Michael Rush’s “New Media in Art”: A Review
In the 19th century the art world was shaken by the introduction of new technologies that threatened contemporary ideas of art and what people considered art to its core. Since then, there have been both major developments in the ways art is created and art theory. With each new step forward each development in one of these areas often required a change in the other, causing a steady march forward in adopted ideas and technology throughout the 20th century. In Michael Rush’s book New Media in Art(Second Edition, 2005), part of which was originally published in 1999 under the titleNew Media in Late 20th-Century Art, outlines the development of art being produced with a heavy emphasis on both theoretical and historical context. Rush’s authority on the effects of New media in art stems from his research into the origins and practices of video art, and as Henry and Lois Foster Director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Focusing on artists that chose to “explore, and often subvert, both the critical and technological potentials of the new media” in some cases furthering technological development instead of simply adopting existing artistic methods (9). In his book, Rush delineates the shift from a reluctance to acknowledge technology’s worth in the creation of art to a time in which expression and reflection of modern society can be accomplished more effectively by the inclusion and use of technology in art as it ponders the everyday experiences of billions worldwide.
Highlighting more recent the developments in technology, starting with that of photography in the 19th century, doesn’t necessarily mean that art had stagnated before that. Different methods of expression were developing on a day to day basis and increased popularity and access broadened the creative spectrum. With increased numbers of artists, art became more individualized and disagreements over what constituted art resulted in pockets of trailblazing men and women who laid the groundwork for a wider appreciation of technology driven expression. Instead of viewing things like cameras, computers and television with disgust, the artist saw these things as “simply part of his artistic process like paint or wood” (140).
New media in art began as a reflection of the capability to capture time. Beginning with Muybridge and his analyses of human and animal locomotion, artists adopted these ideas and paintings like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash began revealing themselves to an astonished audience. Although these pieces were created by the more traditional paint and canvas process their recognition as forward-thinking art work created a stir in the art world and allowed Duchamp and his new found fame to further test the boundaries of the artistic community. With his readymade objects setting the standard for the Dada art movement, he and his companions (Man Ray, Francis Picabia, and Kurt Schwitters, to name just a few) were boldly created the space needed for film and photography to be admired by a wider audience. Subsequently, technology like photography, film and computer art were being used in performance pieces on stage, in museums and on screen. Many pieces created during this time and throughout the 20th century included the voluntary or involuntary contribution of the viewers which tested their acceptance of the new media while exploring topics like surveillance, the homogenization of society and political turmoil; touching on an uncomfortable dichotomy of opinion on whether technology was inherently good or if it would ultimately used for evil.
In recent years, developments in computers have allowed for a wider range of effects in new media art as well as allowing for a wider adoption and democratization of its practice through programs like Adobe Photoshop and video editing software. Online art communities have flourished as well with the creation of public forums through which individuals can distribute their work (YouTube, deviantART, etc.). The creation of virtual worlds has sought to combine dream and reality in an aesthetically pleasing, participatory environment.
In conclusion, modern technology has become just another material that artists submit to their “poetic ideas” and a conduit through which these ideas are expressed by the current and easily recognizable media available today. A new era is upon us, one in which “spaceless, timeless and imageless experiences have entered the domain of art.” Interactivity and immersive artistic environments… are dictating a new discourse” (239). Rush has done an outstanding job of creating a thematic timeline of the course new media and art have taken over the last one hundred fifty years. Most of the text’s success lies in his careful selection of art pieces and artists who influenced the world both ideologically and artistically. The writing, at times, can read like a simple catalog of new media works and this reader would have liked more theoretical elaboration of certain points Rush makes about the implications of certain pieces or movements. The book is most effective if read in its entirety as it is important to understand the often understated importance of specific currents in the art world that allowed for greater understanding of art itself and the world we live in. As much of the digital art created in the last century is so young some of the significance of these pieces may not be fully understood until years from today. Rush’s outline of new media in art invites others to expand on what he’s written and serves as a springboard for artists looking to inherit the successes of new media art and challenge expectations of art once more.
© 2005 Thames & Hudson, London