From the time of Lessing’s Laokoon (1766) onwards, successive thinkers have sought to differentiate the arts from each other by establishing the specific claims and characteristics of each. At the very moment Reynolds was making a last attempt to synthesize Renaissance traditions of aesthetic criticism, Lessing was demarcating the frontiers between painting and poetry, in the first sustained bid to found judgements of works of art on their fidelity to the properties of their medium. In the twentieth century Lessing’s heirs, in repeating his gesture, were typically aiming at the culture industry. Rudolf Arnheim’s Nuovo Laocoone (1938) lamented the corruption of film by sound, while Clement Greenberg’s ‘Towards a Newer Laocoon’ (1940) explored the antagonisms between avant-garde and mass-produced kitsch.footnote1
This now seems a long time ago. Contemporary art appears more often to mimic than resist the strategies of business conglomerates, searching for ever newer ways to recycle the same ‘content’ in different media—hunting possibilities of lucrative convergence rather than dead-weight difference. Newscorp and its like combine activities in print, television and the internet to maximize the diffusion of their products via all available channels. Corporate fears of controlling too narrow a range of media, and possessing too little ‘content’ to re-use systematically across them, were the guiding rationale of the merger between Time Warner and AOL—emblematic of the drive to integrate every significant medium in a single complex. Already, television programmes like Big Brother (in which a number of people are locked up in a house where they are watched by cameras 24 hours a day) are influenced by such new phenomena as webcams. Indeed the official websites of this show are hugely popular because the experience there is more ‘immediate’, 24 hours a day as opposed to the half-an-hour a day on TV. In their recent book Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin describe these phenomena under the rubric of what they term the ‘double logic of remediation’. As they put it: ‘Our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them.’footnote2 Their attempt to apply this notion to the entire history of Western civilization is inflated. But the idea that ‘one medium is seen as reforming or improving upon another’ does describe a cultural logic which is plainly visible today, even if Bolter and Grusin tend to treat it rather abstractly, as if it were not driven by powerful interests. In an age when computer games absorb elements from film to give the viewer-turned-user a more ‘immediate’ physical experience, a new medium is expected to offer an ‘unmediated’ reality that earlier forms could not hope to attain.
At first sight, this tendency appears to undermine Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, which rejected the modern obsession with media-specificity, proposing instead the notion of signs which refer neither to a pre-given reality nor to any specific medium. Immensely influential in the 1980s art world, Baudrillard argued that a spectacle-driven economy was leading to the evaporation of the real. Bolter and Grusin pay scant attention to Baudrillard, beyond remarking that he assumes a ‘Renaissance logic of transparency is the norm from which our culture has diverged’, and so a past when realist signs prevailed in a way no longer possible. Whatever the limitations of his historical scheme, however, Baudrillard was right to notice that postwar consumer culture exhibited a passion for ‘sign value’, an insight which escapes Bolter and Grusin. In fact, what they call ‘hypermediacy’—the collage-aesthetics of websites, or CNN news bulletins—can well be described in Baudrillardian terms. Hypermediacy offers the viewer/user simultaneous access to the features of different media (video, newspaper, etc.) and their combinations, whose codes are enjoyed on an abstract level, as it were.footnote3
Bolter and Grusin suggest this hypermediacy does not threaten but contributes to the drive towards ‘immediacy’, because of the plenitude of experience it appears to conjure up. Immediacy, in other words, is above all an effect, grounded in the reception of the viewer, not in a relationship to ‘reality’—as, say, in traditional narratives of photography. In this sense, the contemporary quest for immediacy can be seen as a transformation of the simulacrum rather than a transhistorical datum of Western civilization, without social specificity. Sign value, the enjoyment of codedness, is no longer enough: the simulacrum must also intimate an experience of immediacy. There is no one single outcome of this change. A thirst for immediacy can range from the DV-Realism of the Dogme films—digital video enabling a new kind of cinéma vérité—to their ostensible antithesis in the special effects of Hollywood blockbusters.footnote4 Both give more ‘reality’ than before, however distinctly the viewer may remember that an incredibly ‘lifelike’ dinosaur is computer-generated.
In their effort to reduce the entire history of civilization to a drive towards immediacy, Bolter and Grusin not only deal very summarily with Baudrillard, but also treat the challenge posed by Modernist art to the ideals of transparency and immediacy pretty much as a historical footnote. They are even less concerned with responses in contemporary art to the logic of remediation. Rosalind Krauss proposes a trenchant judgement of these in her book, ‘A Voyage on the North Sea’. There she roundly condemns ‘the international fashion of installation and intermedia work’ in the visual arts, as essentially ‘complicit with a globalization of the image in the service of capital’.footnote5 Undeniably, the corporate-driven media convergence finds an echo in certain kinds of installations, where a medley of different media-effects are mobilized to massage the sensorium, and even in works nominally confined to one medium which rely on ‘intermedial’ dialogue for their operation. It is now commonplace for curators and critics to dwell on the ways in which painting is being influenced by video and photography, photography is becoming more ‘painterly’, with the possibilities of digital technology, or video artists are re-using clips from films. But Krauss’s verdict is itself too ‘global’, as if it were impossible for any intermedia or multimedia art to escape connivance with capital. While Krauss has long since distanced herself from her erstwhile mentor Greenberg, her recent attempt to theorize acceptable artistic uses of the different media turns out to be a poststructuralist reformulation of Greenberg’s Modernist principles.
According to Krauss, it was the emergence of video in the sixties (especially Portapak equipment, affordable to artists) which shattered the ‘Modernist dream’ of ‘media-specificity’. A medium like video, whose employment was completely dominated by corporations could hardly have a purely artistic ‘essence’. The lesson she draws is that media should be regarded as ‘differential, self-differing, and thus as a layering of conventions never simply collapsed into the physicality of their support’.footnote6 For Krauss this ‘layering of conventions’ is still media-specific: the ‘self-differing’ nature of a medium does not imply ‘intermedial’ relationships. Krauss discusses Marcel Broodthaers’s films from the sixties and seventies, in which he reutilized elements from early, ‘primitive’ cinema (no sound, black-and-white image, etc.), to lay bare cinema as a layering of devices, through a return to its earliest conventions. But does not Broodthaers’s work also imply the threat to film from television, the possible demise of cinema as a quaintly antiquated medium?
Art’s reflection of, or resistance to, media convergence bears, obviously enough, on its capacity for autonomy today. In his Theorie der Avantgarde written a quarter of century ago, Peter Bürger discussed the problematic attempts by successive avant-gardes since Dadaism and Constructivism to come down from the pedestal of isolation, and integrate art into social and political life. Even in 1974, Bürger observed that the absorption of the avant-garde into the culture industry was an ironic fulfilment of this programme.footnote7 In the over-consumptionist boom of the eighties, the end of autonomous art looked all too perversely imminent. Today, in a culture where artists work as fashion photographers and night-club veejays, and lifestyle and art magazines can look astonishingly alike, the integration of art into the Lebensprozess—for Bürger the hallmark of the radical avant-garde—has reached dystopian proportions. In these conditions, it is not clear any more how artistic use of media can be distinguished from non-artistic media. ‘Art’ and ‘non-art’ seem to be continually remediating one another—art becoming entertainment in the mass media, and soap operas the subject of involved academic studies once reserved for works of art. Boris Groys concludes that in contemporary visual culture, signs are ‘split’—they can function alternatively as tokens of autonomous or of commercial culture, depending on the context.footnote8 In one setting, an artefact can be seen as complex and self-referential; in another, consumed as entertainment. Culture now consists simply of such floating signs, up for grabs. Understandably enough, Krauss wants art to reserve some powers of resistance in the face of Newscorp and AOL–Time Warner, but the theoretical price for her approach is high. It is telling that she uses different plurals to distinguish artistic ‘mediums’ from corporate ‘media’, to avoid contamination between the two. Her strict separation of the ‘self-differentiating’ logic of the former from the homogenizing force of the latter is our newest Laocoon. But does the need to oppose the pressures for convergence from the entertainment industry have to mean a self-imposed isolation of art from the dominant media? The hermit who remains free from worldly temptations may be pure, but risks being forgotten by the world.