultural conception of art, by contrast, functions primarily as a technology of the self in that it is still largely conceived in terms of the modernist model of art as a "surrogate for and realization of his or her essential self."14 This contribution of the "essential self", (justifying the high value added nature of the art product), is the same enlightenment era impulse in western thought which Foucault has isolated in the emergence of the self after Christian asceticism. During this time, the confessional technologies of Christianity which were intended to purify the soul and facilitate disciplinary systems, were largely replaced by technologies of the self which foreground the self's individuality and autonomy:

From the eighteenth century to the present, the techniques of verbalization have been reinserted in a different context by the so-called human sciences in order to use them without the renunciation of the self but to constitute, positively, a new self.(49)15

This "new self" of the eighteenth century became the basis for what we now habitually assume in the arts. These once revolutionary notions of art mediated by the modern self do not produce the same revolutionary results within economic paradigms where technologies of sign systems function as active productive agents. The general failure of art and artists to engage in active productive agency within technologies of production and power show contemporary art practice to lie ontologically closer to technologies of the self. Examples of this tendency include improvement of the self through the study or consumption of art as 'high culture' (expressing the sophisticated tastes of upper class aspiration), the expression of 'revolutionary' aesthetic forms or quest for metaphysical ideals, the use of artistic self-identification to enable or excuse certain typed artistic behaviors such as angst, madness or self-destructive practices, and finally in discourses such as art therapy where the modernist notion of self-expression is utilized as a mental health treatment.

It is exactly these kinds of art discourse which I isolate as representative of the post-useful problem. As paid industrial work increasingly shifts from working on objects to the active application of knowledge to the design, control and maintenance of production and disciplinary systems, art and artists as we thought of them under modernism lose most of their creative charm and social status. It is not a matter of talent, genius or necessarily even meaning within aesthetic domains where we should conjure the status of art, but rather in art as a knowledge work capable of agency within the postindustrial economy. To put the point into Foucault's paradigm, (ignoring his conclusions), art needs to move toward and engage with technologies of sign systems and their implementation in productive forces. One might speculate based on this that it is on the internet (which is broader than but inclusive of the world wide web), where much of this art work will find its expression.

I by no means wish to indicate any sense of pessimism regarding this art as knowledge work strategy. The cynicism and bitterness often expressed in post-structuralist critiques such as those made by Baudrillard both accurately characterize the contemporary art problem, and fail to offer solutions. It would be as flawed a strategy to dismiss the postmodern critique of art as it is to only raise the critique cynically in terms of art's death. I know many artists who are in denial on this point. What can not be said often enough is that the postmodern state of art is not grim. The re-coding of cultural software through many means, including even traditional forms such as painting, can become conceptually based productive activities once they are rethought and repurposed. This situation wherein the western social conception of art and its vast complex of semiotic signifiers can unjoin, dissipate and connect with other discourses in a knowledge practice is necessary and exciting.

Appendix 1

An archive of the Yahoo! index as of July 1997. I assume, as with all things internet, that the development of art expression online will change to some degree as time passes. The archive will both serve as a documentation of the context in which I am working now, and an interesting archeological artifact.

Appendix 2

An archive of the index as of July 1997.


1 This article originally appeared as "La conjuration des imbeciles" in Liberation on May 7, 1997. Translated by Francois Debrix. Francois Debrix is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Theory and International Relations at Purdue University. Available on the WWW at Ctheory .

2Baudrillard, Jean Simulacra and Simulations Stanford University Press, ed Mark Poster c1988

3Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations the Guilford Press 72 Spring Street NY NY 10012 c1991

4I'm thinking of Thomas Kinkade .

5Note American right wing attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts: both for supporting expression which they don't favor, and their view of art as an unimportant practice not worth Federal tax dollars.

6ibid. Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations

7Art schools and university art departments have employed the exact same strategy, using the the web as a way to market their academic programs.

8Staniszewski, Mary Anne Believing is Seeing, Creating the Culture of Art 1995 Penguin Books USA Inc. 375 Hudson, NY, NY, 10014

9I personally believe that the museum system is in a healthy if awkward process of change. As for landscape painting, students (myself included) in the CADRE institute and director Joel Slayton have shown that it to can be reevaluated and repurposed.

10The Yahoo! categories are selected here because the categorization process used at Yahoo! reflects the categorical intentions of those who wish to have their sites listed. Of course, there are many other ways to search the web for art expression. See: " Art on the Internet and the Mediating influence of the search engine " Switch Vol.3 #1 Spring 1997.

11Greenberg, Clement "Avant-Garde and Kitsch", Partisan Review vol vi, #5 Fall 1939 pp 34-39 reprinted in Frascina, Francis Pollock & After the Critical Debate, c1985

12 jodi is a web project by Heemskerk and Paesmans.

13Ed. Martin, Luther H., Gutman, Huck, and Hutton, Patrick H., Technologies of the Self, A Seminar with Michel Foucault, The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst MA, c1988

14ibid. Staniszewski, Mary Anne Believing is Seeing, Creating the Culture of Art

15ibid. Ed. Martin, Luther H., Gutman, Huck, and Hutton, Patrick H., Technologies of the Self, A Seminar with Michel Foucault

I want to mention the influence on this essay of the rest of the contributors to this issue of Switch. Much of what is discussed here emerged for me in our weekly meetings over the course of this summer. Also thanks to Joel Slayton, director of the CADRE institute and executive editor for Switch, Kari Stalbaum and Geri Wittig for proof reading, and to Paula Poole for her input.
©1997 Brett Stalbaum

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