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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3]  

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”. [4] 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. [5] 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 formats.

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. [6]

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”. [7] 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. [8] 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. [9] 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. [10] 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. [11] 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. [12] 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”. [13]

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. [14] As Every Icon revisits an unattainable answer, Desktop IS introduces the concept of a searching through digital detritus to pose an unanswerable question. [15] 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”. [16] The “distinctive individual brush stroke” of the artist is absent as traditional appropriation is utilized through a type of electronic readymade, the desktop. [17] Each desktop is a “found” object used to “comment on the human condition” as the viewer juxtaposes each desktop with the next. [18] The artist creates nothing but a conceptual platform to question “personal identities mapped onto this intimate interface”. [19] 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.


[1] Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity – An Incomplete Project”, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, p. 5.

[2] 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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lucy Lippard & John Chandler, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-1972, New York, Praeger Publishers,1973.

[5] Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s, Westview Press, Boulder, 1996, p. 334.

[6] Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 346 & 347.

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.

[7] Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 347. Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (winter 1984): 59, 63.

[8] Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 347.

[9] John F. Simon, Jr., Every Icon, 1996.

[10] 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.

[11] John F. Simon, Jr., Every Icon

[12] Ibid.

[13] Randall Packer, Randall Packer is the Director of Multimedia at the San Jose Museum of Art.

[14] Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”,  p. 346.

Patrick Frank, “Recasting Benjamin’s Aura,” New Art Examiner, Mar. 1989, p. 30.

[15] Alexei Shulgin, Desktop IS , 1997 – present.

[16] Chris Locke, Chris Locke is a Xerox Lecturer in Electronic Communication & Publishing at University College London.

[17] 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.

[18] Susan Hazan,, Susan Hazan is the Curator of Multimedia at The Israel Museum.

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