Beginning with the first stirrings of Pop art in the mid-1950s, postmodernism in the "visual arts" was a deliberate rejection of previous modernist practice, theory, and criticism--in particular, of Abstract Expressionism and the formalist criticism of Clement Greenberg. Reaction followed reaction in rapid succession: happenings, conceptual art, photorealism, earth art, assemblage, video art, performance art, installation art, and appropriation art, to name but a few. Often the results have not been discrete visual objects at all.
No other aspect of postmodernism has more profoundly or pervasively undermined the practice of the visual arts in the years since the early 1960s than the notion of so-called conceptual art. As defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988), the term refers to "various forms of art in which the idea for a work is considered more important than the finished product, if any" [more]. Like Pop art [see pp. 265-70], conceptual art was initially a reaction against the meaninglessness of abstraction. Whereas Pop artists mainly rejected the expressionist pretensions of recent abstract art, conceptual artists are more concerned with repudiating the formalist view of abstraction promulgated by Clement Greenberg. In a perverse kind of dialectic, however, they embrace the opposite pole of a false dichotomy. Greenberg's formalism had mistakenly predicated esthetic forms emptied of ideas and meaning. Conceptual art abandons esthetic forms entirely--in favor of "ideas."
Like other purported twentieth-century innovations in the arts, conceptual art rests on a set of false assumptions, about human perception and cognition, about the nature (and purpose) of art, and about the properties of the various art forms.
Since the late 1960s, when Sony first introduced an inexpensive, portable video camera, video has been a preferred medium in the postmodernist artworld. "Whether you like it or not, video art marks the twenty-first century," a Manhattan art dealer informed Forbes magazine in 1996. "Young people who want to be artists aren't interested in painting anymore. They grew up captivated by TV, not paintings." There is another, perhaps more important, reason, of course: anyone can make a video--though (as the appalling quality of most "video art" attests) few people can make one worth anyone else's time to look at.
Like other postmodernist forms, video art is virtually impossible to define. According to the Dictionary of Art, it employs "the apparatus and processes of television and video" and can take many forms--from "recordings that are broadcast . . . or distributed as tapes or discs" to "sculptural installations, which may incorporate one or more television receivers or monitors, displaying 'live' or recorded images and sound" to "performances in which video representations are included." . . .
Most video art makes no attempt at narrative or story-telling of any kind--when one remembers that, as Rand emphasized, "story" (or plot) implies a logical progression of events.
As Johanna Drucker approvingly observed a few years ago in an issue of Art Journal (of which she was guest editor) devoted the visual arts and technology, "the ready availability of digital manipulation in a wide variety of media . . . has put the tools of electronic art within reach of an ever growing number of artists" [Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology, special issue of Art Journal, Fall 1997]. She further noted that the personal computer, "a novelty fifteen years ago, is now a standard item . . . in art schools, professional studios, and, increasingly, galleries and museums." Drucker regarded this as progress. During the decade she considered, however, so-called electronic art, under whatever rubric--whether computer art, internet art, cyber art, web art, digital art, interactive art, interface art, video art, or robotic art--produced nothing that qualifies as art, in the sense defined by Rand and presented here. As Drucker concludes, "art making remains the same no matter what the medium," and the "age-old functions of art . . . remain what they have always been. . . ." Or, as the old song by Herman Hupfeld reminds us: "The fundamental things apply / As time goes by." What "applies" in the case of art are its defining attributes. The arts of the infinite future, regardless of technological advances, will not differ essentially from what they were in prehistory when man painted images of animals on the walls of caves, carved the human figure, told stories, and made music on flutes. They will, above all, be intelligible. To be art, the art of the future must make sense. We are optimistic that at some near time in the twenty-first century, the arts will undergo a renaissance, as the bogus forms of the twentieth, and the empty theories that have sustained them, recede into the background. . . .
Our treatment of the intersection betweeen art and technology in What Art Is (reprinted above) was necessarily brief, owing to limitations of space and time. Interested readers can keep abreast of the latest developments in this field by reading Matthew Mirapaul's "Arts Online" column, published on alternate Mondays in the New York Times--as well as other articles by him. None of the work he has discussed thus far qualifies as "art" in the sense discussed in What Art Is. At the Times website, search for "Mirapaul," then click on "Sort by Newest First" for a list of columns and articles. The complete text of a piece is accessible at no charge for one week following publication, and may be purchased for a nominal fee thereafter. (One-time registration is required for access to the Times website, with an option for rejecting all e-mail notices and advertisements.)
What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). Copyright is held by the authors.