Saturday, February 03, 2007

Texture and Object: on Grounding Channel-Surfing as a Visual Motif


The aesthetics of Modernism can generally be characterized by a formal preoccupation with novelty, polyphony, fragmentation, and the breakdown of Rationalist moral order. No doubt the advent of popular sound and image recordings, widespread division of labor, and capitalist largesse were contributing factors to this re-evaluation of form in Western art; these influences were culturally pervasive. But industrialization also ushered in a broader cultural re-orientation associated with consumer behavior. Individuals, to procure their daily necessities, turned their attention to the acquisition of products garnered by market labor, rather than the acquisition of commodities garnered by agrarian or clerical labor.

Industrialization has changed the way our culture assigns value both to employment and to the compensation for one’s employment: we now seek to procure, primarily, products with our employment, whereas prior to industrialization, we would seek commodities primarily.

Commodities are more or less un-differentiable between producers: two individual wheat farmers each supply the same commodity. Suppliers of commodities compete by finding ways to increase output while decreasing cost, and attract customers by out-pricing competitors. Products, however, are differentiated from one another by a type of culturally-assumed object status: through a combination of packaging, advertising, and novel design features in the product itself, producers employ a variety of cultural signifiers to construct a symbolic identity for their product. Producers of products compete not on the basis of cost economics, but on the clarity with which the product's symbolism is articulated. The symbolic nature of the product is what differentiates Heinz tomato ketchup from Hunt's. It is moreover irrelevant that the symbolic qualities of a product may bear little direct relationship to the material qualities of a product, as the product is not strictly a material object.

Within industrialized nations, the impact of this reorientation pervades daily life: among other effects (such as the commodification of time and the acceleration of urbanization), it alters the assumptions underlying the behavior of individuals seeking to acquire their basic necessities. Contrary to the benefit-maximizing behavior economists prescribe for rational agents, consumers in industrialized societies consistently purchase products with the most appealing packaging or advertising, rather than those which provide the most product for the least amount of currency; given these circumstances, one must either acknowledge that industrialization causes humans to behave less rationally, or one must accept that in some manner the product has a different type of value than the commodity.


A profusion of products in simultaneous collision on store shelves provided the cultural context necessary for the eventual popular appreciation of collage; more significantly, perhaps, the object status of the product also provided the context necessary for grounding the appreciation of Modernist art in terms of the art object.


In Classical traditions the closest analog of the art object is found within various craft movements; this comparison, however, can serve only as analogy. Classical traditions distinguish art-objects from craft-objects by appeal to the utility value (or intended utility value) of a given object, while the cultural reorientation associated with Modernism by and large dispenses with this distinction: hence the appropriation of ceremonial African masks by cubism, the appearance of industrial design programs in art academies, and the placement of consumer products in museum halls by the likes of Marcel Duchamp.

To describe this cultural reorientation in dialectic terms, the Classical mode of artistic expression can be characterized by an evaluation of texture, while the Modern is characterized by an evaluation of object status. Classical aesthetics therefore rely upon the vindication of tradition (the cultural and artistic texture within which an individual artwork is situated), while Modernist aesthetics rely upon the vindication of the critical statement (the critical framework an artist employs to justify a particular approach to the art object).


The dialectic is especially evident in urban architecture: Classical architecture is concerned with the creation of continuous spaces and the integration of buildings into these spaces, whereas Modern architecture is concerned with the creation of buildings as self-referential symbolic objects.


Architectural spaces are a function of the visual harmony or local continuity of facades, the relative positioning of buildings, and the socio-economic functions of adjacent spaces. The texture of architectural spaces furthermore relies upon clear distinctions between what is public and what is private, consistent visual cues to distinguish the various cultural and economic uses of individual buildings, and the role of monumental structures within these spaces. Spaces are imbued with meaning in virtue of their integration with adjacent spaces, the cultural history of those spaces, and how they function in concert with the surrounding environment to promote or discourage different types of socio-economic activity.

Even such monolithic structures as cathedrals, in the Classical tradition, are integrated into the texture of surrounding spaces: the Piazza san Marco in Venice incorporates the san Marco Basilica into a public market plaza, symbolic of the church as a place of gathering, and of the importance of spirituality in daily life. The church and the plaza generate traffic for one another, while differences in architectural detail demarcate the distinct purpose of each of the plaza's components.

The integration of the San Marco Basilica with the Piazza can be seen in contrast to the Milwaukee Art Museum's recent extension, designed by Santiago Calatrava. The Milwaukee Art Museum extension is separated from the city by an urban park, a bluff, a bridge, and a four-lane separated highway; is more of a sculpture than a building with a facade; and stands in opposition to large amounts of open space all around it (the lake, the park, a parkinglot). The Museum stands as a singular object, visually distinct from nearby structures; the building's sculptural qualities signify the Museum's role as a purveyor of aesthetic experience; and the international renown associated with the name of the building's designer advertises the cultural importance of art.


While the Classical tradition generally expresses a worldview concerned with man's position in a greater order (be that order divine, rational, moral, or iconographic), the Modern tradition represents a worldview wherein nature is objectified, and then made subject to culture and technology. In the Modern tradition, man may have escaped the arbitrary constraints of an incomprehensible and unassailable cosmos, but is instead condemned to contend with the arbitrariness of other men. Thus Modern urban architecture seeks to do violence to the city, which is the natural environment of Modern man: to create buildings which, viewed as the products of individual architects, each represents a unique vision of comfort and safety amidst the symbolic wilderness of sensory chaos and moral decay often attributed to the city.


The object is a socio-cultural construction defined in opposition to other objects, while texture relies on the iterative amalgamation of historical continuities. The manipulation of texture then involves the creation of a void amidst a plenum (the harvesting of fields in agrarian economies), while the manipulation of the object involves creating tangible solids amidst a void (the construction of factories on farmland claimed by industry).

Competition among products and the opposition of one object to another finds expression in the conquest and subjugation of texture. Much as the Victorian fixation with automatic writing sought to liberate the mystical truths of the unconscious from the conventions of Rationalist tradition, and the Dada sought to destroy art in favor of a utopian purity of artistic expression, the building as object in Modern architecture seeks to destroy historically-motivated modulations of clearly demarcated public and private spaces. Modern architecture would fragment the city into an agglomeration of equally disparate building-objects, each of which interacts little with the historical and geographic topography of the surrounding urban landscape: extreme examples of this disposition are Disneyland and Las Vegas.


With the advent of the motion picture came the conquest of the whole of art history: dance, music, theatre, painting, literature, architecture and photography were all made raw material for this new medium. Film co-opted and encapsulated the formal and critical conventions of all these art forms, wrought from this quintessence a new sort of art object, was considered by the Soviet propagandists as a substitute literacy, and was soon granted its own a priori qualities (such as montage) ready for exploitation.

Furthermore, film provided an idealized mode of expression for the Modernist preoccupation with novelty, polyphony, and fragmentation. The first quarter century of film history can be characterized as a period guided by the pursuit of novelty -- in terms of formal experimentation, theoretical exploration, or technological innovation. Sound films such as Howard Hawk's Scarface reproduced a variety of spoken mannerisms with a verisimilitude unrivaled even by Mark Twain's most faithful renderings of dialect; Man Ray's Emak Bakia, meanwhile, approaches the image with a kaleidoscopic array of stylistic devices reminiscent of James Joyce's "little telephone book" (which has been described by critics as "a novel to end all novels"). Early animators like Ladislaw Starewicz exploited the fragmentation of time by which film renders the illusion of continuous movement, while Maya Deren combined the frame with the illusion of continuous time to fragment space.


Film has been readily granted the status of art object as much for the cultural context in which it was developed as for the manual manipulability of the material itself; the ethereality of video-based motion pictures, however, framed a new critical debate.

Critics seized upon the featureless strip of magnetically-coated plastic as evidence that video is different in kind from film; critics such as Nicky Hamlyn saw digital video in particular as posing a challenge to High Modernism's critical notion of medium specificity, since the exact same video image can be stored or retrieved using a wide variety of physical means. Critics became unnerved at being unable to localize the video object, in light of the video image consisting of immaterial "ones and zeroes" (or, in computer science terminology, ordered collections of abstract truth values). Hamlyn voiced alarm that the same "ones and zeroes" used to record a video image can be output as sound through a speaker, or on paper as text. Bill Viola asserted that the video image is not really an image at all because it is built up by phosphor dots illuminated -- very rapidly -- one row at a time.


Efforts among critics to distinguish video from film often focus on undermining the object status of video imagery. Artists addressing the critical response to video have generally sought either to contextualize video within the realm of conceptual art (where the video image becomes an instance of some critical thesis, a token object of some aesthetic type), or else to construct a physical context for video imagery with installation (wherein the video image is visually parsed as an object in space). These artistic approaches do not, however, directly address the problem video poses for the notion of medium specificity.

One solution is to deny the validity of medium specificity as a critical concept, which might make a fine home for video, but would complicate historical analysis of the relationship between art and technology. If medium-specificity is a valid concept (which seems to be the case, historically speaking), and Modernism is as much a set of stylistic concerns as it is a historical epoch (as much contemporary architecture would seem to imply), then a medium-specific analysis ought to be relevant wherever the stylistic concerns of Modernism are found.


Throughout the Renaissance, as the widespread adoption of oil painting on canvas dramatically diminished the popularity of the fresco, the new possibilities of the new medium reshaped the appearance of art. From today's perspective, the distinction between fresco and oil may seem to be less than fundamental to a critical evaluation of Renaissance painting (which is more often described in terms of the introduction of perspective rendering, or the influence of Giotto). Since critical discussion of video, however, often pays disproportionate attention to whatever minute or tautological details can be used to distinguish video from film, it is worth noting that fresco and oil treat paintings as art objects just as film and video treat the framed image as an art object; the cinematic experience is designed to visually isolate the projected image, to thereby provide the image a spatial, object gestalt.


An alternate approach would be to treat television as a commodity, to take an inventory of the formal features of television, and to create a product using this formal vocabulary. A result of this approach is channel-surfing as a visual motif: the incorporation of a variety of stylistic devices, picture qualities, production standards, and thematic concerns, presented in a rapidly changing format, with repetitive structural elements.

The visual and thematic field created by channel-surfing is morally and ethically ambiguous in virtue of the panorama of interests and intents presented by the producers of different programs, advertisements, public service announcements, public proclamations, and political campaigns; but from this ethically-ambiguous perspective, television comments upon itself, the world, and its relation to the world, as it simultaneously influences how individuals perceive television and the world, feeding back into itself... like a baroque minimalism... or a mannerist modernism...

* illustrations from Collage City by Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter.

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