Moving Images Infiltrate the Art World

By Comer, Brooke | American Cinematographer, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Moving Images Infiltrate the Art World


Comer, Brooke, American Cinematographer


Art in motion: a survey of New York Museums accents the growing importance of film and video as artistic media.

The moving image is hardly a new art form. But the number of major art museums around the country that don't have film departments, and which only use moving media as educational and support material, suggests that film and video have yet to be accepted as art in the traditional sense of the word. But not all museums hold that a work of art must remain motionless. New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Cooper Hewitt and the Guggenheim have all made commitments to moving imagery in varying degrees, ranging from video-related exhibitions to in-house film departments.

The MOMA has a film department that dates back to 1935, and their video program includes Video Viewpoints, which offers moving-media artists a prestigious platform for their work. The museum is one of the most progressive in terms of acknowledging moving imagery as an art form, which is not surprising given the origins of the institution.

Film was about 35 years old in 1929, when Alfred Barr proposed the idea of a new museum that would become the Modern. Barr, who considered film one of the visual arts of the time, had no trouble envisioning a department of motion pictures in this modernistic museum. But his was a vision the American public wasn't yet ready to embrace. In 1932, Barr observed, "That part of the American public which should appreciate good films and support them has never had a chance to crystallize. People who are well-acquainted with modern painting or literature are amazingly ignorant of modern film. It may be said without exaggeration that the only great art form peculiar to the 20th Century is practically unknown to the American public most capable of appreciating it."

The Museum of Modern Art's Film Library, under the auspices of film critic and author Iris Barry, began to collect and preserve the art form of the century: cinema. Through the generosity of Samuel Goldwyn, William S. Hart, David Wark Griffith, Walt Disney, David O. Selznick and other luminaries, the collection began to grow. Barry also searched for films in Europe, as have her successors, and the film collection today includes over 8,000 titles. The Film Department, which recently changed its name to the Department of Film and Video, has accumulated extensive collections of international documentary, experimental and narrative work from the '60s to the present.

Barbara London, Associate Curator of the Department of Film and Video, has been involved with the video program since it evolved in 1974. "At that point," London explains, "it was part of our project series. It began as ongoing exhibitions." Then a combination of simultaneous events occurred which triggered the launching of the new program. The National Endowment of the Arts gave the Modern its first grant to buy video equipment; the monitors, decks and sound systems facilitated the expansion of the moving-image media. In 1973, London had worked on "Some Recent American Art," a show of paintings and sculptures that traveled to Australia. Some of the painters and sculptors also worked in video, and from them London increased her video vocabulary. "I had some knowledge of the medium," says London, who adds that with the advent of the NEA grant, she "picked up the hot potato and ran with it."

The Modern's video program began with tape showings, which eventually included installations. Within about a year, the Rockefeller Foundation provided a large grant that gave London the ability to develop Video Viewpoints in 1976. The Museum of Modern Art is known as a diverse forum for not only paintings, but also for architecture, design, sculpture, and moving media. When London was developing the video program, she says, "I felt it was important to reflect the diversity of the museum, and of what was going on in the world. I was also interested in looking at video as an experimental medium and not a commercial one. …

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