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by Michael Swartzbeck

I WISH TO TAKE ISSUE with several points put forth by Lee Manovich in his essay pronouncing "The Death Of Computer Art" in the "Web Schmeb" column of 11.01.96, containing what I believe to be several erroneous assumptions.

Manovich assumes that the recognition of an artist's work by the rulers of Duchamp Land is absolutely vital for the artist and his work to be considered valid and worth public attention. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Many artists working in radical, avant-garde or "difficult" genres or media did much of their best work as part of dissident movements which went out of their way to ignore or defy the conventional wisdom and aesthetics espoused by Duchamp Land. Only much later did artists like Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray -- and Duchamp himself -- gain a measure of grudging respect and recognition by the arts establishment for trailblazing and challenging work.

Manovich also assumes that artists working with computers are concerned only with the dazzling eyeball-candy and "gee-whiz" aspects of digital graphics/video technology and not with the content of the work itself or with the expression of feelings or ideas. Again, I feel he is off-target. Any real artist with something important to say will not care what medium he or she uses to get these ideas across, be it stone, pencil, acrylic, traditional emulsion photography, analog video or digital photomontage or animation. I am not concerned primarily with showing off my technology any more than Rauschenberg is concerned primarily with showing off the studio, print shop and materials he uses to create his huge photo-silkscreen and bent-aluminum collages. I am concerned with the technology in my studio only in the sense that I'm familiar with its capabilities and limitations, not with how many ways I can shove it into the face of my audience.

His Item 2 is undoubtely deserving of rebuke, but words in this case fail me. At the risk of lapsing into tacky self-promotion, I'll refer Manovich -- and anyone else interested -- to the following URLs at my site:

...where I'm sure he'll find plenty of collages full of emotion, introspection, complexity, and irony.

Regarding Manovich's statements in his Item 3, any art that goes out of its way to call attention to the media it was created in will never be truly successful -- which is why, with the exception of the occasional trade magazine illustration, I've made a point of not creating collages containing images of or references to computers or the 'Net. I choose a computer as my painting and drawing medium because I've found it the most effective means of expressing myself on any given subject, not because of its "coolness". The best photography is memorable because our eyes, minds and hearts are captured by the images, not because of the light-sensitive chemical emulsion used to create them. Disney's "Toy Story" has staying power because of the quality of writing, acting and artwork, not because of the technological process (digital animation/rendering engines) used to create the images and transfer them to another technological medium (acetate emulsion-based photography).

Manovich's remarks about artistic signal-to-noise ratio are compelling, but also fallacious. When a computer malfunctions at a digital art exhibit, the artist and the audience have a perfect right to be concerned; when I'm at a Hitchcock festival and the projector breaks down, I'm not happy about the supposed "Dada-esque accident", nor am I especially pleased with the sonic hash created by amplification or PA malfunctions at a rock concert. While many of the elements of my visual style evolved through the "happy accidents" which occurred while experimenting and expecting other results, I must stress that such accidents occur within the framework of intended and controlled experiments, not with the mortifying interventions of Murphy in the workings of equipment used in a lecture or exhibit. Dmitry Prigov's avant-garde digital poetry, while an "accident" of errors generated by computer programs, is still the result of intentionally-induced change, and not of total random chance.

And, finally, while I disagree with Manovich's conclusions, I find his essay to be well-reasoned and thought-provoking, with the exception of his very last paragraph which, in my opinion, borders on personal insult. To not expect valid, lasting art from artists using computers is also to discredit the art created by photographers, videographers, filmmakers, and other artists using technology as their medium. Manovich might as well say that the work of Fellini and Man Ray are not valid because they used technology (photography) to realize their work. And as far as acceptance by the mainstream arts establishment, a.k.a. Duchamp Land, Manovich makes a serious mistake in thinking that I actually care whether or not the curators at the Phillips Collection or the Corcoran Museum or the MoMA fall all over themselves to validate my work and proclaim my genius. While I duly confess to the occasional daydream of a curator at MoMA stumbling over one of my Web-based exhibits, going gaga and offering me a solo show, I'm not holding my breath. I create art for myself, and for people, not for curators or critics or the royalty of Duchamp Land.

The convergence that Manovich speaks of will happen -- perhaps not today or tomorrow, or next week, but soon. It took nearly a century for the arts establishent to accept photography as a valid artistic medium, and decades for film and video to achieve the same recognition, so it stands to reason that it's going to take some time for digital painters to finally break down the gates of Duchamp Land, perhaps another decade or two before the critics and curators recognize the contributions of the Man Rays, Rauschenbergs and Lichtensteins of the early 21st Century.

Michael Swartzbeck, Washington, DC
December 1996

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