Art From the Mass Media's Barrage of Images

New York's Whitney Museum looks at how visual artists have responded to the image glut in postwar US culture

A FEW vital statistics, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art, where they are currently posted for all to see: Some 260,000 billboards line the roads of the United States;

No fewer than 23,076 newspaper and magazines are available to Americans;

Each day, 162 million TV sets are turned on for an average of seven hours each;

Movies are shown in 23,237 theaters;

Videos are sold in an estimated 27,000 stores;

Every day, every American is exposed to about 1,600 commercial messages.

What is the impact of so many images, bombarding us every day of our lives? Psychologists have one set of answers; sociologists have another. But artists - who deal in images themselves, presumably on a serious and thoughtful level - are rarely asked their opinions on the subject.

That's where the Whitney Museum comes in. Its newest exhibition, ``Image World: Art and Media Culture,'' looks at artists' own responses to mass-media influence on postwar American culture. Including more than 100 works by about 65 artists and groups, it offers its own bombardment - but a bombardment with a purpose, which is to raise questions about the relationship of imagery, technology, and the society that produces them. Continuing through Feb. 18, the show also features a related attraction called ``Image World: Metamedia,'' comprising more than 250 films and videotapes made during the past 30 years.

``What we're after,'' says John Hanhardt, the Whitney's curator of film and video, ``is identifying and interpreting the impact which photography, film, [and] video have had on our visual culture from 1960 to the present.''

That's a tall order, requiring a sense of perspective on both the present and the past. Asked what the museum is putting its main focus on, Mr. Handardt points to a ``new relationship'' between artists and the mass media. This started to take shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when photography and film made a strong impression on the visual arts. But a new phase began in the 1960s, as American artists started ``to appropriate, to take images from our popular culture - from television, from advertising - and make that a part of their work.''

The result, Hanhardt says, has been a critique and also a transformation of those familiar pop-culture images. ``Television is a pervasive part of our lives,'' he says. ``Films have been a pervasive part of our popular culture. And now as artists reflect on them ... they're [also] part of the art world.''

What curator Hanhardt calls ``the dynamic relationship between artists and the world around them'' has accomplished two things where the mass media are concerned: providing artists with grist for their own image-making mills, and changing the way ordinary people see popular culture.

``I think [the relationship] provides a new awareness, a new way of seeing,'' says Hanhardt, ``through the ideas, the images that artists have made. And it makes us aware, also, that there's always been [a] dynamic relationship between technology and image-making.''

Hanhardt uses the word ``circularity'' to describe the complicated flow - revolving around both serious art and popular culture - that the Whitney exhibition probes.

On one hand, he says, mass culture often borrows from high art, as when advertising takes ideas from serious photography and film, or when music videos show the influence of video art. On the other hand, ``issues that develop within popular culture are picked up by artists,'' as well.

THIS points to a sharing of interests by ``serious'' and ``pop'' culture. Some critics have hailed this as a key development in the modernist and Post-Modernist periods. Yet others feel it raises a deep and disturbing question: Can works profoundly influenced by commercialized, mass-audience products really be called ``art'' at all?

Many traditionalists say no, if only because mass-audience products must be simplified and homogenized to reach a wide, media-conditioned public. Hanhardt, however, feels the answer is an emphatic yes. ``Art is not determined by technology,'' he insists. ``Art is determined by the vision of the artist.''

He notes that mass-media images are in the ``Image World'' exhibition ``not to sell goods [or] fantasies on commercial television or in advertising'' but rather ``to provide a critical and reflexive view on ourselves and on the world around us. That's the role art plays and has always played.''

One of the most striking works in the Whitney exhibition is ``Fin de Si`ecle II,'' a wall-sized arrangement of more than 300 television sets by Nam June Paik, a respected South Korean video artist [see interview at left]. With its flashy images generated by high-tech equipment, it makes a good test case for the argument that mass-media ``products'' can become ``art'' when handled with the right intentions.

``This is an artist using television as a sculptural material,'' Hanhardt maintains. ``It's a new canvas, a new surface. And so, yes, it's art. Art is always changing, as artists explore their visions through new media.''

Some observers disagree about the merits of Mr. Paik's video art, and Hanhardt admits there is still resistance to the pop-culture fascination that surges through the Whitney show. ``There's the idea that art is not supposed to engage the material and issues of the real world [but instead should] keep us away from those jarring realities. But art also participates, reflects on, interprets those realities!''

The heart of ``Image World,'' in Hanhardt's view, is a sense of ``the hand of the artist, the mind of the artist, shaping and forming'' what might seem to be unlikely materials. An artist like Paik, he explains, is saying through his work ``that I, as an individual artist, can use this technology that you see as corporate broadcast commercial television ... that you have no real involvement in ... to make my own images, to express my vision.''

The ``Image World'' exhibition was organized by Whitney curator Lisa Phillips and guest curator Marvin Heiferman, along with Hanhardt, who also assembled the ``Metamedia'' program.

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