Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed August 1996
Copyright ©1996 by Kermit Champa

Is the Information Age killing static art?

Kermit Champa is a professor of the history of art and architecture.

"The static object's refusal to cooperate with computer- or video-mediated spectatorship may signal its impending death"

The emergence of computerized art, video art, CD-ROM gallery tours and digitized dissections of famous works has forced many in the art world to wonder: Is static art dead?

One issue revolves around the competition for intelligent leisure time in an age when the virtual or reproduced is visually more animated and self-explaining than the materially present and untranslated.

Easy accessibility and instant information are the new expectations and standards shaping art and the art exhibition world. These collide with the cumulative experience and patience demanded in the traditional context, making static-art-filled museums and galleries the modern equivalent of the medieval cathedral.

The static arts - paintings, drawings, sculpture - particularly as they exist in museums, are part of that traditional context. Museums are organized and presented as history: fixed sequences of works in the same medium from the same time and place. A study and understanding of sequence is required. Therefore, the "static" requires time to be absorbed even though its materiality is quite "there."

But in the Information Age, the materiality or "realness" of the static object is seen as an impediment. The static object refuses to participate in random access and sequence and image manipulation. Standing before the Mona Lisa, you can't point and click your way around the painting. You must do the moving, not the object. Thus, the spectator does the spectating, not the manipulating.

Unfortunately, the static object's refusal to cooperate with computer- or video-mediated spectatorship may signal its impending "death." Static art is already marginalized and pressed increasingly into the background of a museum spectacle now more entertainment-oriented, or more processed in terms of interactive visual presentations. Such settings presumably facilitate but, in fact, replace confrontation with the static object.

For example, a CD-ROM program of Poussin's works claims to allow the user to enter the artist's mind, showing how and why he painted the way he did. But to think you are in Poussin's mind is crazy. You are in the mind of the CD-ROM designer, using the options he or she thought up.

Another force in the evolving crisis of static objects is the crisis that has developed in the institutions presenting them - museums and galleries. In museums, it is the dazzling, highly profitable and easily absorbed blockbuster. In galleries, it is the phenomenon of the installation - the takeover of a large space by a single artistic idea developed through interactive parts.

Both developments, although encouraging huge audiences, seem largely to have helped marginalize the traditionally static. No spillover (or very little) of visitors to the special and regular collections of galleries and museums has resulted. In fact, those collections have been made to seem ordinary - like wallpaper and potted plants - by the profusion of the new spectacle. As this happens more and more, there is from within the art world itself a tacit acceptance of the static as devalued.

How to breathe new life into static art and avert its death? Capitalize on material presence as a worthwhile experience. The "aura" of the real must be reinvented after nearly a century of erosion through reproductions. Display approaches must "thicken" the layers of materiality through elaborated visual contexting designed to spotlight rather than simply present. Static objects must be shown as preeminently interesting and sufficient when viewed with pieces with which they conversed or are conversing. The spotlight must shift to develop a taste for materially-based experience which is constantly replenished. For museums this means shifting from discrete collection management toward responsible, ambitious programming geared more to similarities than differences of static materials.

New presentations of the static object, if carefully managed, will address the issues of ideology and intrinsic value that currently surround so many historical static objects. The intelligent spectator will be free to judge on a display-by-display basis.

The "otherness" of the real is its strongest suit and the one it must begin to play in earnest if it is to survive as anything more than material destined for computer reproduction.