Cream 7
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Tasty cream. We attack your taste buds today. In our new series of cream
we present you the next speaker of our small symposium on art criticism
and net art in Amsterdam January 25th 2002. This speaker is not a cream
contributor, and he is not a writer. Graham Harwood was the one artist
in a panel of four. Graham Harwood is best known for his work with
Mongrel ( He talked about the
Mongrel project at the Tate Modern
( to illustrate
his thoughts on art criticism. When he was asked to write his thoughts
down for cream afterwards he said he preferred to present his ideas in
the shape of an interview. We don't publish interviews normally on
cream, as we try to focus on writing criticism mostly. But in this case
we make an exception, as Harwoods position is maybe exemplary of (or at
least similar to) the thoughts of many influential European media art
Graham Harwood explains why he does not like the notion of good taste.
The interview has not been edited much, and it takes a bit of
flexibility in the mind of the reader sometimes to go along with the
bends in the road Harwood sometimes creates. Nevertheless I think some
of his thoughts might resonate in your mind and warm up your taste buds
for an art criticism that can even deal with something as phenomenal as
the tax system. Let's open up to a new frame of mind, have your spoons
ready, here is cream 7: Graham Harwood on art criticism. 


JB: Can you tell me your point of view on art criticism and net art?

Graham Harwood: I think the description I was trying to make in De Balie
was that art criticism comes from a certain mode of cultural production.
That mode of cultural production was generally for the social elite that
was trying to maintain or create its position in society for taste. The
manufacturing of taste in a more or less homogeneous culture, in which
let's say all people are white, is about how you make divisions. How you
make divisions between those that have a natural right to wealth and
privilege and those that don't. For a good few centuries art was used
mainly for this purpose. This was its main function. Because if you
define a set of values for the social elite (and art was the best way to
transmit this over time and across place, it was a very efficient
method), once you agree a set of taste values anyone that does not
conform or understand those taste values is not part of your group.
Ritually they are excluded. Taste has always been manufactured to create
a distance between the mob and the social elite. 
Art criticism generally comes from that trajectory. That is not to say
that is invalid, but that is it's general direction.

JB: And you would say that of 20th century art criticism as well?

GH: Yes. Talking from the art criticism I have read in Britain I think
there were radical moves in 20th century art to try to make some kind of
disruption along Marxist lines, but most of the art works, most artists
and most art criticism came from the same space. It came from a literate
social elite. Even those rebelling against it were from the social
elite. They were not your average worker in a factory, they were not
your average peasant standing up there and saying "this is what I
think". They were certainly people of note in society. 

JB: And feminists or deconstructivists haven't made a difference there?

GH: That is much later, and that is much to do with media culture. Media
culture grew from bits of film, bits of photography and then getting
into major, major motion in the sixties when it takes off. That is
something different. The old forms of art, culture and taste values were
transformed into mass media. That is a sea of change. Instead of just a
small group of people being able to manufacture these things a bigger
group (still not that big, but a bigger group) gets into play. Then you
get snapshot photography, which means that even more people are
beginning to make meaningful culture for themselves. In the 1960's you
get the feminists, women's movement, the gay rights addressing an image
within society, an image within culture, an image of women, an image of
the black. They are not questions about particular art strategies. They
are questions about what are the images that dominate us. And the images
at that point are not artistic images. They are cultural images, media
images. The debate is very different at that time. 

JB: But it has had an effect on art criticism..

GH: I think it kind of blew apart a lot of ideas of universality art
tried to stay with. Abstract expressionism, those kind of things were
blown apart. You end up with a very different notion of what art is,
what it is not and what function it has. I think that the key questions
now are very different. The problems are much sharper. I think now
everyone with access to clean drinking water is also making meaningful
media for themselves. Snapshot photography, tape recordings, photocopied
letters… all the things that people manufacture who have got access to
clean drinking water. The next thing after clean drinking water and
reasonable food is: make meaningful culture for yourself. So you start
to save the pictures of your grandparents, you start to grab the
pictures of your parents, you start to build your archive of
meaningfulness that you make for yourself. 

JB:  So if you are not living in extreme poverty then you are part of
media culture. Is that what you are saying?

GH: You can be in poverty and still be part of media culture. But I
think clean drinking water is a reasonable place to start. That is when
people do start to take pictures etc.

JB: Why that connection, the clean drinking water and the media?

GH: Because I think before that you are usually dying (laughs loud). The
clean drinking water scenario means you don't have to then just talk
about bloated western cultures. You can talk much more widely. In India,
once you've got your clean drinking water, then you can get on with your
snapshots of your family. 
Anyway, what's happening now is that more and more people make
meaningful media for themselves. The thing is that that offers a much
larger counterweight to the banal big media or mass media that exists.
So all those instances when we were talking about what is the image of
women, what is the image of black people in cinema, what is the image of
this, what is the image of that in the mass media in the 60's, 70's,
80's, whatever, now you get a point where there is so much meaningful
media that you can't understand because you don't understand the context
that it comes from, but you know it is there. And you know it is acting
against or in response to big media, yet you can't access it. These are
really difficult questions. Then you get questions like: what is an
artist then? If an artist is not making meaningful media, or making
points for cultural debate… if that debate is already happening
elsewhere, if those kind of networks of meaningful media are being made
then what is our position? What are we doing? 
My problem with art criticism and net art is that maybe what we are
doing is that we are still looking into these cultures of social elite
and their trajectories which have more or less dissipated anyway, and we
are still trying to move in that direction. Maybe the problem is how do
we deal with the amount of people that are making meaningful media for
themselves and how do we navigate it.

JB: To take that to the topic we had.. art criticism and art today
basically, that would mean what? Should art critics address all those
people that make meaningful media or is art and art criticism part of
this abundance of meaningful media? It seems somehow that what you are
saying is too generalized and it does not seem to have a focus or point
of view from which we are looking at the situations at hand. Are you
looking up, down, outside, inside?

GH: It is a leveler point of view. Say you have a list and it is for
Indian cooking. There are many people on this list and they talk about
different recipes, from different parts of India. They talk about the
recipes that have been handed down from their families and there are a
lot of people spending a lot of time making dinners for each other etc.
The problem is: how do you interpret that in terms of net art. It is
obviously meaningful. People are obviously constructing their life
around it. It is making meaningful exchange between people, it is
building a network, it has got communities…

JB: But does it have an artistic intent?

GH: Obviously. It is making food. Food is a very aesthetic and
meaningful practice. How do you deal with it? And that is just a tiny
fragment of what is there. How do you actually begin to deal with it? I
think this is a real problem. How does my work or jodi's work or someone
else's work engage with this? When obviously you can't produce something
of such wide meaning individually. 

JB: It seems a bit like you create a problem that is not there somehow.
Or that you like other voices that I have heard somehow seem to get
stuck in this idea that now there are so many voices and so many
possibilities or so much freedom or however you want to say it, and this
therefore means that everything is now happening on the same level or
that everything is done with the same intent. There is a tendency to say
there are no differences in cultural value anymore and therefore we
cannot base value on differences. The value of a piece of art for
instance. The value of a piece of art is, amongst other things, very
much depending on the artists intent with the work. 

GH: Intent to me seems to weak an argument. If the only difference
between a piece of art and not a piece of art is intent then to me that
is too weak.

JB: What is artistic intent? In it functionality (as in a tool) is not
the primary goal for example, or it does not have some kind of plain and
obvious usefulness for everyday life. It makes interventions, statements
and comments on another level then that. That is one way to describe
artistic intent for me. 

GH: Yes, but you can have a media image, like the child running after
the bombing in Vietnam. It has huge cultural social and cultural impact.
It resonates for a long time. There was no artistic intent for such an
image. Not at all. But the image has such a resonance within the
cultures of the time that it has a transformative quality. Very much
like the Medusa had for the social elite in the Victorian times. 

JB: It is aesthetisized by the media basically. By the constant copying
and reproduction which happens through the media.

GH: I don't think that is quite true. Then you would have a problem with
something like when Rodney King was beaten in Los Angeles by the police.
An image like that can be fabricated, it does not have to be real at
all. But because it actually locked into the everyday life of people
they understood that image. It resonated with them. Whether it was real
or not, it resonated. Even though the media reproduced it, the image was
already present. That was the crystallization of such an image. 
If we want to understand the dynamics of culture then I don't think that
artistic intent is useful for doing that. 

JB: Art and culture are not the same thing though.

GH: I am not sure about that. Even if I find some of the images and
artworks of that social elite trajectory very interesting and quite
rewarding I don't particularly accept that they are useful things
spending time manufacturing. That kind of art. I think there are many
kinds of cultural production that people do in their daily lives that
enriches their lives, makes them meaningful, points out problems or
celebrates different aspects of themselves.. these are not part of that
trajectory and I find those much more appealing. 

JB: But then you could just as well be a politician or an architect (who
are often considered artists of course), or anybody that enhances our
feeling of richness of life that is not depending on money. If something
gives you a pleasant life it is not necessarily art.

Another question: I have the impression that you also want to extend the
field of art into life itself, like the situationists in the sixties. Is
that correct?

GH: I don't think there is any difference between me gardening, which is
probably where I deal more with beauty and those kinds of things, or
noticing and talking about those things and making art. That enriches me
in exactly the same way as making more outspoken and directed
interventions into culture. I don't think there is any separation for
me. I would not choose to have the poetics of gardening as my main
public discourse, but I wouldn't mind if the world was a bit better. I
would be quite happy talking about the poetics of tulips, rather then
the story of dead children in London (Graham Harwood is working on a
poem with this subject, JB). It is far nicer. I just don't feel I can
talk about those things. It is certainly there. Like in the Bijlmer
(neighborhood of Amsterdam with most colored people JB) when you see the
allotments where people people bring vegetables and flowers from all
over the world and trade them or give them as gifts to each other. You
see how enriching that is. That is certainly artistic. It has all the
values ascribed to art but within people's daily lives. 

JB: To get back to art criticism today in the environment of different
voices in different types of meaningful media… what trajectory do you
think we should go then as art critics. Do you have any vague or clear

GH: I think there is one proposal that is not too bad. When we know
these lists are out there I think the proposal is not to write the novel
or the narrative, but what is the structure that will reveal the
qualities of the list. What structure is imaginable that you can place
on lists that will reveal all the intimacy and exchange that takes place
there. That is a credible proposal.

JB: So that would mean that you see art criticism as creating a context
in which you reveal certain aspects of the exchanges and content there
in a very specific way. That would mean a new or different sort of
editorial practice?

GH: I suppose it is being able to devise the structures that reveal
those qualities.

JB: Then the art criticism is basically just revealing certain aspects
of mailing list culture.  Then that is all art criticism at that point
does: reveal. 

GH: No. Then you are just saying this exists, this exists and this
exists.. But if you have a structure through which you can imagine the
complexity… One problem we have at the moment is that we have these
beautiful systems for collecting tax, these marvelous giant algorithms
that are ale to extract money out of our pockets. They have a great
poetic. How they work, how they configure and bring all these different
people together and how they structure them in these big things. It is a
huge and marvelous thing. It is a beautiful monster. And you want to
make it work right, you want to be able into every person's pocket. You
want to be able to take all this money out and spend it on arms and all
these other things. Programmers sit there completely fascinated by this
giant monster, this universe of taking tax. The thing is, you need to be
able to describe that. They only do this because it is beautiful. People
don't do things that don't have this kind of beauty. It is the same
beauty as the pilot dropping the bomb on people. It is very beautiful
from above. He looks down and it is aesthetically pleasing, it is
elegant, it is powerful, it is beautiful. That is why he can drop the
bomb. It is the same thing with the tax system or the social security
system or all these other giant systems. They are all beautiful. We need
to be able to critique that. The net art critic needs to be able to deal
with that poetry. When you're dealing with that poetry, then the place
of people making specific statements about these cultures has a
resonance and a place. Then we are dealing with structures that occupy
our lives. Then we have much more context I think. 

JB:  This reminds me somehow of a text I read, a lecture, by a man from
India. It was about the state and background of art criticism in India.
He explained how art criticism was brought there by colonialism, it did
not exist before. After India became independent art criticism in India
split up in traditional Indian art criticism and western art criticism.
The same critic often writes both types of criticism. This man also
wrote about one Indian art critic who said that western art is totally
self indulgent and too individualistic. It seems like you feel that way
about western art as well and that you are looking for an art that
reflects bigger structures of our world as a whole. 

GH: It is useful for me if people that do net art criticism can write
about the context in which the work that I am making appears. And that
context is the poetics of those social security machines. It is the
transformation of something. Like the way Photoshop has transformed the
way we view images. Even images made before Photoshop existed. The
popular notions of for instance truth have been dismissed. If net art
critics can actually make that context, can address the work that I and
other people produce in that context, then I think we are going
somewhere. Then I think we are relevant to people. 


cream is an experimental collaboration of writers and curators in the
field of net art. You can subscribe to cream and we invite you to
forward this mail to anybody you feel might be interested in the content
of cream.

Contributors to cream: Saul Albert, Inke Arns, Tilman Baumgaertel,
Josephine Bosma, Sarah Cook, Florian Cramer, Steve Dietz, Frederic
Madre, Robin Murphy, Tetsuo Kogawa, Sarah Thompson.


cream would not be possible without the work and hospitality of the
House of Laudanum, .