Art and Arnold

Oculus Rift: A return to Modernism

In the recent December issue of ARTNEWS, John Chiaverina reports on the emerging trend of contemporary artists using the new virtual-reality technology: Oculus Rift. Like its predecessors, Oculus Rift uses large, cumbersome goggles to fully immerse its user in a visually simulated reality, and also like its predecessors, it is being met with a lack of consensus. Chiavernia presents two artists: Ian Cheng, who celebrates the platform and praises its potential, and Alan Resnick, who is less impressed and reverent of it. And, while it is a new medium currently circulating the art world and prompting a variety of questions concerning the art object itself, Chiaverina points out that Oculus Rift’s lasting impact still waits to be seen.

But maybe it’s not so much that its impact waits to be seen, but instead that it is the impact of something else. And I don’t mean the post-medium plurality of the contemporary art world where anything with the right presentation can be argued as a work of art. I am not denying that Oculus Rift could fit right in there, but I am seeing it as part of another aesthetic as well: in particular, the agenda and paintings of Barnett Newman.


-Barnett Newman, Cathedra.

A typed handout for Newman’s second exhibition at Betty Parsons in 1951 read: “There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.” What these instructions mean for a viewer is that he or she should view the paintings from only a few feet, or inches, away. Doing this, the canvas exceeds his or her field of vision, and through the loss of any reference between it and the gallery wall, the viewer becomes visually immersed in the painting itself.


Although these two immersions are used for different purposes, I can’t help but think about the hesitancy Oculus Rift is reported as meeting. Does this uncertainty come from a leeriness (unconscious or otherwise) we have for Newman’s heavy-handed theories about his own art, and by extension, the general confusion we feel when facing most Modernists works? To prove this point, let me ask: how many of you look at the image of Cathedra and see it as a work of Art with a capital A?

I am not going to dive into the deeper theories of Modernism, or Newman here. You can do your own research if you want. But I will argue that Modernism is casting a long shadow onto today. In the water downed, disposable designs of Ikea, or the paintings hanging in hotel rooms, we see those ideas of form and function still impacting the world. Maybe the real issue is not a fear of repeating the past (most Post-Modern ideas understand the reality of this inevitability), but instead, a repeating of that past where art isolated itself from the world around it, turning its viewers into idle idiots.


Posted 10th December 2014 by Arnold, H.C.

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This entry was posted on February 8, 2016 by .
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