Cultural Logic in Cyberspace: Web Art & Postmodernism
by Amy Divila
(To read the full text of this article by Amy Divila please watch out for future issues of NMEDIAC.)
The desire to venture into unexplored “landscape” guides the direction of new
genres.  With
the advent of the Internet, information-based technology has enabled artists
to investigate a new art form, a cerebral “medium for creative expression”,
web art.  Web art surfaced in the mid- ‘90s
to receive, almost immediately, much support and encouragement by museums, foundations
and other traditional institutions. Institutions such as the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of Art, as well as the Dia Foundation and
the Walker Art Center have openly accepted this new genre of art through purchasing
web art for permanent collections, funding web art projects and creating exhibitions
solely comprised of web based media. Even though the fast-developing art medium
is in its infancy and the “criteria for artistic evaluation are still being
developed”, curators, critics and the art public have not only embraced the
web aesthetic but the conceptual elements encoded within as well.
The phenomenon of acceptance and support enjoyed by such an emerging art form
can be assertively attributed to our culture in general, but more specifically
the underlying ideas manifested over time through postmodernism. Postmodernism
gave birth to “conceptual art”, an art practice which suggested that the art
had traversed from object to idea, from a tangible thing to a “system of thought”.
 Technology has created a new reproductive medium, which by its
very nature confirms the ideas and canons of postmodernism both aesthetically
as well as contextually, even more absolutely than photography. Web art has
enabled the artist to interrogate the conventional codes embedded in the materiality
of the art and thus transcend traditional stylistic conventions. The movement
and ideals of postmodernism systematically dismantled the values created by
the formalist establishment. Formal values, which governed art throughout modernism,
concerning originality, uniqueness, authenticity, autonomy, transcendence and
aesthetic quality were questioned and thus deconstructed by art theorists who
embraced the writings of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin.
The format and content of web art succinctly encompass the postmodern concept
of representation and the ideas of copy vs. original, artist vs. viewer, spatial
vs. temporal and visual vs. verbal. The very characteristics of the web medium
such as infinite reproducibility, interpretive interactivity, non-physicality,
and coded language, contribute to the affirmation of these postmodern concerns.
The parallel between postmodern theory and a pure art form that coherently echoes
its concepts, manifests the acceptance of web art into the microcosmic art community
as well as the larger, info-driven society.
Originality and Infinite Reproducibility
Rather than focusing on the “singleness of the art object,” postmodern theorists
such as Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Craig Owens and Douglas Crimp were
interested in art’s multiple contexts and meanings and its relationship with
social and cultural influences.  This change in focus from the external qualities
to the internal content of art and thereby the rejection of the basic aesthetic
inherence of originality, created a burgeoning interest in reproductive, mechanical
media. Technology allowed for the creation of reproductive mediums, which denounced
basic modern aesthetics and thus confirmed the movement away from traditional
Photography was the favored medium of postmodernism as it, by its very nature,
called into question modernist ideals. Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “Photography
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, influenced the postmodern thought that
“photography deconstructs the possibility of differentiating between the original
and the copy” and thus the original’s “aura”, “singular authenticity” and its
“authority” become obsolete. 
As technology has evolved, the “reproducibility” of digital media further blurs
the concept of the original, as there is no distinction between “the first idea
and its slavish imitators”.  Web art exists, in its essence, as coded language
at one or multiple addresses on one or multiple servers and as each viewer arrives
at that address the artwork is created and recreated on the computer screen.
The web art form is pure conceptual art as there truly exists no original object
only ideas. Thus the “handmade mark of the creator” and the “aura” that is created
by an “original” does not live in the virtual world and is therefore null.
 Once the concept of the original becomes obsolete the authenticity
of a work and the authority that an original commands is equally mute.
Not only is web art by its natural language a copy or a repetition but the
concept of the artwork created through a technological medium also addresses
the lack of importance of the original, as demonstrated by the web art site
Every Icon.  Upon arriving to the site the
viewer is confronted with the fact that the artist has created parameters for
the computer to decode, similar to the “instructions” given by Sol Lewitt.  The computer,
your computer is forced to calculate every possible visual combination within
a 32 x 32 grid as each square of the grid is assigned either color: black or
white. Through this experiment the artist ponders whether “image-space” can
be explored solely using a computer rather than nature.
 The artist notes that a recognizable image will not appear
for several hundred trillion years making the project a conceptual one. The
“computational promise” of the experiment created by the artist exists only
conceptually without an original or a copy.  Every time the viewer revisits
the site, the calculation begins a new and thus the machine repeats its “promise”.
The value of this type of medium is apparent without the constraints of originality
and conveys meaning sometimes “beyond the scale of human existence”. 
Web art “by exposing the multiplicity, the facticity, the repetition and stereotype
at the heart of every aesthetic gesture” defines itself as the postmodern medium
of our technological society. This reproductive medium exists without originals
and thereby suggests that “if art could no longer be original” then the concept
of the “artist as an individual genius” has become an outmoded idea.
 As Every Icon revisits an unattainable answer, Desktop
IS introduces the concept of a searching through digital detritus to pose
an unanswerable question.  The Desktop IS project
questions the individual users' configuration of their personal desktop and
creates a dialog about the user’s identity and the desktop as an “inhabitable
space”.  The
“distinctive individual brush stroke” of the artist is absent as traditional
appropriation is utilized through a type of electronic readymade, the desktop.  Each desktop is a “found” object used to “comment
on the human condition” as the viewer juxtaposes each desktop with the next.  The artist creates
nothing but a conceptual platform to question “personal identities mapped onto
this intimate interface”.  The idea exists
in a pure format on the web, without the distraction of potential burdening
arguments of originality suggested by modernism.
To read the rest of this article by Amy Divila please watch out for future issues of NMEDIAC.
 Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity – An Incomplete Project”, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, p. 5.
 Glen Helfand, “Net Work: The SFMOMA Webby Prize and
the State of Online Art”, Open: The Magazine of the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art, Fall 2, p. 39
 Lucy Lippard & John Chandler, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-1972,
New York, Praeger Publishers,1973.
 Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, Art
of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s, Westview
Press, Boulder, 1996, p. 334.
 Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 346
Howard Singerman, “In
the TEXT”, A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation,
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1989, p. 162 – 163.
 Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 347.
Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31
(winter 1984): 59, 63.
 Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 347.
 Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs of Conceptual Art”, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories and Documents
of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1996, p. 825.
 John F. Simon, Jr., Every Icon
 Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 346.
Patrick Frank, “Recasting
Benjamin’s Aura,” New Art Examiner, Mar. 1989, p. 30.
 Fredric Jameson, “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Post-Contemporary
Interventions, Duke University Press, Durham, 1991, p. 5.