Performing Art History’s Problems with New Media:
“Capitalist Realism,” the Northern Renaissance, and Gerhard Richter
Catherine Wilkins (bio)
1963, Gerhard Richter staged a
one-night-only performative installation artwork in the West German city of Düsseldorf,
entitled Life with Pop: A Demonstration for
Capitalist Realism (Figure 1). Appropriating stylistic and thematic conventions of Northern Renaissance
painting, Richter explored the relevance of fifteenth century artistic use of
interior space, object symbolism, and subject-audience interaction to
critically comment upon the benefits and complications of contemporary
interaction between art, politics, and popular consumption. Although the performative installation
possesses pride of place within Richter’s entire oeuvre – it, and the artistic actions of the previous year
that lead up to it, mark the starting point for the artist’s self-constructed career
chronology – Life with Pop has received almost no critical attention from the myriad art historians who
take Richter as a favorite subject. The reluctance of art historians to engage with Richter’s performance
art suggests that performance and installation, though by no means the newest
of “new media,” are still considered
outside of the canon of traditional art and, therefore, not given the same
serious analysis as artworks created using more traditional media. Using Richter’s Life with Pop as an example, this article will examine the strained
relationship between art historians and so-called “new media” art, asserting
that a failure among art historians to critically examine such works can not
only lead to their marginalization, but also to their simplification and
misinterpretation, by scholars and the public alike. Conversely, an openness to the inclusion of art history on
the part of artists, critics, and viewers can add rich layers of meaning to new
media artworks, which can help express artistic intent and address contemporary
In 2005, Gerhard Richter was
identified as the world’s most highly compensated artist,
a distinction that demarcated him as a figure particularly well-qualified
to address the interaction between creative production and consumer capitalism,
as well as increased his already exceptional international reputation. Richter’s high public profile has made
him a favorite subject for contemporary art historians, particularly when
considered in conjunction with his projected persona, which scholar Peter
Chametzsky describes as that of a “subtle and circumspect thinker…a
conscientious craftsman [who works] in a traditional art form.”
Indeed, many art historians have
perhaps chosen to study Richter’s work precisely because of this “traditionalism”
that Chametzsky claims for the artist: embracing the use of a familiar medium
(painting, Richter’s most frequent form of communication, being perhaps
something of a rarity in the postmodern period) as well as content. Indeed, scholars have written
extensively about the artist’s “willing[ness] to
engage with almost any [art historical] discourse,” as expressed through their
identification of visual “quotations” in Richter’s oeuvre.
For example, in a 1996
review for Art Journal, Tom
McDonough called Richter’s career “a reflection on the history of painting.”
Similarly, in an essay entitled “Appropriations:
Gerhard Richter’s Visual Repertoire,” Julia
Gelshorn examined Richter’s self-compiled catalogue raisonné - entitled Atlas
- and concluded that “the pictures are not his original inventions, but all are
based on other images.”
Gelsborn went on to identify several of
Richter’s appropriations, citing the artist’s Family After an Old Master (Figure 2) and Bathers (Figure 3) as examples, these borrowing from John Singleton
Copley’s The Copley Family (Figure 4)
and Paul Cezanne’s The Bathers (Figure
5), respectively. According to
Gelsborn, the purpose of Richter’s “borrowings” is to illuminate the sociocultural
contexts within which art is made and viewed, and the ways in which the passage
of time can affect content and interpretation.
Further, “this approach allows [Richter’s]
heterogeneous work to reveal qualities, connotations, and ideologies between
high and low art, and between abstract and figurative painting, as well as
between painting and the so-called ‘new media.’”
Yet not Julia Gelsborn, nor
any other of the art historians who, like her, have sought out the roots of
Richter’s artistic appropriations, have subjected the one example of the artist’s
use of “so-called ‘new media’” to a similar sort of art historical
analysis. Although Richter’s
performative installation piece Life with
Pop was executed in the same decade as the paintings Bathers and Family After an
Old Master, described above, it is often treated ahistorically, as an
anomaly in the oeuvre of the artist.
However, several indicators suggest the importance of Life with Pop to Richter’s body of work as a whole. At the time of the project’s inception,
in 1963, Richter had already been painting for years, and had completed several
major commissions for the East German state, as well as an extensive series of
abstract expressionist paintings, which had won the artist a gallery show in
Fulda after his immigration to the FRG in 1961. Yet the artist, both in word and in deed, has actively
distanced himself from this “early” work, resisting the restoration of his Dresden murals (which had been painted over
several years after their completion), physically destroying the abstract
canvases in an intentional fire and claiming, through his authorized website,
that he “officially began” his career in 1962. In that year, Richter completed a series of paintings in a
style he called Capitalist Realism,
which would become the basis for – and would be included in – his
performative installation work of a similar name a few months in the future.
On October 11, 1963, Richter
and his associate Konrad Lueg
staged Life with Pop: A Demonstration for
Capitalist Realism in a functioning furniture store in Düsseldorf. Leaving in place most of the furniture
that had been installed as sales displays in seventy-eight mock living rooms,
fifty-two bedrooms, and several kitchens and nurseries, the artists added
supplemental symbolic accoutrements,
contributing additional layers of meaning and creating a truly original
installation in the unconventional space.
In the first area that visitors encountered, thirty-nine chairs ringed
the room, each equipped with a copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – a conservative, daily business journal - while on the walls hung
fourteen pairs of deer antlers, earned during hunts executed in the late 1930s
and early 1940s by members of the artists’ families.
Also in the room were two
life-sized papier mache
figures: one representing President John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the other, the
gallery director Alfred
Schmela (Figure 6).
The next display was the
most openly performative in the installation, as it contained the artists
themselves. Dressed in suits and
ties, Richter and Lueg sat rigidly for an hour and a half in a sleek, modern living
room. A television in a corner, at
which both men directed their gaze, broadcast a special program on the
Age.” Between the artists was
a coffee table, topped with table settings and beer bottles wrapped in
plastic. Neither artist engaged
with each other or with the viewer: both, like the television, were the passive
receptacles of the observer’s gaze.
Elsewhere throughout the exhibition space, the artists had installed
several of their own two-dimensional artworks (drawings and paintings), a “costume”
and sculpture made by Joseph Beuys,
interior design magazines, several bottles, glasses, and cups, and the collected
works of Winston
Churchill. Music and liquor,
provided by the artists, encouraged the viewer to interact with the space, to
view themselves as active and complicit participants in a study of the very
political interaction between art and capitalism.
If Life with Pop was so integral to the inception of Richter’s career
that, years later, the artist looked back upon his oeuvre and chose the “capitalist realist” work of the early 1960s as
the moment of his birth as a “true” artist, why is the action so often
overlooked – or, more accurately, given nothing more than a cursory
reference – in Richter scholarship?
For example, in a recent survey of a Research-One University library’s
collection, the vast majority of holdings related to Richter – 12 out of
15 – completely failed to cite the artist’s early performative
A three-volume set published by the
West German government and considered a touchstone resource on Richter’s work
only mentions Life with Pop in the
index of the artist’s exhibitions found in the back of the third book.
Only one article that references Life with Pop has been published in an
academic journal: Jeremy
Strick’s page-long explication of one of Richter’s two-dimensional artworks
that hung in the installation.
The most extensive coverage of Life with Pop can be found in Robert Storr’s massive catalogue Gerhard
Richter: Forty Years of Painting, often considered the most
comprehensive Richter reference.
There, the performative installation is examined over the course of just
four paragraphs (half of which are occupied with questions of American Pop Art
precedent) in a source more than three hundred pages long. Storr concludes that Life with Pop was merely a
depoliticized, satirical gesture:
that this article asserts is a misapprehension of the work that, in conjunction
with the reluctance on the part of many art historians to engage with Life with Pop, reflects widespread
difficulties in the critical analysis of new media in general.
Certainly, the advent of
so-called “new media” – including performance, installation, video,
digital, virtual, and computer-based art – has presented particular
challenges to scholars that paintings, sculpture, and photography generally don’t. These “new media” and their method of
presentation are often transient, difficult to display and reproduce, or
impossible to financially market in a traditional manner.
These artworks can be either so limited
(for example, in the case of live performance artworks) or too broad in terms
of their initial audience (such is sometimes the case with Net Art) for
scholars to quantify their general reception, despite the fact that audience
interaction is often central to the agenda of artists creating with “new media.” These factors challenge art historians
to develop new approaches for analysis, and many simply avoid these
difficulties by avoiding a critical study of artworks that employ “new media.”
On the contrary, many new media artists actually embrace these conflicts –
between the media they use and more traditional means of viewing, consuming,
and analyzing art - as integral aspects of their work, rendering transparent
the way these issues have impacted art and art history in the past and present.
An example of this tendency is Life with Pop, which illuminates the
historic and contemporary intersection of politics, capitalist consumerism, and
art, making this connection more legible and readily understandable to the
viewer through a manner of presentation based on Northern Renaissance
With the foundations of
contemporary capitalism established across Northern Europe in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries, the period and place seem a natural point of reference for
Gerhard Richter’s appropriations on the subject of “Capitalist Realism.” During
this time, Europe became modernized in most all senses, including socially,
economically, and culturally.
Better methods of transport led to massive increases in trade, empire,
resources, and urbanization. These
factors led to a significant shift in the distribution of wealth, as the
flourishing of commerce elevated the social and material status of merchants,
bankers, and those involved in the service industry, giving rise to a modern
class-based economic system.
Proportionately, Northern Europe – in particular, the Low
Countries - financially benefited much more than any other area of the
continent during the Renaissance.
On a visit to Antwerp in 1520,
the renowned German printmaker Albrecht Dürer noted the
socioeconomic diversity of the urban environment, commenting upon his
interaction with “workmen of all kinds, and many craftsmen and dealers…shopkeepers and merchants…horsemen and foot-soldiers…Lords
Magistrates…clergy, scholars, and treasurers.”
Among these various strata of the
population, the new influx of material wealth was readily apparent, with
Northern European cities becoming notorious for enabling every conceivable type
of consumption, from “business [to] bourse…breweries [to] brothels.”
In addition to transforming
the socioeconomic landscape of Northern European society during the
Renaissance, the growth of capitalism also altered culture, giving rise to a
new type of patronage that changed the audience and function of art, along with
the role of the artist. In her
recent book entitled Worldly
Goods, historian Lisa Jardine
explains how the economic wealth, philosophical humanism, and class competition
that characterized Northern European life during the Renaissance led to the
development of the concept of magnificentia.
was basically a justification of competitive and conspicuous consumption
cultivated by those who held (or aspired to hold) social status. According to the theory, the patronage
of art and scholarship was a magnanimous pursuit, and could evidence virtue and
intelligence as well as it could display wealth, status, and taste. Just as the conditions of postmodernity
enabled artists such as Richter, in the late-twentieth century, to conceive of
themselves as enacting a “broader cultural role” as a “constructor” of image
mid-fifteenth century the concept of magnificentia elevated to the status held by independent scholars the professions of painter, sculptor, and
printmaker – previously, strictly controlled via guild membership and
considered crafts on par with that of a carpenter.
By the sixteenth century, artists began
inserting into paintings representations of themselves engaged in the act of
creative production, creating what Victor Stoichita has
termed the “self-aware
image” to seek answers related to the changing role of art and artists in
an increasingly capitalistic society.
In so doing, “self-aware images” such
Jacobsz’s Portrait of the Artist’s
Parents (Figure 7) illustrated the enhanced perception of the creative
profession, as well as demonstrate a newfound autonomy in the subject and style
of art-making similar to that with which new media artists experimented four centuries
The self-portrait of the
distinguished artist was but one of the many innovative types of images that
were developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to meet the needs and
desires of the period’s new middle-class patron seeking to reflect his
intelligence, taste, social status, and contemporaneity. Realism became the most highly prized
aesthetic quality in art, not only because of its links to classical humanism,
which was experiencing a revival particularly in Southern Europe, but also
because of its ability, in art, to create an environment familiar to the
viewer, prompting an identification that would enrich the picture’s theme or
narrative. The accurate perspectival depiction of interior space was one of the
greatest accomplishments of the Renaissance era, as well as a function of the
changing relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer. With their realistic representations of
contemporary Northern European interiors, tableau scenes such as Jan van Eyck’s
famous Arnolfini Wedding Portrait
(Figure 8) lent credibility to the event or idea being depicted, as well as
prompt viewer identification and involvement with the scene, while highlighting
the increasing interest in the secular realm. This tendency was visible even in religious vignettes, such
van der Weyden’s Annunciation
(Figure 9), which, though Biblical in theme, features a very popular fifteenth
century style of bed and bench.
Art historians such as Eric
Arnheim, and Victor
argued that, by permitting the transcription of daily, bourgeois living onto
the canvas in symbolic and visual ways never before possible, realistic
interior spaces demanded that the audience engage with the work of art
experientially and conceptually.
This fifteenth century
interest in the use of new artistic techniques to create works that fully
engaged with the observer, encouraging multivalent responses that developed new
states of consciousness
remarkably like the goal of many new media artists of the mid-twentieth century
onward. The Fluxus group, with which Richer was
associated, pioneered the development of performance and installation art as “new
media:” forms of artistic production that sought to “link everyday objects and
events and art” in a manner that was accessible to all of the audience’s senses
via an integration of word, image, sound, and physicality into each artwork.
with Pop, the medium of performative installation allowed Richter to
recreate a modified, modernized Northern Renaissance tableau in three
dimensions, pushing the degree of viewer involvement and identification in and
with the scene to new heights.
Whereas many of the artist’s contemporaries, such as Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenheim, and Terry Fox, were creating performance or
installation artworks in traditional gallery spaces (or, less conventionally,
in outdoor forums), Richter chose a department store as the site of his Life with Pop, relying, much like
Northern Renaissance painters, on the connotations of space and object
symbolism as vehicles for ideological conveyance. In this environment were
conflated, for one night, realms usually perceived of as quite distinct from
one another: a place of commerce, an arena for art consumption, a bourgeois
living environment, and a site of political discourse. By uniting them all in a single place
that was imbued with the symbolism of the sixteenth century, Richter encouraged
artist and viewer to confront the ways in which creativity and capitalism
overlapped with politics and power in both the past and the present, providing
a meditation on the positive and negative ramifications of art’s sociopolitical
value and influence not so different from the Northern Renaissance’s first
fully secular political commentaries.
The environment created for Life with Pop is similar to that used in
Christus’ Goldsmith in His Studio
(Figure 10), a painting that highlights the complicit interaction between
artist and viewer, craftsman and consumer, in the development of modern
capitalism. Often called the first
fully secular image in Netherlandish art, the painting depicts a middle-class
craftsman in his “natural” environs - his workshop - surrounded by the
accoutrements and products of his trade, including jewelry, tableware, and
scales. Commissioned by a
goldsmiths’ guild as a “glorification” of their trade, the interior space and
the objects contained within, as depicted in Goldsmith in His Studio, are
like the books, flatware, and furniture of Richter’s Life with Pop, in that they signify the contemporeneity and
bourgeois nature of the environment.
The symbolic environment is
a reflection upon the inhabitants of both artworks, who
also are critically important in deconstructing the relationship between art
and capitalism in Christus and Richter’s works. The former’s metalworker sits
among merchandise for sale, its beauty and fine craftsmanship providing a
temptation to the consumer-observer, personified by a young, well-dressed
couple that share his space and seem prepared to make a purchase. Although the sight lines of these
characters are all directed at one another, a mirror in the lower left corner
of the picture plane is turned outward, reflecting contemporary figures in a
street scene, meant to represent and prompt identification with the painting’s
observer, who becomes a complicit witness and participant to the capitalist
exchange occurring in the painting’s interior space.
The arrangement of “figures”
within Life with Pop similarly
implicates the viewer in the processes of art’s commercialization. Just as the Christus’ craftsman is
depicted in the midst of his creative production, Richter and Lueg, too, were
actively making art, in the form of their performance. On display, the two men, dressed in
suits that imply the business-like function of the modern-day artist, made
themselves available to the gaze of the viewer, who was filed past the two open
sides of the installation as a means of observation. By symbolically directing
their gazes away from the viewers and toward a television set broadcasting
reports on the very free market-focused Adenauer administration, Lueg and
Richter exposed the co-opting of a potentially creative medium –
television - for the purposes of capitalist propaganda as a form of
contemporary consumption in which artists and viewers alike are complicit. The
commonplace and the commercial aspects of artistic production were thus
emphasized in the twentieth century perfomative installation, just as they were
in the fifteenth century painting, revealing in each artwork the links between
artist and viewer that demarcate both as important cogs in the mechanism of
While the symbolic
environment of Life with Pop sets the
stage and establishes the characters for a discourse on the relationship
between art and its popular consumption, the physical contents of the
performative installation, when considered in an art historical light, help the
viewer reach an understanding of Richter’s complicated and nuanced statement
regarding the function and value of contemporary art’s consumption. The artist’s deliberate placement of
objects charged with meaning in Life with
Pop is reminiscent of a Northern Renaissance artistic device commonly known
symbolism.” As first described by Erwin Panofsky
in 1953, disguised symbolism was a complex visual system that was,
nevertheless, understood by a wide audience, wherein everyday objects were
assigned a symbolic value, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier literary
and historical concepts and narratives.
Scholars of Northern Renaissance art
have argued that the preeminent artists of the period used symbolism in their
depictions of both religious and genre scenes as a strategy for communication
with their audience; a vehicle to “create an experience of revelation”
through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms, of the material world.
With this creative strategy in
mind, it is possible to analyze the contents and arrangement of Life with Pop as generating a highly
emotive, political, and moralizing “experience of revelation.” This interpretation exposes the potent
value of Life with Pop, as an artwork
that uses images and themes of popular consumption as a way of making political
statements, rather than an ahistorical, tongue-in-cheek critique of mass
culture, as scholars such as Robert Storr have suggested.
The disguised symbolism that
Richter employed in Life with Pop
seems strongly rooted in the vanitas theme: a particularly popular trope
in Northern European painting during the sixteenth century. Emerging out of the social upheaval and
religious struggles of the period, vanitas
images were moralizing meditations on the transience of life and its material
pleasures, as expressed through a variety of symbolic objects such as glasses
and bubbles (signifying transparency and reflection), flowers and food
(representing the transience of material beings), and timepieces and maps
The spiritualized secularism of the vanitas theme can be identified both in
still life paintings, as well as in genre scenes, such as Quentin
Massys’ Money Changer and His Wife
(Figure 11). This early sixteenth
century painting served as a criticism of contemporary societal values that
seemed to be shifting, to favor capitalist materialism over spiritual
devotion. This trend is
personified in the image’s title characters, who look away from the Christian Book of Hours and focus,
instead, on the riches of the world, as represented by the gold coins and stack
of pearls on the table. The disguised symbolism in the painting warns against
such behavior, with an extinguished candle and a withering apple reminding the
viewer of life’s brevity. The open
and empty vessel on the table implies the separation of body and soul after
death, while the money changer’s scale ominously hints of final judgment. Meanwhile, multiple reflective surfaces
– such as the vial and baubles on the back shelves, the ornate cup on the
table, and the convex mirror, which contains an image of an elderly man -
encourage reflection on the part of the viewer, who is meant to see the
transparency, fragility, and concision of her own life mirrored in the Money Changer and His Wife.
As in the vanitas paintings of the Northern
Renaissance, Gerhard Richter’s deliberate use of space and objects in Life with Pop creates an unsettlingly
realistic yet highly evocative environment within which the viewer is forced to
enter and meditate upon the connections between art, politics, consumption, and
death, as symbolized through an arrangement of objects that would be highly
connotative to the contemporary viewer.
The first area that visitors encountered when entering the performative
installation set a potent, politically and emotionally charged, tone of Life with Pop through its allusions to
war and death. In a Northern
Renaissance system of iconography, the stag represented freedom and
independence, because of the animal’s ability to scale great heights and
singularly inhabit difficult terrain.
The multiple sets of antlers on the
wall of Life with Pop’s so-called “Waiting
Room” suggest the death – or, more accurately, the murder – of such
freedom. By insisting that the
antlers came from deer shot between 1938 and 1942, Richter implies that National
Socialism, the governing power in Germany during those years, whose shadow
still hung so heavily over the nation, was responsible for the
execution. This interpretation is
supplemented by the symbolism inherent in the number of chairs that ring the
room: 39, perhaps an allusion to 1939, the year in which World War II
The placement of the daily
newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine,
in otherwise empty chairs also seems significant. It is as though the seats are being held for persons who are
missing: perhaps the victims of the Nazi regime. That the people who should be sitting in the chairs have
been replaced with copies of a conservative, economically-oriented periodical,
perhaps suggesting the complicity of such interests in the “disappearance” of
the chairs’ inhabitants and, thus, linking political despotism and financial
capitalism. Finally, the room’s papier mache representation of the
gallerist Schmela inserts the art trade into the equation, with his positioning
next to the Kennedy figure suggesting the links between politics and the
business of art, which certainly were manifested during war-time, via
propaganda, and, which Richter suggests, continued into the present decade.
The ideological issues and
concerns conveyed in the “Waiting Room” were carried out in a more subtle
fashion in Life with Pop’s main room,
which borrowed object symbolism more directly from the Northern Renaissance
trope of vanitas painting. On the coffee table in the main room
were two place settings, with dessert and drinks half-consumed: a decadent
feast, representing a decadent life, abruptly interrupted. Three bottles of alcohol, symbolizing
another material temptation, sat atop the table encased in plastic, as though
the artists were attempting to preserve the passing pleasures of physical
beginning to wilt, lay upon a nearby tea table, while an empty vase – a
Northern Renaissance pictorial convention alluding to the soul’s separation
from the body in death, represented by the empty shell of the vacant vessel
- was also at hand. The inclusion
of secular texts in Life with Pop
(most notably, the collected works of Winston Churchill) is also an
appropriation of a vanitas motif by
which products of humanistic learning are held up as examples of man’s hubris, symbols of earthly knowledge
that pale and pass away in the face of eternal spiritual truths.
The books’ political nature
additionally helps reinforce the symbolic, symbiotic relationship between
cultural production and death; war, politics, art, and popular consumption
suggested by the disguised symbolism found elsewhere in Richter’s performative
When viewed in conjunction
with one another, Richter’s various references to and appropriations of art
history – particularly those pertaining to Northern Renaissance artistic
conventions and sociocultural contexts - enhance our understanding of the
artist’s intention in creating Life with
Pop. As in the “self-aware
images” of the sixteenth century, the artist-populated performative
installation probed to find the purpose of the craftsman and, in so doing,
illuminated art’s potential value and power, not only as an object for
consumption, but also as a producer of a message or idea capable of being
consumed. Richter’s use of
disguised symbolism and the vanitas
theme suggested both the benefits and drawbacks to the co-opting of art by
politics and the media by demonstrating that culture was capable of promoting
violence and death yet could also provide a moral voice through which
contemporary values or events could be challenged. By both physically and
symbolically including the audience in Life
with Pop, Richter also gave the viewer an opportunity to meditate on her
role in the dynamic between art, politics, power, and consumerism for
reflection, showing the observer that she, too, is part of the answer regarding
the present purpose and value of art.
This reading of Richter’s
work suggests that more traditionally-oriented art
historians and the theoretical approaches they favor are relevant and
meaningful, even when applied to studies of new media art in general. As mentioned briefly above, art
historians have too frequently been wary of new media, and stymied by what one
scholar has called the “overwhelming and often irrelevant meaning that
comes from the peculiarity of the medium.”
While Richter’s performative
installation may indeed seem “peculiar” at first - particularly when considered
a part of his otherwise quite painterly oeuvre – an analysis of Life With Pop
that focuses on iconography and sociocultural context shows the traditional art
historian that there can be found something familiar in “new media,” capable of
being critiqued through conventional means. Certainly, new technologies and forms of production,
reception, and interaction do call out for a language of discourse that is
capable of interpreting and conveying the particularities of each medium: art
historians must meet practitioners of new media at least halfway by
familiarizing themselves with the rhetoric of the practice. Yet, as the above study of Life with Pop has hopefully shown,
broader art historical methodological approaches are, in and of themselves, not
irrelevant to analyses of “new media.”
This realization is not only
beneficial to the individual art historian, who may gain a greater appreciation
for new media art – and a fresh avenue for research – by embracing
it. An expanded scholarly
treatment of new media art will also enhance the academic discourse surrounding
the field: a cultural landscape recently referred to as “an impoverished ghetto”
by the artist Margaret Benyon.
The isolation of new media studies
within and outside of art history has tended to exclude “historical and
expressive meanings and rewriting them as matters of physics, neurophysiology,
or personal, ahistorical ‘artistic judgement.’”
The limited and exclusionary tendencies
of this approach could be reversed through an application of critical, “traditional”
art historical theoretical and methodological paradigms, leading to an increase
in academic publication and more classroom time dedicated to the study of the
subject. Furthermore, a “trickle-down”
effect, whereby better understanding of new media art among the intellectual
elite could impact broader popular interest in the field – might be
expected. Increased attention and
ease in analyzing new media art could only improve communication regarding its
values, functions, and meanings, resulting in better museum texts, methods of
display, and thematic exhibition organization. Historicizing new media may make unfamiliar forms of expression
seem more relevant to the average observer’s understanding of the field and its
relationship to the micro- and macrocosm, while simultaneously expanding
preconceived notions about art-making and art-viewing. Such an enhanced public embrace of new
media art may be possible, facilitated by the concentrated academic attention
of scholars currently avoiding interpretations of the field that connect it to
a longer, art historical tradition.
Just as art historians have
expressed some reluctance to deal with their counterparts on the other side of
the artwork, new media artists, too, have demonstrated some hesitancy to
incorporate art history into their work, as a panel at the 2008 CAA conference entitled “Video Needs Art History Like a TV
Set Needs a Plinth” suggests.
In claiming that, “for art historians, video offers no surface for
inspection (like pictures) nor necessarily any depth for probing (like
the session chair expressed an overly simplified understanding of art history’s
potential approach to its new media subject. Furthermore, this perspective ignores or discredits past
interaction between art history and video art in the “new medium’s” more
primitive forms, such as photography and film.
Such an exclusionary
attitude is also often conveyed by less overt means. For example, the art historian James Elkins claims that entire
monographs and conferences on the subject of virtual reality as art are
published or conducted “without making contact” with the non-technological
sources and language upon which the basic premise - of virtual reality being
considered a form of art – is based.
Such skepticism toward and
rejection of art history likely reflects the alienation imposed on contemporary
artists by the many old-fashioned practitioners of the discipline who are
unwilling to engage with “new media.”
Yet, in attempting to assert their independence and distance themselves
from the field of art history, new media artists may, in fact, be keeping their
work from broader public exposure, better degrees of understanding among the
public, increased financial success, and possibly even the better fulfillment
of creative potential.
If, as John Hanhardt, director of
New York’s Guggenheim Museum,
asserts, “curatorial museum culture [is] the ultimate validating source”
for artworks created using new media, then critical discourse about the work of
art is necessary for its ultimate success. Although the very purpose of much new media art has been to
eschew the museum and gallery system, liberating and democratizing the
art-making and viewing processes by taking the artwork to the streets, to the
television airwaves, and to the internet, Hanhardt’s observation is a pointed
one. While new media have allowed
artists to reach their audience outside of traditional, academic circuits, for
the work to be received as art – and received less locally – it
must find a way to insert itself into an appropriate arena of discourse. Additionally, because many artworks
created with new media do not represent a singular, stable object that can be
offered for sale, an individual striving to make artistic production a
full-time career must be able to conceptually market his works to institutions
or individuals invested in the arts and willing to bankroll such
endeavors. In all cases, the
artist’s success is reliant upon the artwork’s ability to comprehensibly
represent itself as art, while simultaneously striking a chord with an
appropriate, educated consumer.
Seemingly, one way in which to achieve this effect would be to relate
the new media production to an art historical tradition – either in
content, form, or theoretical approach.
By familiarizing one’s self with the discipline and rhetoric of art
history, the new media artist can not only enhance the legibility of his art
among an audience that is seeking the meaning and ideology of the work, but he
can also, in a way, legitimate the work by demonstrating an intellectual
awareness of its context, both past and present.
Some new media artists have
found that a conceptual and theoretical embrace of art history has not only
provoked increased levels of understanding on the part of a broader audience,
but has also enhanced the value and resonance of their unique creative visions. Joan Truckenbrod, for example, has
been a prolific proponent of the integration of art history and “new media,” as
a vehicle for more fully expressing her ideas about the complex relationship
between technology and the human experience. Truckenbrod’s early work - interactive installations
involving digitized images and sound – strove to show that intermedia is
the fullest expression of the “natural human condition:” a thesis bolstered by
the artist’s citation of art, music, and performance’s past fusions as
reflections of universal “human sensibilities” seen throughout the history of
In her interactive computer-based
installations - such as “Torn
Touch” (1997) – Truckenbrod cites the “ancient” social and economic
dimensions of weaving and its more recent art historical implications as a “metaphor
for the construction of social, political, and commercial internet weavings,”
on the World Wide Web.
This conceptual connection, based on
art historical knowledge, helped the artist to create an artwork wherein the
viewer became the bridge between physical and virtual realms, involving the
audience and art history to solve the dilemma regarding the denial of touch as
a sensory experience in contemporary new media art.
Thus, as Gerhard Richter did
four decades previously, Truckenbrod more recently employed
her familiarity with art historical conventions to address very contemporary
questions about the intersection of life and art, ideology and history,
viewership and consumption. Such a
tactic, employed by artists working in new media, can add layers of import to
cultural production. Yet, for such
a strategy to be fully successful in communicating the significance of subject
matter and/or means of contemporary creative constructs to a viewer, scholars
must be willing to identify and analyze historical precedent in new media
artworks, acknowledging the works and the discourse which surrounds them as legitimate
heirs to an art historical tradition.
Though an examination of Life with
Pop’s relative obscurity within Richter’s oeuvre reveals the unfortunate
divide that often exists between art historians and practitioners of new media
art, the work itself points the way to a resolution of this rift. Through a truly postmodern attitude of
inclusiveness that acknowledges the interplay of history and contemporary
contexts as a response to age-old interrogations of the relationship between
art, politics, and consumption, Life with
Pop illuminates the benefits and relevance of a marriage between new media
and art history, for artists, scholars, and viewers alike.
FIGURE 1: Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg, Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist
Realism (performative installation, 1963).
FIGURE 2: Gerhard Richter, Family After an Old Master (oil on canvas, 1965).
FIGURE 3: Gerhard Richter, Bathers (oil on canvas, 1967).
FIGURE 4: John Singleton Copley, The Copley Family (oil on canvas, 1777).
FIGURE 5: Paul Cezanne, The Bathers (oil on canvas, 1906).
FIGURE 6: Gerhard Richter, John F. Kennedy (papier-mache, 1963).
FIGURE 7: Dirk Jacobsz, Portrait of the Artist’s Parent (oil on canvas, 1550).
FIGURE 8: Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (tempera on panel, 1434).
FIGURE 9: Rogier van der Weyden, Annunciation (oil on panel, c. 1440).
FIGURE 10: Petrus Christus, Goldsmith in His Studio (oil on panel, 1449).
FIGURE 11: Quentin Massys, Money Changer and His Wife (oil on panel, 1514).
Siegt in der Kunst-WM,” Bild Zeitung,
28 October 2005, 26.
Chametzsky, Objects as History in
Twentieth-Century German Art: Beckmann to Beuys (In contract: University of
California Press), 259.
Spieler, “Without Color,” in Gerhard
Richter: Without Color, ed. Reinhard Spieler (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz,
McDonough, “Review: Gerhard Richter,” Art
Journal 55/3 (Autumn 1996): 90.
Gelsborn, “Appropriations: Gerhard Richter’s Visual Repertoire,” in Gerhard Richter: Without Color, ed.
Reinhard Spieler (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2005), 27.
“Appropriations: Gerhard Richter’s Visual Repertoire,” 29.
“Appropriations: Gerhard Richter’s Visual Repertoire,” 35.
self-authored catalogue notes from Life
with Pop, Richter claimed that the antlers were obtained between 1938 and
1942. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Doubt and
Belief in Painting, 49.
Tulane University Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, conducted March 11, 2007.
Richter, Gerhard Richter (Bonn:
Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1993).
Strick, “Mouth (Mund), 1963 by Gerhard Richter,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 25/1 (1999): 24-25, 102.
Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of
Painting (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 33.
Dick Higggins, “Statement on Intermedia,” http://www.artpool.hu/Fluxus/Higgins/intermedia2.html
(accessed 18 June, 2009).
examples of this tendency can be found in the artworks described in: Gregory Muir, “Past, Present, and Future Tense,” Leonardo, 35/5 (2002): 499-500+502-508.
fifteenth century, the port cities of Bruges and Antwerp had become the largest
international centers of trade, outpacing their only southern European rival,
Venice, by more than ten times the commercial traffic per year. James Snyder, Northern Renaissance Art (Upper Saddle
River: Prentice Hall, 2004): 433.
Dürer, diary entry, August 4, 1520. Reproduced in W.M. Conway, Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1889), 96ff.
Snyder, Northern Renaissance
Jardine, Worldly Goods (London:
Objects as History in Twentieth-Century
German Art, 252, 259.
Snyder, Northern Renaissance
Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image: An
Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Lane, “Sacred vs. Profane in Early Netherlandish Painting,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the
History of Art 18/3 (1988): 108.
Art and Illusion: A Study in the
Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1961), 242-291. Rudolf Arnheim, The
Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1989), 172-208. Viktor Stoichita, L’instauration du tableau. Meta-peinture á
l’aube des temps modernes (Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1993).
Marrow. “Symbol and Meaning in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages
and the Early Renaissance,” Simiolus:
Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 16/2/3 (1986): 152, 163.
Rush, New Media in Art (London:
Thames and Hudson, 2005), 24, 53.
scholars cite the work of Pieter Breugel the Elder as Europe’s first artistic
examples of secular political commentary.
See Ross H. Frank, “An Interpretation of Land of Cockaigne (1567) by
Pieter Breugel the Elder,” Sixteenth
Century Journal, 22/2 (Summer 1991), 299-329;
Margaret Sullivan, “Breugel’s Proverbs: Art and Audience in the Northern
Renaissance,” Art Bulletin, 73/3
(Sept. 1991), 431-466.
Panofsky. Early Netherlandish Painting
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), esp. 131-148.
“Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism,” Artibus et Historiae 15/29 (1994): 12.
Lane, “Sacred vs. Profane in Early Netherlandish Painting,” 114.
Petit, “A Historical Overview of Dutch and French
Still Life Painting: A Guide for the Classroom,” Art Education 41/5 (Sept. 1988), 14-19.
Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian
Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), 26.
Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, 325.
Petit, “A Historical Overview of Dutch
and French Still Life Painting,” 18.
case, the medium in question was computer imaging. James Elkins, “Art History
and the Criticism of Computer-Generated Images,” Leonardo 27/4 (1994): 336.
Benyon, “Do We Need an Aesthetics of Holography?” Leonardo 25/5 (1990): 415.
Elkins, “Art History and the Criticism of Computer-Generated
Auerbach, “Abstract: Video Needs Art History Like a TV Set Needs a Plinth,” in Abstracts: CAA 2008 96th Annual Conference
(Lancaster: Cadmus/Science Press, 2008), 17.
Elkins, “There Are No Philosophic Problems Raised by Virtual Reality,” Computer Graphics 28/4 (Nov. 1994): 254.
Michael Rush, New Media in Art
(London: Thames and Hudson, 2005), 88.
Truckenbrod, “Integrated Creativity: Transcending the Boundaries of Visual Art,
Music, and Literature,” Leonardo Music
Journal 2/1 (1992): 89-95.
Truckenbrod, “’Torn Touch:’ Interactive Installation,” Leonardo 33/4 (2000): 265-266.