Teaching (New) Media Art

Teaching (New) Media Art

Image for article by Pam Stephens, SchoolArts Magazine, March 2019.

Having just read an article bearing the above title—in the March issue of SchoolArts Magazine—I am reminded of the Seinfeld “show about nothing.” For New Media Art, it turns out, includes just about everything. Which means, in effect, that it is nothing in particular, certainly nothing teachable as a discrete discipline.

That has not deterred the School of Art at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff from introducing a degree program in New Media Art, however. Nor does it deter Pam Stephens—a professor of art education at the university—from urging her students to enroll in its courses in partial fulfillment of their studio requirements. Nor does she hesitate to recommend the field for its “meaningful transdisciplinary connections” to readers of SchoolArts, of which she is a contributing editor.

What Exactly Is “New Media Art”?

Unlike the old, digitized “media art”—Stephens informs us—the new version has the virtue of being far more inclusive. It embraces not only such postmodernist inventions as installation art, performance art, 3D printing, and video art, but also “many more” categories not covered in the space of her one-page article. Reading between the lines, open-endedness (in spades) is the name of the game.

“There is no limit to the materials or processes” that can be used in installation art, for instance, which “often test[s] the limits of what can be classified as art.” Indeed. That has more than a little to do with its origin as one of postmodernism’s anti-art inventions (along with “performance” and “video art”)—a salient fact not noted by Stephens, who simply accepts it uncritically as art. One of the “exemplar artists” she cites in this category is Yayoi Kusama, who has gained fame for creating installations such as rooms filled with her signature polka dots, which I would argue are more akin to an amusement park fun house than to a work of art. 1 And the most famous work by Ai Weiwei (another “successful installation artist” cited by Stephens) is the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project—which consists of a list of names of the earthquake’s victims, accompanied by heartrending videos of their family members. A powerful form of political protest by a courageous dissident, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, it scarcely qualifies as “art.”2 For Stephens, however, artworld fame apparently trumps all other considerations.

Then there is performance art, which likewise “covers a broad spectrum of approaches”—“scripted or impromptu, random or intentional, live or filmed, solo or collaborative”—and can include “elements of poetry, music, theater, or dance.” The key question (unasked by Stephens) is, How can anything that amorphous be taught? The answer is, It can’t. “Success” in the contemporary artworld appears to be sufficient reason for study, however. Performance “artists” worth exploring in Stephens’s view include Marina Abramović and Anthea Hamilton, for example. (Hamilton, by the way, was a finalist for Britain’s Turner Prize in 2016, thanks to a piece featuring a larger-than-life sculpture of a naked butt.) A recent “successful” Hamilton piece that Stephens cites is The Squash at the Tate Britain in London in 2018. I would characterize it as an elaborately designed but utterly meaningless spectacle—yet another fun-house brand of entertainment, not art—which manages to divert spectators without engaging them in a truly meaningful way. Similarly, Abramović drew sizable crowds to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010 with her interactive piece The Artist Is Present, in which she silently confronted an endless succession of museumgoers, staring each down in turn across an empty table.

Marina Abramović (and unknown participant), The Artist Is Present, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010.

As for video art, one of its “first recognized examples”—Stephens notes—was Nam June Paik’s “unplanned footage” of Pope Paul VI’s 1965 processional in New York City. Where, I would ask, is the art in unplanned footage?3

Do the New Media Signify Artistic Progress?

Seated Scribe - Ancient Egyptian

Artist unknown, Seated Scribe, Ancient Egyptian, 4th Dynasty (2613–2498 BCE), limestone, quartz and copper, 21 in. high, Louvre Museum.

The fourth of the new media discussed by Stephens is 3D printing. She characterizes it as an “additive sculptural process” and features a “3D-printed artwork” in the only image accompanying her article. Comparing that vacuous “artwork” with the compelling figure of an ancient Egyptian Seated Scribe pictured here, however [click on image to enlarge], leads me to think that while 3D printing is an instance of technological progress, it has subtracted more than it has added to the sculptural process. To my mind, it suggests regression, not progress, in the four and a half millennia that have intervened since the Scribe’s creation.4

Yet Stephens, like all too many of today’s art educators, seems entirely oblivious of such considerations of quality. Instead, she makes exorbitant claims regarding the benefits of studying New Media Art in preparing students for the 21st-century global society. Are we really to believe (as she implies, however unwittingly) that Marina Abramović’s performance stunts can serve as a model for “skillful social engagement,” for example, or that Yayoi Kusama’s obsessive engagement with polka dots can help teach anyone how to “solve real-world problems”? Of course we shouldn’t. But how many art teachers will have the sense to reject Stephens’s absurd claims or will instead clamber aboard the New Media bandwagon?


  1. Given Kusama’s obsession with polka dots, it is no wonder she has spent the past four decades residing in a psychiatric hospital, albeit voluntarily. But what are we to make of the critics, curators, and others who are presumably sane, yet tout her work as meaningful “art”?
  2. See “What’s Wrong with Today’s Protest Art?,” For Piero’s Sake, February 11, 2018.
  3. For more reflections on what’s wrong with “video art,” see my article on one of the artworld’s leading practitioners of the genre: “Bill Viola’s Passions—No Kinship to Rubens,” Aristos, May 2003.
  4. On the false notion of “progress” in the arts, see Kenyon Cox, “The Illusion of Progress,” December 13, 1912; and the more recent essay by composer John Borstlap, “The Myth of Progress in the Arts,” reprinted from his website by the Future Symphony Institute.