The Engagement Aesthetic – An Introduction

If we read between the lines of all that has been written about digital art — however loosely one might define this enterprise — we might locate a ubiquitous characteristic present to all definitions, hinted at inside the asymmetry of relation to the major fields or domains that are differentially related to it — some strangely argued as “central” to digital art, others strangely absent from their necessary relation to it. In the former kind of link, the recent connection between “digital” and “game” in the connotative space of artistic discussion can persuade one to see one term as a synonym for the other — evidence if nothing else of the perils that inhere to ontological claims made without careful regard to historical consideration. That games have followed a developmental trajectory wholly independent of that of art — and the inverse being equally true — should serve as caution less about the possibility of tracing the space of games scholarship than about the dangers of assuming the solution to prior problems in another field. For art itself, as an historical and empirical enterprise has since the latter part of the twentieth century shown a nature for being resolutely skeptical to any sense of what it might or might not be. And in the digital sphere, art is even more immaterial without being insubstantial, even more dynamic without being contradictory, and uniquely transformed without feeling displaced or ahistorical. Perhaps the problem ought to be decomposed into component questions.

And, with Kant, we might assume how a skeptical rather than positivist approach could bring the whole problem of what inheres to “digital art” to new fertile epistemic terrain, so that any possibility of a definition could best be approached through analysis of some misperceptions and problem assumptions — let us examine some popular claims, perhaps the principal of these being that “digital media art is entirely new.” At first, this claim seems too self-evident for critical interrogation, but how does it reconcile with the fact that problems of expression, viewing, experiencing, and being have predated every medium of aesthetic expression? That the medium appears new, then, must be reconciled with what is being put through it in the form of new work, work whose problems like those of any other art, come to the artistic process as antecendents of a medium, not as results of it. In another, perhaps less cavalier claim which we could term under reductionist relativism, digital media art is seen as but one kind of thinking or viewing among many possible perceptual practices. What complicates this claim is the underlying premise of the medium itself, whose operation constitutes one kind of singularity — of form — while itself being wrapped in (and producing) an uncountably sweeping perceptual variety of expressive and interpretive encounters. Naturally, then, we might propose the logical opposite of this latter claim, concluding therefore that that digital media art is medium-specific or medium-centric. Perhaps this would seem feasible because it is more central, more constant to questions of the medium and of the art within it. If, after all, we take as our point of departure the nature of the digital medium, how unconnected can any notion of art within it be? The flaw in this tempting position is that art is not and never has been defined in a medium-specific way. It has been exemplified by media like sculpture or oil on canvas, but never credibly defined through, within, or by implication, because of them. Those are precisely the kinds of reductive claims that have proved most dated, most ideological, most axiomatically inflexible in light of new art — with the passage of time, Clement Greenberg’s arguments increasingly appear as the newest installment in the many histories of outmoded classifications of aesthetic production. For digital media art — again, however defined — issues that transcend medium cannot be considered secondary; an artist may appear to create because of the digital medium, but cannot create only because of it, and this begs the problem of what lies outside this implied “not only”, since it ties what is digital to what compels artistic creation in every other form or medium.

In fact, this “not only” is already woven into the crisis of reception that contemporary art confronted when its own mediumhood began to explode out from under conventional forms. While subtle, the departure of contemporary sculpture from the rubric of its modern legacy did not come with the advantage that the contemporary sculptural reading could be extended to new forms in space. Instead, a decidedly modernist — not to say Romantic — sensibility has to this day prevailed as a centerpiece of sculptural interpretation. It is as if, ornithologically speaking, the modern pelican were still seen as the reptilian pterosaur from which it emerged. If the universe of art evolves through media transitions like the animal kingdom evolves through genetic ones, the extinction of any specific form says nothing about the question of life itself, which for art is the ontological question. And so, to read Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc with a modernist or Romantic eye is to constrain contemporary sculpture to a prehistoric reading. It is not an object that interested Serra, but a process of viewing, a phenomenological commitment of physical order, something that has taken the place of aesthetic convention, for which reason he could assert that

The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes. Contraction and expansion of the sculpture result from the viewer’s movement. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.

Need we really state that this articulation, one in which position in projected space becomes the experience of the work, is completely alien to nineteenth century sculpture? Yet I draw on the example of Tilted Arc as a case, one to which I frequently return, of the troubling triumph of spectatorship over engagement, of the primordial over the postmodern, that has persisted in popular thought, perhaps with the ironic twist  — given the forced destruction of Tilted Arc — that it is the new rather than the archaic that has now been made extinct. If the viewer of the 1980’s (not so long ago, is it) could not engage with Tilted Arc as legitimate art, how can the present user universe be brought to engage with digital media as equally legitimate? It is in each of these cases — and in other new media —  not a spectorial aesthetic, but an engagement aesthetic that defines the new.  And so it is to a detailed critique of the engagement aesthetic that I will turn next.