May I just take a moment to preface this post. As the editor of Amy Goldin: Art In A Hairshirt, Art Criticism, 1964-1978, I was very pleased to see Art in America’s September 2013 issue feature Amy Goldin’s 1972 article, “Art and Technology in a Social Vacuum,” from their archives, engendering a serious appraisal by curator and critic, João Ribas.
Art in America has very generously allowed me to reproduce Ribas’ introduction in this post, in its entirety. You can’t find it anywhere else on the web. Ribas aptly points out both the strengths and limitations of Goldin’s analysis of several seminal technology exhibitions of the early 1970s.
Do not miss the chance to read Goldin’s article which Ribas’ introduction so beautifully presents within the magazine. In true Amy Goldin style, the essay is brimming with eloquent insights, along with a broad spectrum of uncensored zingers that may well catch you off guard. Perhaps the most piquant, in referencing one’s urges to slip into an aestheticized experience:
“The esthetic attitude is a perversion of love, classically described as disinterested desire, that can be aroused at will. A friend of mine, David Antin, remarked that “any man can think himself into an erection.” It’s the same with esthetic appreciation. You can look at anything with a connoisseur’s eye for its physical qualities and a refined enjoyment of its associations.”
So apt, funny and totally un-P.C. Who would dare use that sentence in an art essay—and get away with it today?
1n a 1972 Art in America article critic, Amy Goldin cast a skeptical eye on the art-and-technology movement. Now, in the magazine’s 100th year, the controversy resumes.
Introduction by João Ribas
As the cross-disciplinary currents of postwar art converged with the technological book of the Cold War in the 960s, new forms of art grew out of the collaboration between artists, scientists and engineers. Perhaps best-known examples are the Experiments in Art and Technology, MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the Artist Placement Group, and the Art and Technology Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The technological fascination present in the earlier art of the century—from Constructivism and Futurism onward—was now complicated by the horrors of the Second World War and the rapid transformation of a postindustrial economy.
This new art of phototransistors, image arrays, lasers and kinetic lights was caustically derided by Amy Goldin in “Art and Technology in a Social Vacuum,” published in the March-April 1972 issue of Art in America. Goldin (1926-1978), a painter, art critic and soon-to-be A.i.A contributing editor, received an NEA grant that same year to study decorative art at Harvard, leading to her critical engagement with Pattern and Decoration. Goldin’s conceit in assessing art and technology is that the latter is artistically trivial, so the combination of the two ends up suffused with the traditional concerns, despite the management’s wanting “to class up the joint in a modern way.” This “management”—mostly white and male—simply reframed elitist formalism in the rhetoric of “technology, systems, mass production, and public experiences.”
In the wake of what she calls the “fiasco” of the “Art and Technology” exhibition at LACMA in 1971, Goldin draws a trenchant conclusion: “The idea of art-and-technology has been more important than any work that has resulted from it.” The art, in fact, is mere” by-product and storage headache,” the “artificial breeding of white elephants.” Failing to differentiate the faith in technology from the effect of technological developments on art, the show’s artists, in Goldin’s view, leave us unable to clarify “our ideas about technology on the basis of their accomplishment.” What’s left is a form of mystification, trying vainly to assign “human significance to meaningless art.”
While merely one of many critics disparaging such art, Goldin writes with an incisive clarity that separates her assessment from Luddite bloviation. “Art and Technology” is marked by a terse energy and an agonistic intelligence—the kind that makes you keep reading to see how far she’ll go—backed by mordant turns of phrase (“Sucks to Henry James”). Her remarks on spectacle and populism are certainly prescient.
But, in hindsight, the “social vacuum” concept that defines Goldin’s discussion seems misguided. Technologically inflected art of the 1960s and early 1970s was in fact suffused with an attendant social project: “humanizing” the sciences and postwar technology. Pace Goldin, the “fantasy of technological art” was at least a liberative one, whose goals and politics are still debated today. Much of the art of the time posited a sense of progressive social transformation through technology. The “mutual compact” between art and science offered “one big way out or ahead of the thing the newspapers are always scaring us about,” as critic Jill Johnston wrote.1
Eliding differences among the various engagements with art and technology, Goldin alights on failure, both aesthetic and social. Yet even this was recuperated: by focusing on experimentation and process, artists and engineers declared that the most important result was not the artwork but their problem solving collaboration. The ultimate “failure” of such art rests on the paradox that Buckminster Fuller described as transforming “weaponry” into “livingry.” Can technologies linked to control, repression or consumption be redefined by artistic practices?
It’s an apt question today as the central metaphor of postwar paranoia—the mushroom cloud—has been transformed into the utopian image of “cloud” computing. How do we manage the aesthetic, social, political and cognitive effects of technology, while holding on to Goldin’s abiding insistence that, as she would write elsewhere, “art is society’s hairshirt—a reflection of all our doings, right or wrong”?
1. Jill Johnston, Marmalade Me, Hanover, N.H., Wesleyan University Press, 1998, p.87.
Originally published in Art in America, September 2013, BMP Media Holdings, LLC. For more information www.artinamericamagazine.com.