Kuspit on the Emergence of Computer-Mediated Art

Donald Kuspit’s recent essay at artnet, “The Matrix of Sensations”, argues for an historical development from mimesis (analog representation grounded in the object) to sensation (art grounded in digital codes). The progression begins with Manet and the impressionists, goes through post-impressionism, early and high modern abstraction, and culminates in postmodern computer-mediated art.

The status and significance of the image changes in postmodern digital art: the image becomes a secondary manifestation — a material epiphenomen, as it were — of the abstract code, which becomes the primary vehicle of creativity. Before, the creation of material images was the primary goal of visual art, and the immaterial code that guided the process was regarded as secondary. Now, the creation of the code — more broadly, the concept — becomes the primary creative act. The image no longer exists in its own right, but now exists only to make the invisible code visible, whatever the material medium.

The transformation from objective representation to code, Kuspit notes, is neither complete nor widely accepted.  But it marks a clear and logical path shaped, in part, by scientific theories and technology in the 20th century.

The response to Kuspit’s article has been swift and, in some cases, passionate.  Lou Gagnon dismisses Kuspit’s claims for the artistic value of “digital art” and the “creativity of code” due to their lacking an essential haptic dimension.  While his concerns are important, he overlooks crucial nuances in Kuspit’s approach when he claims that

We can relate to haptic records because we share a tactile world, because we make mistakes and we incorporate or work around them. We need that tactile feedback. I can take all the digital images that I can store of my children and all of them combined will pale in comparison to the fleeting power of holding their hand, smelling their hair and thumbing through their drawings.

Kuspit’s argument turns not simply on the distinction between our objective and tactile world of experience, on the one hand, and images, on the other. Rather, Kuspit is more concerned about our naively assuming the veridicality of perception and representation and having these assumptions called into question by the compelling, coherent, and often contradictory proliferation of digital forms arising out of this “matrix of sensations” — a questioning that leads to “a new experience of the real”. Gagnon’s point, that an artist’s creative response is shaped by their embodied experience, is true but trivial.  The more interesting questions have to do with the unexplored, or poorly understood, possibilities of experience and, to what extent, if any, computer-mediated art opens up those possibilities.

Tom Moody also points to an apparent disparity between Kuspit’s arguments (most of which he agrees with) and the examples (which fall short of Moody’s expectations.)

I think more is needed by way of both argument and example.  It’s not clear to me, on first reading and to cite just one example, how the link between the electronic pixelated image and sensation give rise to a radically new kind of experience.  Having just seen Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 (incorporating both analog and digital), I’m wondering how the use of digital processes in recording and editing the cinematic image “makes the invisible code visible”, what that could possibly mean, or why it matters.

It’s also curious that there’s no mention of Lev Manovich, noted for arguing (some years ago) that code and software form the basis for avant-garde art, and how Kuspit’s views coincide with, or depart from, Manovich’s.  (The only “new media” reference is Christiane Paul’s recent book, Digital Art.)