Art at the End of the Millenium

Edward W. Earle
Senior Curator
UCR/California Museum of Photography

America's culture of the spectator is mesmerized by technological change but desensitized by its effects.

A quarter century ago, in 1969, the culture was collectively amazed to witness a human being walking on the moon. Lucky for Senator Edward Kennedy, there were no video paparazzi to document his tragic event on Chappaquidic during that same week in July.

Today, our culture offers strangely competing visual experiences and no corner of the globe seems out of retinal reach. With a remote control in the hand we can play TV director, flipping among different live views of civil unrest in Los Angeles, a conflagration in Oakland, or select among several helicopter shots of O.J. Simpson's last run.
OJ Simpson, Bronco chase no TV
The evening news broadcasts the latest video surveillance recording of a murder in a convenience store, followed by a fresh docudrama of a celebrity horror story even before a jury is picked to decide the real fate of the perpetrators. Fiction and fact become a blur in many "reality-based" television programs from "America's Most Wanted" to "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol."2 These programs combine video coverage of actual pursuits and arrests with reenactments.

Recently fiction and personal tragedy were combined in "Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story"3 with the two title characters playing themselves, offering America an opportunity to participate in their grief over the suicide of husband and father.

Within this abiding voyeurism for witnessing tragedy unfold contemporaneously, and through retrospective fictions based on alleged fact, scientific visionaries and corporate kingpins proclaim a new utopia based on the "information superhighway." America's culture of the spectator is mesmerized by technological change but desensitized by its effects.

Perhaps it is easier to grasp the significance of the rapid change in representation -- and responses to these changes by contemporary artists -- if we look at some past precedence?


2 There seems to be more police on television than on the streets. The major programs claiming to be news or public information that employ combinations of "street video" with sophisticated dramatic reenactments are: "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol," "Hard Copy," " Inside Edition," " A Current Affair," "Dateline NBC," "Police File," " America's Most Wanted," "Prime Suspect," " Cops." Add to this brew the unfolding drama of mundane daily jurisprudence on "Court TV," well-respected programs like "60 Minutes," "48 Hours," then season with local television news and its penchant for sensationalism add a dozen Oprah-Donohue-Geraldo shows and you have a glimpse of what might be interactively available through the vaunted "information superhighway."

3"Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story," NBC, May 15, 1994. The principals play themselves coping with the 1987 suicide of husband and father, Edgar Rosenberg.