He Said, She Said: Claire Bishop vs. the Internet in the Pages of Artforum

Claire Bishop.

Claire Bishop.

Not since the battle over Rob Storr’s 2007 Venice Biennale has there been such a juicy war of words in the letters pages of Artforum. This one erupted in the magazine’s January issue, over an article in the September issue by Claire Bishop, “Whatever Happened to Digital Art?”

In that article, Ms. Bishop, an associate professor of art history at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of the recent book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, writes, “[W]hy do I have a sense that the appearance and content of contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution? While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital?” She argues that contemporary art “disavows” the digital through an ongoing fascination with “old media,” like celluloid or slide projectors. “Today,” she writes, “no exhibition is complete without some form of bulky, obsolete technology.”

Ms. Bishop lists contemporary artists Frances Stark, Thomas Hirschhorn and Ryan Trecartin as exceptions that “point up the rule,” arguing that the “entire sphere of ‘new media’ art … is a specialized field of its own,” one that “rarely overlaps with the mainstream art world (commercial galleries, the Turner Prize, national pavilions at Venice),” the realm of contemporary art that the piece centers on.

Naturally, the article made a bunch of people on the Internet freak out.

In the January issue, a letter co-authored by Brian Droitcour, a frequent contributor to the publication, and Lauren Cornell—whose full, wordy job description is included in her byline, “Curator of the 2015 Triennial, Digital Projects and Museum as Hub, New Museum”—asks, “Why does this work remain invisible to Bishop? It is partly due to her focus on a ‘mainstream’ … Still, we would argue that even here the ‘divide’ she describes is actively being bridged and, because of a critical blind spot, she is forcing it back open.” Though their letter does not list the names of any artists or artworks that fall into this category, Ms. Cornell and Mr. Droitcour say Ms. Bishop’s thesis falls apart in the face of “the countless organizations, publications, and artist communities dedicated to this work.” The letter argues that Ms. Bishop’s essay is “badly timed,” “as art that critically engages network technologies proliferates and art institutions recognize the undeniable importance of the Internet …”

“It is telling that none of the many responses to my essay took the time to write a compelling critical defense of a particular work,” Ms. Bishop writes in her rebuttal, also printed in January’s Artforum. In her view, Ms. Cornell and Mr. Droitcour have missed her point:

The overwhelming response to this article has been one of indignation from proponents of new media, who protest that I did not seize the opportunity to celebrate the unsung creative forces in digital arts. I’m sorry to disappoint, but this is beyond the purview of my article—and, as many people rightly point out, my expertise … The article’s core question was why so little mainstream art reflects on what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital … I’m not talking about individuals and institutions using new media, but about how new media changes us.

Leaving the validity of these positions aside for the moment—both have their share of fine points and platitudes—we’d like to instead simply point out the irony of an argument about how digital media has changed the way we think and live taking place entirely in print. Disavowal, indeed!