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Parallels Between Photography and New Media in Relation to Contemporary Art Forms

Essay by   •  February 8, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  3,427 Words (14 Pages)  •  1,780 Views

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The main purpose of this chapter is to identify similarities between early developments in the history of Photography and later parallel developments in New Media art. There are certain distinctive features common to the development of Photography and New Media as art forms. Both media were initially enthusiastically embraced by the general population as a medium for popular use and enjoyment. But within the field of Fine Arts, Photography (and, more recently, of New Media) questions about authenticity and legitimacy were raised. In other words, art critics have doubted whether Photography could be regarded as a legitimate art discipline when it shares so many interfaces with other more utilitarian image-making means and processes. This same problem of course has also hindered the acceptance and development of New Media as art form given its relation to television, computers and the Internet.

Photography and New Media use mechanical and electronic means to convey an image. Both these disciplines have made a huge impact on contemporary communication and culture; they have impacted on art, science, law, politics and travel, and have created new conceptual models in all spheres of life. As Photography became increasingly accessible to the masses, the way in which people perceived the world changed radically. People began to see differently. Photography also opened up links to exotic and inaccessible places and events by producing images of people, places and things never before seen in verifiable form by much of the general population. In the same way, the digital revolution has radically changed our relation to the world by changing the way in which we communicate. The immediacy of New Media has facilitated globalization and translocality, and given people a new perception of the size and accessibility of the world as a whole. Furthermore, digitality has changed our understanding and perceptions of our bodies, space, the environment, and how we live and fit into such an environment.

Photography and New Media also facilitated radical changes on a global basis in the art context - as it had done with regard to communication in general. It is my contention that the inception of the digital revolution - like the perceptual revolution caused by Photography - has irrevocably transformed (1) the way in which we define the nature of art, and (2) the reactions of the masses towards art in general. Not all changes have elicited positive responses. Photography, and now New Media, have interrogated the traditional status of the artist as a creative genius or as a skilled producer of a single work of art. Technological innovations, and the necessary reliance on equipment and machinery for making art of this nature, have called into question the value and authenticity of Photography and New Media as art products and created varying degrees of doubt and uncertainty. The apparent ease of production has also raised new questions about the authenticity and the authority of the art object in general.

As with Photography, the New Media exerted a profound influence on the attitudes of the masses towards its products. Walter Benjamin already realized in 1935 the extent to which the mechanical reproduction of art had changed the reactions of the masses toward art. It is arguably, a feature of human nature to react with trepidation, if not aversion, to the new, especially if it is seen to threaten or undermine the known; we tend to uncritically affirm the value of conventions with which we are familiar and which confirm our conventional prejudices (Benjamin, 1935). This is as evident now with regard to the reception of New Media art in the postmodern context of fine art as it was when Benjamin wrote his prophetic article in 1935.

Both Photography and New Media gave rise to various dialectical tensions between art and science. Distinctions between the professional and the amateur, and the creative and 'expressive' as opposed to the 'merely' commercial, were also voiced. Parallels between Photography and New Media with regard to the use and inception of their forms are also apparent; Photography as a vehicle of communication and information might be regarded as the antecedent to recent digital technologies.

In art, and in the canons of art history, we have come to accept that certain conventional modes of art production are 'disciplines'. Moreover, as John Tagg argues, within these disciplines (such as, for example, in Painting or Drawing), there is general agreement about what the 'objects' of such disciplines are. Thus, we conventionally accept that drawing is a necessary discipline in the context of the history of cartography. In contrast to this, Tagg notes that Photography, far from being associated with historically sanctioned and respected conventional disciplines, is dependent on the interests that it serves for the construction of its meanings. Thus, Photography in practice, serves a variety of interests, institutions and systems. In the same way, the meanings that attach themselves to New Media art are preceded and legitimated by a vast matrix of global communications and networks, by ideals and the praxis of consumerism, marketing and advertising - as well as by those academic institutions that have accepted the validity of New Media art as an art form. These same category distinctions also inevitably complicate our understanding of New Media art works.

Other distinctions also complicate the matter. Complex judicial and legislative instruments also drove art and mechanics apart (Tagg, 1992:98). Tagg notes, however, that it was not merely a question of keeping the two different kinds of Photography apart. Further distinctions - for example, between professional and amateur, creative and commercial, expressive and instrumental, and licit and illicit - were made. These same distinctions also affected the status of New Media productions. Tagg remarks:

At some point market forces could operate uncontested; while, at another point, a special aesthetic value and cultural status might be secured for certain photographic practices, giving them a peculiar precedence (Tagg, 1992:99).

According to Andrew Darley (2000:60), it is Marshall McLuhan's dictum, 'The medium is the message', and Jean Baudrillard's notion that it is the character of the form of the medium itself (how it communicates) rather than its contents (what it communicates), that enable us to understand the artistic and other products of the digital age.

James Cronk contends that the New Media should be regarded as tools that artists can use to extend their creative scope. While the reproduction of imagery, whether photographic or video, evoked the same controversies that they do now when they first became available,

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