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Defined straightforwardly, video art is that visual art created using video cameras. As Michael Rush points out in his superbly well-illustrated survey history, the medium’s creation can be dated very precisely: the video era was inaugurated when in 1965 Sony Corporation marketed a financially available hand-held camera and portable tape recorder. As he then goes on to note, this novel technology was soon put to use by a great number of artists.
Video Art is organized around three themes. Video is used by artists to extend their own bodies, to expand “the possibilities of narrative” (9), and in conjunction with other forms of technology. In pursuit of these goals, Rush argues, video extends the traditions of Pop art, Minimalism, and various other recent art forms. Feminists, political artists, and people interested in television and film found it a fruitful medium. Rush describes the links of video with the writings of Marshall McLuhan, its relationship with the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and its employment of Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock at work. He provides a clear history of video into the immediate present, identifying all of the leading practitioners.
What is missing here a conceptual framework, some productive definition of the essence of video. Until we know what video art is, we can neither fully understand its revolutionary impact nor comprehend its relationship to older art forms. Video art cannot be defined merely by its use of video cameras, for home movies and television documentaries made with these same cameras are not video art. Nor can it be defined by reference to its content, for it is easy to imagine some documentary photographer making images like those Rush describes. When, for example, in Through the Night Softly (1973) Chris Burden showed himself crawling “across a stretch of glass-strewn concrete” (147), a police camera might capture that same scene. But unlike surveillance footage, Burden’s film is a work of art.
Video art is best defined in relation to its context. Video artists present visual narratives, often with sound accompaniment, on television monitors or in darkened rooms with screens often as large as those in movie theaters. Television and movies entertain. Video is serious high art employing moving images. You go out to see a film and stay home to watch television, but you view video art at the museum or in the gallery. What defines video art is thus its setting, not the physical medium itself. In the museum, you expect something more than mere visual pleasure. Art videos present the phenomenology of everyday experience, experiment with nonstandard narratives, or offer political critiques of mass media. Unlike film or television, such video usually avoids straightforward storytelling or well-trained actors. Artists show themselves or their friends, in their studios or on the street, frequently in unscripted situations. We contemplate paintings and sculptures, but are riveted by videos. Set a merely mediocre video near even a great painting, and the still image can hardly compete. When viewing moving images, you are hardly aware of anything else nearby.
Video is an answered prayer for curators, for it allows young artists to fill enormous exhibition spaces with eye-catching images. And it is therefore not surprising that many recent exhibitions include a great deal of video art. We use our personal computers daily, and so want similar technology in museums. Curators seek novel works of art as popular as film and television. Narrative has been all but expelled from much contemporary painting and sculpture; video art, however, often shows narratives in real time, thus aspiring, often enough, to play the role that was traditionally assigned to history painting. Technology is often understood in our larger culture in celebratory ways. But within the art world, video typically provides leftist commentary.
My sense of these issues was brought to a focus by a recent exhibition of film and videos from the 1960s and 1970s, many of them discussed by Rush in his book, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. For Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art, 1964–1977 (held October 18, 2001–January 27, 2002), nineteen vintage film, video, and slide installations were painstakingly reconstructed. Andy Warhol’s Lupe (1965) is a film on two screens starring Edie Sedgwick that reenacts the events leading to the suicide of a Hollywood star. Michael Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story (1974) depicts a woman seen from two perspectives, projected on screens visible only from opposite sides of the room. And Keith Sonnier’s Channel Mix (1972) displayed live television images with split-screen projections on opposite walls of the gallery. When television is boring, I change channels, and when a film is tedious, I leave the theater. I stayed with the Whitney’s films and videos for a long time, long enough to observe how few other viewers also did the same. Most people, myself included, are much more willing to tolerate boredom in the art gallery or museum than when watching television. If we had home televisions with such large screens and good sound systems, video art would not attract so much attention.
The issues surrounding video have been laid out recently in debate between the philosophers Arthur C. Danto and Alexander Nehamas. Danto argues that what he calls disturbational art, which seeks to bring about “real transformations through charged artistic enactments” by breaking down the barriers between mere representation and life, is no longer possible.1 Once, as Friedrich Nietzsche claims in The Birth of Tragedy (1871), art aspired to magically present visions. Spectators at the theater thought that they saw apparitions of their gods. Ancient Greek tragedy thus was a disturbatory art. But now, as Danto notes, artistic representations are mere representations. The very extreme paintings of Leon Golub are no more truly disturbing than Oedipus Rex, which has now become mere literature.
Agreeing with Danto that disturbatory art cannot be found in our museums, Nehamas urges that mass art still retains this primordial power. Regarding television, he writes, “The distinction between representation and reality is constantly and interestingly blurred by television—literally an art that has not yet become art—and that truly disturbs its audience…. As a medium, television is still highly transparent…. Television clearly convinces us on many occasions that what we see in it is precisely what we see through it.”2 Nehamas makes a basic distinction between high art and mass art. We respond to mass-art representations, to some degree, as if to reality. Popular arts are transparent, which is to say that what we see in them is exactly what we see through them. High art is not transparent—it is art seen as art. The most highly developed work at the Whitney, Joan Jonas’s Mirage (1976), a two-screen movie that juxtaposes images of Jonas dancing and performing in the street with news footage of the day, could hardly compete with the better contemporary commercial films. But, as I have argued, museum art does not seek to vie with mass art because it serves different goals.
In a gallery, you look from one painting to another, seeing how the artist’s body of work adds up. In a museum, you walk through galleries chronologically, first seeing High Renaissance art, then going on to the Baroque and Neoclassical. It is very natural to compare and contrast several paintings in one gallery. And even when you focus closely on one painting, you are peripherally aware of the other nearby works of art. As you move forward and back, you become aware of your place within the room. High art thus wears its place in history on its face. Viewing video, by contrast, you sit while the pictures move. Often, it seems, the speed of motion within the sequence of pictures is meant to compensate for the forced immobility of the viewer. Even when the individual images are banal, the sequence of pictures generates visual excitement. And often each video is given a room to itself in order to eliminate visual distraction. Moving images feel powerful because they engage your total attention. Painting encourages fantasy play within the real art gallery or museum rooms. Film and television make narrated fantasy in an imaginary space transparent and compelling. What is most powerful about video is not the story told, or the pictorial content, but the bare experience of seeing images on large screens, often projected in dark enclosed spaces with room-filling sound. In this way, it is a curiously formal art form. Video’s greatest potential strength is its use of visual narratives employing engaging images.
I am much indebted to Rush’s marvelous book; reading it has inspired more philosophical reflections than any other writing I have recently done. Rush provides both rich documentary materials, essential for the historian of contemporary art, and grounds for a serious aesthetic investigation that, I hope, some other scholar will soon develop.
1 Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 122.
2 Alexander Nehamas, Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 292.