Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#3 Marga Bijvoet 1 Jan 1990

Postmodern Currents

Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media

Margot Lovejoy, u.m.i. Research Press, Ann Arbor/ London 1989 isbn o-83571904-9, E. text, PP. 333


Postmodern Currents -

Lovejoy's publication explores in detail the growing impact of video, computer, and photocopier technology on aesthetic experience and examines the emerging role of the artist as social communicator, we are told on the front flap.

In her preface Lovejoy writes that the book is meant to be a survey designed to make connections - to penetrate the morass of issues and historical detail, to find pathways which cross over fields to reveal a structure which, like a Mayan monument covered by jungle growth and long hidden by neglect, is suddenly revealed for what it is.
Encouraged by these profound words, 1 continued reading in the hope that they would indeed reveal new insights and visions on the why and wherefore of the relationship between art and the electronic media now being investigated by artists, as well as what exactly constitutes the enormous influence of these media on the aesthetic perception of the viewer. One reads about this in every article on the subject, without ever really being enlightened.

Lovejoy has divided her book into two parts. Part one - Sources - chronologically describes a number of historical periods and art movements during which the influence of technical innovations on the visual arts made itself strongly felt. These include the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the Nineteenth Century with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the camera and the Twentieth Century with its various movements marked by dominant technological influence - Dada, Bauhaus, Futurism. Constructivism, Art and Technology, Kinetics, and the new electronic media. Lovejoy very briefly describes all these developments, which makes this part of the book seem like a long introduction to the real issues dealt with in part two Systems. Here she discusses three new electronic media, the copier, the computer and video, and their utilization in the arts. She ends with a final chapter on Future Currents.

Although the book reads well and is written in an easy fluent style, there are major problems having to do with the way in which developments and issues requiring analysis and explanation are presented as statements. By chosing the ‘large picture’, the overview, there is always a danger of superficiality, of broad sweeping statements which may be correct in themselves but which require in depth exploration.

Unfortunately, Lovejoy has fallen victim to this trap. A survey is of necessity concise. Conciseness, however, requires a precision which is lacking here. What does it mean when it says with respect to the contribution of the camera toward the development of abstraction: It provided impetus toward abstraction; alternation from positive to negative planes and forms; microcosmic and cosmic views of the universe, and gave substance to arbitrary thought in the context of time/space through the moving image? (p. 46). Which microcosmic and cosmic views? Time/space what? Or, regarding the deep-rooted influence of the new electronic imaging technologies: Not only had these media invaded and changed the very fabric of public life by the mid-seventies, but they had also began to play an integral part in altering perceptions and attitudes about the structure of art and its production and dissetnination. (p. 91) Invaded and changed how? In what way are our perceptions and attitudes altered? Lovejoy's statements raise the very questions she set out to answer.

Had she used her description of current developments, for example, as a starting point for a detailed analysis of the forms and formalisms that are the aesthetic results of the introduction of these new electronic media, she might have come to some insight or conclusion which would indeed have shown the connections or revelations she was looking for.

Instead she starts out from the theories of Walter Benjamin, of whom she has obviously only read his famous The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Author as Producer - in translation. However, in so doing one should at least seriously discuss its content and context, as well as the existing critiques. Lovejoy quotes the sections that validate her point of view, without paying attention to the idea that she might actually disrupt the original intentions of Benjamin. Frankly, it is rather irritating to see Walter Benjamin quoted in this manner. The same is true in the case of other authors who are frequently misinterpreted in the United States, such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, mainly because one has read only that particular article or book always read in translation, without being familiar with the respective theories they have developed over time and the context in which they should be read.

This brings me to another frequent problem of American publications that should be mentioned, and is also relevant here: many American writers do not read foreign languages nor do they appear to have access to foreign publications in some other way, which again may result in omissions, or even in incorrect analysis or conclusions. Postmodern Currents is held to present an overview of historical and current developments in the use of electronic media in the arts. However, in the second part of her book, Margot Lovejoy restricts herself to art and artists from the United States only, as if the developments in Europe came to a sudden halt after the Second World War. I can understand that it must have been difficult to select examples of works. Yet, that there might be some European artists involved in quite innovative aesthetic use of electronic media seems to have escaped her. Neither does Lovejoy seem to be familiar with foreign theoretical expositions on theories of photography and film (by Arnold Hauser, Siegfried Kracauer) or with recent theoretical/philosophical expositions on the new technologies of, for example. Vilem Flusser (Fiir eine Philosophie der Photographic, or Ins Universum der technischen Bilder), Friedrich Kittler (Grammophon, Film, Typewriter), Wolfgang Preikschat (Video, Poesie der neuen Medien), or with the various essays concerning these issues in Cahiers du Cinema, Paris, or even with publications adherent to recent festivals on electronic media and the arts, Otherwise she would not have been seduced into claiming that technology has been treated as such a taboo, or film is not included in art history.

One may conclude that Postmodern Currents cannot function as a survey or as a framework of reference for the uninitiated reader who wishes to become acquainted with this particular phenomenon, because it simply does not give the information essential for a general overview. For the informed scholar, the book is methodically unsound, as it uses underlying theories incorrectly, and even presents the reader with conclusions that do not derive from hypothesis and consequent analysis which make it theoretically valueless.