ArtLexis Manifesto
I. A Whiff of the Aura

Contemporary visual art is a marginal undertaking. Like most traditional forms of Western high culture - theater, opera and orchestral music, and so on - serious new art has been relegated for a long time to a few centers of population large enough to allow a support system of patronage by wealthy elites. In smaller centers these arts may get propped up by government funding but the results do little to dispel the rumors of their demise.

The truly vital forms of contemporary culture - film, recorded music, and literature - are rooted in older arts which they have largely replaced. In each case, the new form was distinguished from its precursor by being multiple and repeatable. Theater gave way to film, musical performances gave way to recorded music, and storytelling gave way to writing and, eventually, printed books.

Each of these evolutions was marked by anxiety about the fidelity of the new multiple form to the nuances of its "authentic" parent. Eventually, each new form developed formal techniques which compensated for any such lack. The cinema, by allowing an entirely new vocabulary of the controlled and edited gaze of the camera, quickly moved away from the static and spatially limited conventions which it had inherited from theater. Recorded music, which once had to advertise its "hi-fidelity", eventually perfected studio techniques which were impossible to duplicate in live performance.

The shift to multiple production also allowed an enormous growth in consumption of the arts involved. The twentieth century saw the development of a multifaceted "mass" culture with thousands of competing styles and genres. In the United States recorded music was a fifteen billion dollar industry in 2001. By contrast, the American marketplace for new visual art is estimated to be just over one billion dollars per year despite a vastly higher cost per piece, and its audience is tiny.

This decline in the relative importance of visual art occurred because technologies which would allow the creation and distribution of compelling and sophisticated fine art multiples took much longer to develop. Processes like lithography and photography were widely viewed as poor substitutes for painting, and despite their early promises of affordability have been largely recouped into the existing system of wealthy and institutional collectors.

This marketplace disavows their multiple nature by insisting that they be confined to limited editions, thereby investing them with a whiff of the "aura" of authenticity which German critic Walter Benjamin famously ascribed to paintings and other original works. Even today, visual art remains centered on modes of production and distribution which emphasize unique objects (or even unique arrangements of otherwise multiple forms, such as video installations), ensuring that its audience remains small and elite.

II. John Cage and Snoop Dog

Danish semiotician Louis Hjelmslev coined the term lexis to refer to a socially determined "unit of cultural reception".

For example, films, literature and music have been received as videocassettes, books, and compact disks. Since they tend to be inexpensive, most households in the western world have extensive collections of these artforms. By contrast, visual art is usually only represented by a few posters, prints or coffee table books - and these are not recognized as art in the same way that a DVD may be thought of as a film. Rather, they are seen as reproductions.

The publishing industries which produce and circulate films, literature and recorded music are part of what is commonly referred to as the information economy. For Western culture, the development of this economy has marked a shift away from the great cities where the arts were once centered towards global networks. Any work distributed in such a network can be experienced (potentially) at any of its points.

Although usually understood as the realm of mass media and popular culture, the information economy encompasses alternative, academic and experimental production as well. John Cage's music and Snoop Doggy Dog's music will both be available everywhere in this grid - but in volumes which might range from a few thousand copies to many millions.

Above: Valuation of Open-Edition Multiples (Music, Film, and Literature)

As a result, any artwork for sale in the information economy can be located on an axis of popularity (the number of copies sold) which also reflects its economic value. Reviews in the media will determine a separate "critical" value, which may have a weak (or even inverted) relationship to its economic value.

In visual art's traditional distribution system the value of a work arises from its critical/historical reception and attendant cachet for wealthy collectors. It has no direct existence in the information economy, and any representation it might have as a reproduction in a magazine article, book or on the Internet tends to be small and radically re-contextualized.

Above: Valuation of Unique Objects (Visual Art)
III. Reproducing Nothing

For more than a decade digital imaging has offered artists a vocabulary which rivals or exceeds painting and other artisanal forms. The combination of powerful image editing software and high resolution output devices has already created a crisis for the traditional gallery system by producing prints which are inherently repeatable but not inherently expensive.

Gallerists and collectors have responded by insisting that such outputs may only enter their system as traditional "limited" editions. Other digital forms, such as Net art (generally interactive work meant to be experienced through web browsers) or ambient time-based pieces have also been subject to the same demand for some element of uniqueness, leading to absurd situations in which digital files are "destroyed" to ensure scarcity and websites are exhibited in museums or sold like rare etchings.

These rearguard actions will fail. Since digital art exists as information, it is perfectly suited to enter the information economy. Iterations of the work can multiply directly throughout the global grid rather than be restricted to one particular gallery in one particular city. Each instance or output of the file is equally original, and reproduces nothing.

Currently, music, literature, and even film are increasingly available on the Internet as files to download, creating a common digital lexis with individual substrates such as books and CD's no longer necessary for the experience of art. This new lexis offers visual art the possibility that it could regain something of the centrality in contemporary culture which it lost in the 20th century. Outside of the gallery system, the language of art may again become as familiar, and as well understood, as the languages of music, literature, and film.

Kevin Mutch