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The Moving Image in the Museum

by John G. Hanhardt
Consulting Senior Curator for Media Arts, Smithsonian Museum of American Art

The presence today of media installation art in major museum exhibitions and collections, international art surveys, galleries and private collections signals the continuing and further acceptance of media as a contemporary art form. Media based art is defined as drawing from film, the original photographic based celluloid technology of the moving image, and later the electronic magnetic technology of videotape. The history of these analogue based media have become an archive of styles and genres that have been established through the entertainment industries as well as individual artistic practices define a fundamental expansion and change to our visual culture. A new generation of artists, brought up within this ever-expanding media culture, taught in art schools by a generation of artists who first worked in video and film, and with individual access to an increasingly flexible and easy to operate and exhibit digital technology, are being accepted and celebrated in the art world.

This development reflects the continuing and increased presence of video, film, internet and digital multimedia in all areas of our private and public lives. The domestic sphere as well as the workplace is changing under the impact of computer driven digital technologies that are also transforming our visual culture —a culture where the recorded as well as processed and virtual image are subtly impacting on all aspects of how we imagine, receive and create art. The time when media based art was rejected because it was predicated on the moving image is gradually fading, as artists increasingly turn to these means for creating strong and powerful work. Thus not only is a discourse being fashioned out of the many forms and genres of media-based art, but other disciplines such as photography, and traditional discourses such as painting and sculpture are changing under the pressure and presence of video and multimedia technologies. Artists today increasingly work with and respond to a variety of materials, choosing the medium that best expresses and fulfills their creative goals. At the same time the boundaries between genres and materials is blurring as artist’s synthesize within a virtual domain a global archive of instantly available references and sources for art making.

The presence of the moving image, whether projected, seen on a monitor or a flat screen, or constituting part of an interactive platform or web site, introduces a complex of interpretive and historical questions. An increased understanding of the history of the moving image can only make more sophisticated our interpretation and understanding of work we are seeing today. The rush to accept the exciting and accomplished body of work of a new generation occurs too often at the expense of earlier generations of artists working in these same genres and forms. In addition various genres and forms of art practice that have flourished and been accorded international recognition are not placed into dialogue with what is being created today. The erasure of this history and lack of sophisticated interpretative language that can describe and codify the work with a critical language leaves today’s artists in isolation from the other arts and curators without the analytic and critical tools necessary to reflect fully and effectively on the art of the late Twentieth Century. Artist, collectors, curators, and critics need to know and understand this history in order to make the critical judgments that will shape the representation of the arts in the future and determine acquisition and preservation priorities today. The marketplace is driven by what sells and what a small community determines have investment value. However, this economic model is not taking cognizance of the complexities of work and history. Art historians too often advance what their community endorses within the power grid of the academy and its increasing links to the institutional marketplace of galleries, collectors and museums. The result is the loss of historical understanding and the challenge of the moving image to what is art and culture will become as the advancing media culture becomes a global phenomenon and dominates or systems of expression and communication. The material preservation of the media arts and the construction and dissemination of its history must be addressed and attended to hand-in-hand in order to have the means to contextualize and understand a constantly shifting new media culture.

The history of the moving image begins with the cinema. The projected cinematic image is certainly the single most powerful influence on the arts of this century. The complex of forms that the cinematic arts have taken serve as the foundation onto which video and later multimedia would build. The differences and continuities between these different media is the basis of fundamental changes that happened in film and the media arts, beginning in the early 1960s, that were to affect the course of these media as art forms over the following decades. It is clear that the history of Twentieth Century is going to be rewritten through the moving image. As we become a global media culture with access to a virtual archive of the history of the moving image through the internet we will recognize and need to engage a large and complex history. A history of the moving image that will fundamentally transform how we see art and the role of the museum.