Elitism vs. Populism: Interactive art

In his recent interview with media artist David Rokeby, ArtSync’s Michael Hansen immediately asked whether creating interactive art is inherently “pandering” to one’s audience. In doing so, Hansen referenced a common view in current art criticism: that in making one’s art public it becomes somehow devalued in the quest for the viewers’ attention. Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s resident art blogger, is a fervent proponent of the idea, stating that “art, if it has any value at all, is the product of deep and often rationally incommunicable perceptions, and to try and explain or share those perceptions in a communally created artwork will negotiate and re-edit them to banality.”

In addition to the pompousness of the language, Johnson’s statement embodies the popular concept of the art critic: one who can only find significance in art that is inaccessible by price or “difficulty” to the majority of viewers. For Johnson, attempting to explain or share one’s personal perceptions in a group setting renders them creatively void and banal. Apparently, granting voice to the group over the individual will make us all lose touch with our personal sense of humanity.

This idea stretches beyond art to modern society’s increasing use of social media. Johnson makes this connection with his pithy remark that “it seems only right that art, too, should twitter.” It is true that the astounding democracy of the internet has called into question all previously conceived notions of “value.” If something has not been published by a reputable committee, than how does one know to trust it? Johnson’s belief is that simply because 150 million people are twittering, their individual expressions are banal. The irony seems lost on Johnson, whose criticism is readily available online along with thousands of other art bloggers.

To clarify his question during the interview, Hansen made the distinction between the way interactivity is viewed from inside or outside the artistic community. Does the art community disapprove of interactive art because of their finely-honed sensibilities? Or is it that they are no longer part of the exclusive club that assigns meaning? Interactive art is fluid by nature, and it is perhaps this aspect that most challenges critics. One cannot have an authoritative opinion on something that is constantly in flux. Rather than read the individual messages, recent critics are content to see a blanket image of non-accredited people cheapening art, and miss both the singular and larger meanings.

Art has always been a two-way street. One must choose to engage with any piece, and in doing so give life to the meaning presented on the canvas. An discovered Van Gogh locked in an attic has no real “value.” It is also easy to see parallels between interactive art and every modern art movement of the last one hundred years, all deemed vulgar and artistically unrefined by major critics. I personally feel that art that promotes interpersonal interaction and a communal exchange of meaning — and away from, say, a $65 million dollar diamond skull — is a move in the right direction.

Interactive art has been accused of making both everyone and no one an “artist.” Yes, the concept of a singular “artist” may be removed. But the art remains.

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