In 1993, Russian conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid organized a polling project which asked participants what they look for in a work of art. This project, codenamed 'People's Choice,' polled citizens across North and South America, Asia, and Africa and represented the artistic tastes of close to two billion people. The results, published in 1997's 'Painting by Numbers,' are striking in their similarity. From Kenya to China, from the U.S. to the Ukraine, people clearly expressed their desire for a tranquil and realistic blue landscape. Apparently, we all desire to crawl back to a primordial comfort zone, a transcultural Blue World Order.
Komar and Melamid painted the results of their poll, and the paintings turn out to be precisely the sort of art that Clement Greenberg attacks in 1939's 'Avant-garde and Kitsch.' He declares that avant-garde is "…the only means to create art and literature of a higher order…" since kitsch celebrates the common and "…creates a universal culture…" based on standards derived from science and industry rather than art. However, the results of the 'People's Choice' poll may argue against this position. If we accept the notion of a blue landscape which spans from the plains of Kenya to the towers of Manhattan, it appears that kitsch may not create a universal culture, but rather access and articulate universal desires and standards which are already in place. Moreover, perhaps the blue landscape represents what is most beautiful in us, a kind of internal Platonic Form of the Beautiful which unites humanity in a deep blue brotherhood. In light of this, who is Greenberg to deny us our blue landscape? Why should we let this fascistic art critic turn us away from the immediacy of the common and force us to embrace the hypermediated avant-garde, which Greenberg himself describes as "…one of the most artificial of all human creations?"
The answer may be found in new media. Using Enzensberger's criteria, it appears that Greenberg's avant-garde leads to 'repressive' uses of media as seen in the broadcast model or the even the art museum (i.e. "one transmitter, many receivers, production by specialists, control by property owners or bureaucracy," etc.), while kitsch leads to 'emancipatory' uses of media as seen in the online model (i.e. "decentralized program, each receiver a potential transmitter, interaction of those involved, feedback, social control by self-organization," etc.). Lev Manovich goes one step further and declares that new media is actually the culmination and embodiment of the avant-garde aesthetic, since "the techniques invented by the 1920s left-wing artists became embedded in the commands and interface metaphors of computer software. In short, the avant-garde vision became materialized in a computer." Thus, it appears that new media delivers a utopian vision of emancipation and creative freedom within the superior intellectual framework of a digital avant-garde.
Yet there is trouble in paradise. Bill Gates is not Kandinsky. When given the freedom to control and shape content, without guidance we will inevitably create blue landscapes as far as the eye can see. We will not create art and literature of the highest order. We will watch football and download porn. In Plato's terms then, perhaps the blue landscape is not the Form of the Beautiful, but merely a visual representation of the appetitive portion of the soul. And like the prisoners in Plato's cave, we need a program which will engage our reason and put it back in the drivers seat, leading us away from what is lowest and worst in us. In light of this, this paper will argue for the importance of such a program in the form of a new media object: the avant-garde software code. Since users must shape content within the bounds of, as Manovich calls it, "the externalized mental life of the media designer," the avant-garde software code will preserve the emancipatory qualities of new media while infusing the user's experience with the educative qualities of Greenberg's avant-garde. In the process, the users will lead themselves away from the blue landscape toward something higher.
In addition to fleshing out the above argument, I will analyze instances of new media objects which approach avant-garde functionality, such as the Context Breeder at Rhizome.org. I will situate these objects within the flow of my argument and describe how they may or may not fulfill the stated requirements of avant-garde software code. These examples will include embedded hyperlinks so readers may investigate this functionality for themselves.
Komar, Vitaly & Melamid, Alexander. Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art. Ed. JoAnn Wypijewski. Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University fo California Press, 1997.
Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. Constituents of a Theory of the Media.
Manovich, Lev. Avant-garde as Software. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001.
Plato. Republic (Paul Shorey, Trans.). New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.
Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-Garde & Kitsch." The Collected Essays and Criticism. Ed. John O'Brian. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Rhizome.org (I'm considering several online multimedia pieces for examples and analysis)