Technology IV: Art on the web - 1

The present subject is one which will continue to develop rapidly, and one whose implications are at best half-formed, but nonetheless one concerning which some tangible remarks are increasingly necessary. Indeed, I intend to take this topic as something of a touchstone for spinning the technology series off into a more personal & speculative series beginning with some thoughts here and largely unfolding next year. The first step, however, is to pull together the main ideas from several recent articles and use them to frame the idea of art on the web so that it can be discussed within a specific philosophical context. The idea that art is a web of connections is one I have repeated, and is certainly not new anyway. From that perspective, the idea of an explicit web of art seems wonderful. It certainly opens up many new possibilities, but there is also an urgency to realize them before they are whisked away by corporate restrictions. There are other sobering thoughts, such as an apparent reduction in human contact caused by reliance on technology, an issue already confronted to some extent in the world of recorded music, as well as issues regarding both the quality of digital sound and its implications for what composing means.

The low cost of Internet distribution can mean a renaissance for art music outside the realm of the popular, but it also rests on an economic model which further leverages popularity via advertising. Together with the tacit approval given to theft by "online culture," this is a topic which increasingly consumes me, for better or worse. It is not only a question of originality & borrowing, but of fundamental distortion to any message, of taking a poetic expression and splattering it with the crassest and most aggressive advertising imaginable, none of it with the writer's consent. It bothers me almost every day to know that people see my work through various services which "frame" it in advertising. Maybe I should simply stop letting it bother me. Or maybe I should sue. For now, hopefully, I can let that tension drive me to express some things which are difficult to express. The situation is anarchic, and so in some sense I approve. It is not so much the rampant & unrepentant thievery which weighs on my thoughts for the future, but that "dotcoms" are setting themselves up to get rich by helping their customers steal, not only without feeling any responsibility, but openly using greed as a justification. So now we have a culture where mortal sins are justifications for unsavory acts. As unpleasant as it seems, it also seems to call loudly for the artist.

How far can such brutal selfishness go? For that matter, how leveraged can cobranding become before the economic model collapses upon itself? What happens when more people stop seeing web pages as exciting novelties, but for what they are, i.e. mostly trash in both look & content? Many other long-time Internet residents — technophiles mostly — tell me that they simply tune out the advertising, and that it is no big issue. That is fine; I certainly believe it. What kind of environment is that for art, however? Tuned out!? That is exactly the opposite of the famous 1960s slogan calling for more social consciousness. Maybe we should try to grab attention as the increasingly infamous children's shows do, indulging people every instant so as not to require an attention span. We cannot play that game, not for ourselves and not for the ultimate good of the audience. What then of the idea that advertising adds credibility to a web site? I encounter this; it helps satisfy people's expectations concerning what constitutes a professional (i.e. profit-seeking) endeavor. Of course, art is not about blithely following people's expectations. I have long held some admiration for Borges, and one thing this situation suggests to me is fake ads. Parody is one type of art which can easily prosper intellectually on the web. It is much more difficult to be genuinely uplifting, unfortunately.

So what of all this free content? As I am fond of pointing out to people, libraries have free books. And as I write this, even having personally spent so many hours on the endeavor, I know also that modest libraries have more information on Renaissance music than all of us have been able to put online thus far. People usually stare at me when I tell them this. I don't think they go to libraries. Let me ask: When you read a book (and people seem to have been able to achieve something worthwhile with books over the years), do you find yourself thinking, "This information is useful or interesting, but it really needs a variety of colors & typefaces, and probably should have some cartoons moving around the page" as the people who review web sites apparently think? Maybe we can have those things when (if?) projects to scan library books for reading online come to fruition. Maybe we can also have the tiny fonts webmasters enjoy, so we can continue using magnifying glasses. It'll be like old times. One thing I have found myself thinking with respect to books, however, is that it would be nice to be able to search for terms in an entire collection or to link directly to embedded references. So I have my reasons for adopting this medium. There is also real opportunity for intertwining abstract literature which links to itself.

The web is, in many ways, the ultimate postmodern vehicle. It takes "substitution of contents" to a new level with its emphasis on links. Indeed, the most profitable pages on the web have no content at all, a fact which must make Derrida giddy. The web is about quotation, quotation of quotation, and maybe eventually someone else's content, often stolen. Beyond this seeming anarchy, the web is actually becoming increasingly rigid, with specific conventions and constraints demanded by people who believe they can demand things. What a great study it makes for the evolution of convention. I have been writing web pages longer than nearly anyone (since 1991; the web per se debuted in 1990), but now I am doing it wrong. I take some delight in that. Is the web real at all? How does one find directness of expression amidst more and more misdirected layers of "web" stuff? Can we put the fact of this gigantic postmodern illusion to any explicit artistic use, besides making it difficult for someone to come 'round and punch us in the nose if we say something obnoxious, that is? There is the question of the day. Since the web has no beginning, it is inherently relativistic in form, and that relativism continues to permeate it, as it revels in anonymity and derides virtue (it is proceeding opposite from the melody determining form idea, one might say). Does the web have interpretive space? Yes! We can interpret something as we like, layer upon layer. The web is also like a collection, a collection of links, a collection of data. It is extremely rationalistic in this way, with all of its indexed & collated data, search functions and access reports. On the good side, it is an open-ended collection, assuming the search engines continue not to exclude "undesirable" pages from indexes, one which cannot be circumscribed. As soon as one circumscribes it, that listing is part of the web too.

Does any of this mean anything for art on the web? I will attempt to answer that question in the second part of this article, to appear immediately next week.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb