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ESSAY
BY FRANCIS HWANG

THE (IR)RELEVANCE OF ART

I think the artistic claim to relevance is largely a red herring. Tim wrote that
"it used to be that it was the artist's job to capture the 'collective
consciousness' either through intuition, genius, or dumb-luck", but I could not
disagree with this statement more.

I don't know who it was that first put forth a belief like this, but I can
understand its appeal. It's comforting to see the artist as the canary in the
coal mine. It makes it easy to justify your usefulness to society. When your
uncle asks you over Thanksgiving dinner what you've been doing with your life,
you can say "I've been limning the cultural tendencies of an increasingly
networked culture. Please pass the mashed potatoes."

But such a view of art tends to drastically oversimplify the process, and the
interaction between artist and audience. Yes, sometimes artists spark some
cultural flashpoint. I'm reading Greil Marcus' "Invisible Republic" right now,
and the accounts of the turmoil that Bob Dylan stirred up by going electric are
both fascinating and inspiring. But do you suppose artists do relevant work
because they're trying to? Or just because of dumb luck? Sometimes it seems to
me like a million monkeys at a million typewriters: With so many artists around
the world pounding on the keys, _something_ timely is bound to happen.

Luck is more important than we give it credit for, and I don't mean luck in the
way that the Dadaists or generative art folks mean. I mean that if you decide to
spend hours chasing your own little obsession -- whether that's folds of cloth
or the flight of bumblebees or the sound of a 56k modem -- the odds are quite
slim that somebody else will see it and be deeply touched by it. But what other
choice do you have? Obsessing about the question, and worrying about how to
increase the relevance of your work, doesn't usually make the work itself
better. All it does is take away from the time you have to make art before you die.

So I guess I don't see Google's Live Query as great art, and certainly not as
much of a threat. Maybe people searched more for "Jessica Simpson" this month
than "Britney Spears" -- so what? Why should I care? Why should I let such
anxious, trifling factoids into my heart?

I can think of two things that net art can do that Live Query cannot. First, as
Curt wrote, it can communicate highly personal, idiosyncratic, narrative
experience. Companies are basically uninterested in this sort of work because it
doesn't scale well: Compare box office grosses for each new superhero movie to
grosses to the newest Almodovar, for example, and it's easy to see why there are
so many more superhero movies out there.

But the second function is more specific to the community at hand. There are
technological corners that corporations will not explore, because the
return-on-investment (ROI, in business-speak) is small or non-existent. The
Institute for Applied Autonomy, for example, makes impressive tech in the name
of political agitation. Curt has already pointed out W. Bradford Paley's
TextArc, which is gorgeous, but also probably commercially useless. I can even
say that from my own experience -- not that I'm claiming to be as good a
programmer as the IAA or Paley -- that I've programmed works that to my
knowledge have never been done before by anybody else, because there was no
money in it.

So why did I do them? Mostly because I had an itch to scratch. I believe that
the creative process is a process of discovery; you work upon your medium but
you also listen to what it tells you as you go along. The idea is not enough for
me. For me to work on something there has to be an element of mystery in the
idea, questions that can only be answered by forgetting the concept and crafting
the object. I don't worry too much about whether somebody else will find it
telling. I just want to explore.

Sometimes, though, the work you do for yourself is interesting to somebody else.
I was checking the logs for my last work -- a work, BTW, that's very similar to
a project that Microsoft almost did years ago and then backed away from because
everyone was freaked about its privacy implications -- and found it referred to
from some guy's blog. It was a personal, low-traffic blog that nothing to do
with net art, but somehow this guy had found my work, and he was as excited
about it as I was. Something about it spoke to him, the way it spoke to me. I
posted a few notes on his blog about what was on my mind at the time, and
somewhere in our conversation there was a spark of recognition and commonality.

This is probably sentimental or banal, but this is most of the reason I do any
creative work -- ultimately, it's all about people, connecting in the random
happenstance ways that people connect on this earth. Now I can wonder at the
possibility that this blogger will go on to write some code that incorporates,
in some small way, the ideas I was exploring in my work. This is not a story
about an entire culture; it's only two people. He's not the zeitgeist, and
neither am I. We're just two modest individuals, excited about the same idea and
sharing that excitement for one brief instant.


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m.a.g.