I was at the Walker Art Center the other day to check out a show called “Nine Artists” which was full of contemporary work, made mostly or entirely within the last few years.
The good news is that there was quite a lot of media in the show – video installations on a number of screens presented either in their own darkened enclosures, or intermingled with sculpture and painting.
The presentation was extremely clean and professional – the Walker installation team is first rate. Often I’m shocked by the sloppy presentation of media in galleries, even in classy museums. But the work itself was, almost without exception, in my humble opinion, horrendously ugly.
What do I mean by ugly?
I don’t believe that all art should be beautiful, or representational – there’s plenty of room in the contemporary art conversation and in the canon for grotesque things, abstract things, simple things, messy and clumsy things.
But, there’s a difference between ugliness as a choice and an intention, and ugliness that comes from a lack of skill, attention, or care. The most abstract of painters, I would still expect to have a facility with the tools of their craft – how paint behaves, color theory, informed choices of brushes and palette knives, technique. A trained hand.
Speaking as someone who has worked with film and video for the last 15 years, it’s abundantly clear to me that most of the video art I have seen is made by artists with severely limited knowledge of and experience with their tools; cameras, lights, editing.
As I would expect a painter or a metal sculptor to be able to look at an artwork and assess the craft and skill of the artist, I feel qualified to assess the craftsmanship of the video art I see, and I find it poor to non-existent about 80% of the time, estimating generously.
I don’t believe that everything needs to look “professional,” or even that film and video art need to be created with professional-grade tools. I shoot videos that I consider beautiful and compelling with cheap cameras on a regular basis. So, choice of tools, and facility with the tools chosen, are two entirely different subjects.
This is an issue for me every time I go to see contemporary media work in a gallery or museum setting. I want to appreciate it, I try to appreciate it, but I usually leave disappointed, offended, and perplexed.
I believe that there must be an ideology at play in the work, for it to be so consistently ugly – and beyond that, a specific type of ugliness – a limpness, a frailty, a disposability.
I have at least a working knowledge of the history of video art, and from what I understand, the early aesthetics of video art tended toward ugliness for a couple of reasons – one was a reaction against the slickness of corporate television production – the simple freedom to make an ugly video seemed remarkable at first, I imagine. Another was that artists simply didn’t know how to use these tools – the cameras were expensive and new in the 70s and even into the 80s, hard to get ahold of, so there wasn’t a ton of opportunity to practice shooting and editing outside of an actual television studio. Plus the early cameras were heavy and cumbersome, and not very light sensitive. To register an image required sunlight or high-wattage studio lights, and the camera sensors’ “latitude” was also poor – their dynamic range was limited (i.e. in high-contrast settings, shadows turn flat black, bright areas turn flat white).
I can see why art that comments on the aesthetics or the social dynamics of television would be averse to creating immersive, dramatically compelling, lushly beautiful images – that in the 70s or even the 80s, it would be impactful as an audience to see the starkness and coldness of the un-enhanced video camera gaze.
And, I can see the value, at least historically, in the distinction between filmmaking and video art – filmmaking (with film) as the creation of an immersive, sometimes beautiful, unique experience to be watched in the dark, and video art as an investigation of a stream of data, the information relayed by an unblinking mechanical eye, etc..
But, that sense of ambivalence to technique and skill seems to have stuck with video, for decades now. At this point I find it deeply tiresome, and I can’t be alone in that.
On the other side of the film / video divide, filmmaking seems to have become ever more committed to unquestioning ethic of entertainment – meaning that even when it’s beautiful, it’s eminently consumable, commercial, digestible. While video art seems to remain defiantly antagonistic, emotionally withholding, and / or petulantly anti-aesthetic.
Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m the dumbass in the gallery scoffing at the work whose brilliance I simply can’t grasp. I’m open to that possibility.
But to me, the ugliness of video art reflects an ideology of, ultimately, nihilism and contempt. Certainly, as an audience member, it’s possible to comfort me with beauty and challenge me with ugliness. Giving offense and taking offense are valid modes of communication, in the arts and elsewhere. Surely, however, it must also be possible to challenge me with something beautiful, and surely there’s comfort, for the contemporary video artist, in resting and hiding in the safety of cold, distant ugliness.
The idea that Beautiful = Bad is no more valid, concerning video art, than the notion that Ugly = Good. Neither of these (admittedly oversimplified) value statements honor the complexity of art and the human experience, or the tools, instruments, forms and formats by which those complexities can be explored.
I’m not saying that all video art must be beautiful. But I believe that at least some of it should be.