In short, industrial management and art had reached comparable stages of decadence. They acknowledged no goal other than self-proliferation; and they had converted the tolerance of laissez-faire into an apathy in which no project had to be justified if it made work, however marginal, unproductive, or gratuitous.
This is the meaning of the attempt to spur a corporate patronage of art. It is perfectly true that the realization of art is a superfluity, that it traditionally gilds the affluence of the elites in bourgeois culture. But that culture always tended to sanction its art under pressure because art (aside from its intrinsic beauties) was also a form of critique — dissenting, anarchic, at times outrageous. It was to the credit of the bourgeois philosophy, liberalism, to think of that critique, no matter how reluctantly, as useful. If, on the contrary, the corporate mind were to hold durable sway, one would be immersed in an era in which critical reconstruction counts for little, and few people effectively care. How to calculate the opportunities for meaningful change then the typical expedient by which the American system placates the nosier or more unruly members of its minorities is to give them jobs . . . or to commission repots? In that atmosphere, charades of concern and evasions of purpose are the order of the day. Real problems do not make contact with real power, but rather glance off each other in frustrated deflections because there is no longer any genuine center of response to social stimuli. Art can be accommodated in this situation far more readily than in the past, and count for far less.
Under these circumstances, it was quite proper of the curator not to touch upon, or to touch only lightly, the historical precedents of his project. In no sense would they have legitimized it. The collectivist, synthetic, art-for-people-and-life positions of the Constructivists and the Bauhaus, with their assumptions about the welding together of the economic means of production and the guiding procedures of the artist, could only have maintained before the advent of a technology scaled large enough to realize them. For the necessary assembly line, communication, and distributing systems were finally to emerge under political conditions blasting any hope that artists could restructure society by there own example. That hope was pitiful from the start. But it was engendered by democratic impulses for which artists made huge sacrifices; and, in turn, it inspired the most idealistic energy that resulted in important theory and coherent works.
By contrast, today’s artists, living in a Western world of unparalleled prosperity, are as modern in their indifference to socialist esthetics as they are hip with the media. Even if we are generous to the feeble cliques arising out of Experiments with Art and Technology (E.A.T.) or Pulsa, it can still be said that no present artistic groups have concerned themselves with and rapprochement with the masses by using the machine in lowering art prices or standardizing forms. And certainly the same applies to the artists influenced by or sympathetic to the doctrine of Jack Burnham, which tends to view the history of art as a history of techniques and their consequences. This perspective determines that the electronic methods of modern technology demand a comparable development in art, which must now transcend its handiwork commitment to the work as a physical object — not merely to bear witness to the laser-computer age, but to embody it. Such cybernetics-orientated art pays tribute to certain elderly ideas of progress in that it feels beholden to keep in step with fast-paced science. But since it is thoroughly elitist, upholding no values other than the tedious complication of its engineering, or the amorphous spread of “information,” it had to downgrade the Utopianism that kept the techno-euphoria of some earlier modern art in thrall.
Into this disarray of forces, Maurice Tuchman entered with a smile. We can assume that few of the 200 artists he either recruited, or who got associated with his program, shared its official rationale. And this for the reason that there is no rationale to be found in the Report whatsoever: no specific concept of the project’s goal, no insight into the artists relations with society, no grasp of the history of modern art, no convincing argument as to the pertinence of having artists working in manufacturing plants, no statement detailing the public need or the timeliness to current art which the enterprise might graph. Indeed, it was the entirely opportunistic, unprincipled and arbitrary character of the undertaking, made seductive by copious publicity, that lent it a most up-to-date tone.
From the first, it was also to be problematic in structure. The brochure to the prospective sponsors — presumably hard-nosed business types — announces that artists will be selected on the basis of their “expressed interest in the specific technological processes,” while elsewhere, the exact opposite is stated to the readers of the Report. Artists, known and unknown of every imaginable idiom, and many nationalities, were approached (excepting blacks, Chicanos, and women). The “Art and Technology” program, therefore, did not mean to chart a particular sensibility, illustrate a theme, or even provide a heterogeneous survey of going effort. Its raison d’etre was to provide a series of encounters from which might be furnished promotional benefits for industry, and some exhibitable art. (To be fair, the museum also thought that artists might get good ideas.) Though the institution matched or channeled certain artists into particular corporations, it cannot be accused of having a point of view or of desiring to stamp any unity on what it had begotten. In this it acted like a private, research-granting foundation, rather similar to the Guggenheim or Ford, but was at the same time accountable for the results and output imposed upon a public agency.