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Fade to Black The Marginalisation of Media Art in Visual Art Education



The history of media arts stretches beyond the focus of this text. The growth of media arts as an area of study beyond a marginal educational presence from 1990 to 2012, and its subsequent dismantling, is a successful or failed project. It is successful where technology has swept across education, professional exhibition contexts and everyday interactions. It fails where its history is ignored, its contexts viewed as irrelevant and its mode of expression and content reduced to computer and software provision as an educational service area. Integrating media arts within core visual art curriculum is yet to be fulfilled. Dedicated specialist areas emerging in the early years of the new millennia have been subsumed within generalised undergraduate programs. Technical specialisation has been replaced by research emphasis. Visual art teaching and learning requires revision of emphasis for the digital age. The replacement of the MA with the PhD as the terminal qualification in visual art has seen a shift in emphasis to research as the basis for higher-level study where technical mastery was privileged in the MA/MFA model. University models of recognised research have now been applied wholesale as the determining factor as how visual art practice is accepted as an academic discipline.
Fade to Black
The Marginalisation of Media Art in Visual Art Education
Jeremy Blank
! !
I've tried walking sideways,
And walking to the front,
But people just look at me,
And say it's a publicity stunt.
I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas
Spike Milligan (1956)
The history of media arts stretches beyond the focus of this text. The
growth of media arts as an area of study beyond a marginal
educational presence from 1990 to 2012, and its subsequent
dismantling, is a successful or failed project. It is successful where
technology has swept across education, professional exhibition
contexts and everyday interactions. It fails where its history is
ignored, its contexts viewed as irrelevant and its mode of expression
and content reduced to computer and software provision as an
educational service area.
Integrating media arts within core visual art curriculum is yet to be
fulfilled. Dedicated specialist areas emerging in the early years of the
new millennia have been subsumed within generalised undergraduate
programs. Technical specialisation has been replaced by research
emphasis. Visual art teaching and learning requires revision of
emphasis for the digital age. The replacement of the MA with the PhD
as the terminal qualification in visual art has seen a shift in emphasis
to research as the basis for higher-level study where technical mastery
was privileged in the MA/MFA model. That is an entirely separate
argument impacting at many levels globally. University models of
recognised research have now been applied wholesale as the
determining factor as how visual art practice is accepted as an
academic discipline.
The need for a review of visual art education is stated by academics,
when accountability or economic factors determine content over
academic experience and practice. References include past, current
and possible initiatives as options for visual art education in the digital
age. Integrating digital history, contemporary practice and visual art
curriculum provides a relevant basis for revised teaching and learning
approaches at tertiary academic or vocational levels. The teaching of
media arts has been erased and replaced with an anything goes
approach to the inclusion of technology or performative expression
within visual art teaching and learning. This position has not evolved
from informed expansion. It comes from a generalisation that media
art has no lineage or identity other than the immediacy of the moment.
Such illiteracy does nothing for education or training and would be
unacceptable in teaching traditional skills of printmaking, painting or
1. Why integrate media arts into core visual arts curriculum?
Media arts should be repositioned through institutional level
discussion to examine immediate interdisciplinary opportunities as a
considered and integral core subject rather than its current position as
a supporting elective level experience. The need to consider and
position new technologies within general tertiary vocational, pre-
degree or degree visual art programs is already present. Students rely
on their phones as their primary interface with their institutions, social
presence and as a research, reference or production tool.
The skills-based emphasis developing through the Australian
Vocational Education Training sector from Certificate III to Advanced
Diploma levels, directly map at nationally recognised levels alongside
academic studies from the university sector (Australian Qualifications
Framework 2013,18). Each sector emphasises the development of
contemporary skills in researching project-based or personally
initiated study. In the Vocational Education Training (VET) sector,
transferable skills form key elements within required evidence across
all units and levels. Media literacy is a contemporary and transferable
skill beyond traditional understandings of studio practice.
The Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC)-funded
Studio Teaching Project (STP) (Watson and Wilson 2009)
documented traditional studio teaching models and initiatives
implemented across Australian tertiary level visual art courses. They
identified poor integration and provision of relevant staff linking
technology to established studio models (STP iv). The removal of
emphasis of studio-focused study in undergraduate visual art courses
compounds the move from specialist undergraduate studies to
generalised research emphasis. Within Australian higher education
intended learning outcomes (ILO’s) and student attributes define what
students should manifest as a result of their studies.
What must be done differently?
In his 2002 book Information Art: Intersections of art, science and
technology, Stephen Wilson asks:
What must artists do differently than they always have done to
prepare to participate in the world of research? They must
broaden their definitions of art materials and contexts…They
must expand conceptual notions of what constitutes an artistic
education, develop the ability to penetrate beneath the surface
of techno-scientific presentations to think about unexplored
research directions and unanticipated implications and learn
about the information sources used by scientists and engineers
to engage emerging fields, including academic and
professional journals, trade shows, academic meetings, Internet
resources and equipment supply sources (S. Wilson 2002, 39).
Wilson’s call for more science and technology based engagement
from the arts directly mirrored the change of academic emphasis from
the Master of Fine Arts (MFA/MA) as the terminal tertiary art
qualification to the doctorate (PhD). The shift towards a research-
based model from what had previously been a practice-orientated
approach in the visual arts offered opportunities and challenges for
students, staff and institutions to expand their immediate focus beyond
then dominant artistic styles or emphasis. Wilson’s statement makes
demands upon future artists to embrace science and technology,
modifying their focus in line with what science may require. Such
demands rely upon the provision of an institution and its staff to
accommodate and support such a vision with informed, practical or
simulated opportunities for such immersion.
Art requires considerable time investment from students to develop
skills to realise quality outcomes. The general disciplinary area
remains practice based. Contemporary art practice increasingly
requires digital literacy and competency across a range of media
involving research, presentation, documentation, promotion and
production. The consumption and production of imagery has radically
evolved since the global availability of internet capable smart phones
with cameras. Teaching and production of art at all levels still
privileges manual skills and techniques. Copying digital aesthetics has
become a global trend across painting, drawing, printmaking and
Opportunities for an integrated approach to media arts within visual
art teaching and learning programs are necessary for the general area
of study to retain currency in the twenty-first century. Media arts has
its own history as a discipline emerging from photography, video,
performance art and computer-based (electronic) art production which
have converged as the computer has become a multimedia studio
where many previously separate aspects of media practice are
simultaneously available as potential outputs from a single device
(Raimes 2006).
The historical relevance of media art with its links to science and art
across a range of disciplines offers academics, teaching staff and
students opportunities to reflect upon how technology, science or
media have inspired or influenced artists to create work of their time.
The lack of access to historical materials prior to online archival
portals limited awareness of the degree or range of artistic exploration
in multi-disciplinary or media-focused art practice. The work of
Oliver Grau (2004, 2007), Christiane Paul (2008) and Julian
Stallabrass (2003) established historical contextualisation from art and
media perspectives. Technology has impacted and influenced art
practice, projecting it towards what we now understand to be media
arts. In Australia, Paul Thomas’s 2010 National Organisation of
Media Arts Database (NOMAD), the Australian Video Arts Archive
(AVAA) from Monash University, and the University of New South
Wales’s initiative, ‘Scanlines’, an online database of media arts
documentation, have addressed issues of visibility relating to past
Australian media art practice.
Given the complexities of establishing the terrain of these constantly
shifting aspects of visual art teaching and learning, it is important to
identify current definitions for the terms ‘curriculum’, ‘media art’ and
‘visual art’. I refer to generally understood definitions. These
definitions are amended over time as the disciplines of visual and
media arts evolve. It is necessary to include these definitions as
educational disciplinary areas and teaching have altered to a point
where previously accepted terms may no longer be relied upon.
Ongoing changes in definitions challenge the validity of basic terms.
In their 2007 book Curriculum: Alternative Approaches, Ongoing
Issues, Marsh and Willis view curriculum as being: ‘an interrelated set
of plans and experiences that a student undertakes under the guidance
of the school’ (15). They identify three points around which decisions
about curricula can be made (71-88) which are listed as: The Nature
of Subject Matter, The Nature of Society and the Nature of the
Individual. These key points are identified as the influencing factors in
determining and implementing curricula. Curriculum understanding is
dynamically linked to its time. If it is not directly relevant to the issues
or factors of its time and place as indicated by the three stated points,
it is irrelevant. Historically, one of the three points dominates the
other two with unduly narrow emphasis, often significantly eclipsing
the two other factors (Marsh and Willis 2007, 9-13).
The definition of curriculum and syllabus considerably alters in
emphasis across international boundaries. The example from 2012 by
Steve Draper from the University of Glasgow’s Psychology
Department refers to ‘curriculum’ within the context of an English-
speaking institution.
Draper states that:
On the whole, “syllabus” refers to a description of what will be
or should be covered; “curriculum” to a prescription of the set
of activities or courses a student must take.
This is consistent with a hierarchy:
1. Syllabus, content, learning aims and objectives, ILOs,
[intended learning outcomes].
2. Curriculum, “experiences”, learning activities and
exercises; instructional design.
3. Instruction, delivery, execution (Draper 2012).
Draper’s definition of curriculum as a hierarchical system is less fluid
than Marsh and Willis’s continually reshifting focus across what is
considered as fundamental across content, societal or individual
desire. Draper indicates that instruction respectively resides below
aims and objectives, experiences or exercises.
Visual art
Definitions related to visual art have evolved from what were
previously known as ‘the fine arts’ with drawing as the fundamental
and central determinant spanning painting, sculpture, printmaking and
ceramics to the design-based disciplines of textiles and what were
known as decorative arts. The change to the term ‘visual arts’ was in
line with the democratisation of the disciplinary area since the 1990s.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who develop online education services for
pre-kindergarten to Year 12 define visual art as:
; noun.
1. Art work, such as painting, photography, or sculpture,
that appeals primarily to the visual sense and
typically exists in permanent form.
2. Any of the art forms used to create such art. Often used in
the plural (The Free Dictionary n.d.).
The above definition is important as it may influence primary and
secondary school leaders or teachers in how they interpret or view the
area of visual art in their teaching and learning programs. While
photography is included, media arts are absent – as well as ceramics
and printmaking, two mainstays of high school visual art provision.
Visual Arts in Ireland provides a more inclusive definition:
Visual art includes all the fine arts as well as new media and
contemporary forms of expression such as assemblage,
collage, Conceptual, installation and performance art, as well
as photography…and film-based forms like video
art and animation, or any combination thereof (Visual-arts- 2014).
Many institutions have historically constrained their interpretation of
what fine/visual art practice is to that of either modernist or post-
modern theoretical models. Technological innovation in the
production of visual art has been evident since its inception as a form
of human expression.
Earlier interpretations of the term multimedia are associated with
alternative visual art production. Prior to the 1990s multimedia was
used within visual arts practice to describe artworks where multiple
media were combined in the creation of a work, these included
performance, video, slide projections, film or text. The French sound
poet Henri Chopin was considered a multimedia artist, while the term
multimedia text was current throughout the 1950s to the 1990s. With
the arrival of computers within graphics and communications
departments in the 1990s the term became associated with the
production of commercially focused art using computer software. The
term remains associated with both understandings.
Media art
Seeking a clear and concise definition of media art remains difficult.
Many dedicated media art studios have been decommissioned as
specialist media focus has been subsumed within a more generalist
approach to the inclusion or integration of media within contemporary
art production.
The Netherlands Institute of Media Arts (NIMK) website archive
provides a thorough and informative definition, which although dated
in terms of media (videotape), the essence of the definition remains
The term is used frequently, but there are differences of
opinion about its precise definition. A medium is a means by
which one communicates a message, the vehicle carrying the
message. Thus, if you take the term “media art” literally, all art
is media art… In general, the term media art is understood to
apply to all forms of time-related art works... A time-related
artwork is a work that changes and “moves”, in contrast to
older art forms that are static, which stand still, such as
paintings, photographs and most sculptures (NIMK n.d.).
NIMK includes historical context within the definition of media arts
where movement and time are the defining aspects of the area.
Developments with slitscan photography, where time is embedded
within a single image, challenge the definition, indicating how
difficult it is to provide a concise definition of media arts.
The Musée des Beaux Arts of Montreal, Canada, makes a useful
contribution to the definition of the discipline where:
“[M]edia art” refers to artworks that depend on a technological
component to function. The term “media” applies to any
communication device used to transmit and store information.
By incorporating emerging technologies into their artworks,
artists using new media are constantly redefining the
traditional categories of art. Over the years, numerous artistic
disciplines have fallen under the umbrella of “media art”,
including: Biotech Art, Computer Art, Digital Art, Electronic
Art, Interactive Art, Kinetic Art, Multimedia art, Network Art,
Robotic Art, Sound Art, Space Art, Technological Art, Video
Art, Web Art (Musée des Beaux Arts de Montreal 2013).
Definitions from academic institutions delivering media-focused
courses are important for students to get clear indications of how each
institution positions or interprets media arts or media emphasis.
The University of the Arts London (UAL) identifies media art as
‘time-based’ including performance within the definition of media art
(University of the Arts London n.d.). Media arts reside within the
umbrella of print or the reproductive image as part of the
undergraduate honours degree offered at Wimbledon School of Art.
The definition from the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montreal
conservation department for media art omits performance from its
definition of media art although in its stated criteria for determining
media art, performance could be included where it is mediated.
There is a further conflict where performance is recorded as
documentary rather than being created or choreographed for the
camera. In that instance the recorded work is not the work but a
documentation of a presentation, installation or performance. This
definition is progressively important where works are distributed or
created online, whether they are documentations of a planned or
premeditated action, or utilise the respective platform as part of the
work itself. Steve Kardynal’s recorded interventions within online
social network portals Omegle and Chatroulette illustrate the UAL’s
definition of media art where the medium is the critical aspect of any
Some perspectives on digital technology in the visual arts
Jenny Aland’s 2004 paper ‘The Impact Of Digital Technologies On
Contemporary Visual Arts Education’ is a key reference in arguing for
the integration of media arts within core visual art teaching and
learning. Aland’s research documents international and Australian
research studies on the impact and uptake of digital technologies at
high school levels, referring to prior research as a basis for reflection
and comparison. Her timeline of relevant research initiatives indicates
the ongoing degree of concern for the integration, documentation,
contextual awareness and uptake of digital media technologies in
Australian high schools. She summarises the research to that point in
time. Some of the key points Aland makes are that the use of digital
media has ‘fundamentally altered the Western paradigm of art’ (Aland
2004, 7). She also draws from the work of Timothy Binkley (1997)
who states that, ‘computers can be enigmatic because they challenge
some of the most fundamental tenets of Western civilisation’ Binkley
1997, 107).
Aland also references Margot Lovejoy who argued in 1989 that the
use of technology in art fundamentally shifts the emphasis from hand
skills, enabling the artist to engage more readily with decision-making
and the creative process itself, and that:
[P]hotography, video and the computer have dramatically
changed the possibilities for representation allowing for the
dynamic analysis of motion, time, space and the abstract
relations between them (Lovejoy 1989, 4).
Woodard’s 1996 PhD dissertation is a preliminary study that
influenced Aland regarding the way digital art has changed the way
that art is viewed (Woodard 1996, 1). In his 1990 book Techniques of
the Observer, Jonathon Crary states that:
[T]he computer has changed the way we see the world;
enabling us to inhabit and experience fabricated visual spaces
radically different from the mimetic world of film,
photography, and television (Crary 1990, 1).
Aland’s summary of Crary and Woodard’s research is reproduced
verbatim by Professor Diana Davis in the first Australian Government
report on visual education, First We See: The National Review of
Visual Education (NRVE) of 2008. The National Review took three
years to complete; governmental changes saw three differing agencies
involved in its realisation. The NRVE was commissioned by the
Australia Council, following a previously commissioned Australia
Council report in 2001, Australians and the Arts, by Paul Costantoura,
a consulting strategic planner for the international marketing firm
Saatchi and Saatchi. Costantoura’s findings that ‘85% of people agree
that the arts should be an important part of the education of every
Australian kid’ (Costantoura 2001, 286), is included in the opening
paragraph of Davis’s executive summary of the NRVE.
Davis states that Aland’s earlier investigation into the impacts of
digital technologies upon visual art teaching and learning at school
levels ‘led her to the conclusion that Teachers need to know about,
understand and appreciate the ways in which technology has, and is
changing artistic practice, and to reflect these understandings in their
approach to teaching visual arts’ (D. Davis 2008, 81).
Furthermore Davis called for all of Aland’s findings ‘to be embraced
in the way that art always has in terms of making and responding’ (D.
Davis 2008, 82). Davis identified visual literacy or ‘visuacy’ as a key
twenty-first century skill in understanding media imagery. While
Davis’s report solely focused upon school levels of teaching and
learning, invariably students progressing to further and higher
education would ordinarily have experienced some visual art teaching
and learning at high school levels at the time of the NRVE.
Nevertheless, based on my experience, student awareness of
technology in the production of contemporary art on entering further
education studies remains perceptibly scant.
While many staff may state they have an interest in or produce media
art, interpretations of media and the degree of an individuals’
awareness with past or contemporary media practice may be limited.
Tangible media skills in conjunction with a thorough art training and
practice are rare and in opposition to (the previous emphasis on)
appointing specialists within disciplinary areas in tertiary education
courses. The speed of change in digital teaching and learning areas
has seen many staff who had working knowledge across two or three
areas twenty years ago concentrate their focus to remain current in
terms of relevance in the delivery of software reliant study.
Media arts is easily understood and justified as a
facility/space/workshop. As a discipline, media arts have merely
replaced previous highly specialised ‘elective’ areas such as
photography, printmaking, book production, video, sound or, in some
instances, performance art studies. Computer access is now accepted
as normal within the general area of visual/fine art teaching and
learning. The emphasis within schools sees computer-based art as
being more aligned to design or graphics, with little or no awareness
of media art as a discipline within Australian or global art contexts
(Aland 2004, 10).
While high school students may be exposed to historical,
contemporary or global media art practice, Aland (2004) and Blank
(2009) argue that a general lack of awareness still persists, with little
development or concerted effort to address it. The links between high
schools and further and higher education are clearly important in
terms of fostering potential for further ongoing study. National reports
and senior academics have repeatedly called for the development of
initiatives to provide context and content to integrate technologies
within visual art teaching and learning, and, following the New Media
Arts Scoping Study (NMASS), ‘establish the status and quality of
teaching in this area’ (Donovan, Miller and Lally 2006, 23). The
National Review of Visual Education (NRVE) 2008 recommendations
overrode those of the Australia Council’s previous NMASS, from
requiring potential new teaching staff to have technological awareness
and understanding of media, to requiring them to have awareness of
artistic production beyond a single arts disciplinary focus. The NRVE
was envisioned to adopt and implement the recommendations of the
NMASS, prior to the New Media Arts Board’s closure as a discrete
funding panel in 2007.
Mandy Lupton’s (2007) article ‘Reclaiming the Art of Teaching,
Teaching in Higher Education’ references Elliot Eisner’s 1979 work
on establishing deep engagement in visual art curriculum as an
aesthetic and holistic experience for teachers and students. Lupton’s
work critiques moves towards the standardisation of delivery in higher
education drawing from her own experiences and personal research,
identifying an absence of research or writing on the art or craft of
teaching at higher education levels (Lupton 2007, 157).
The relevance and opportunity to contribute to local, regional or
international content within the context of a global network
instantaneously is now an everyday reality for the majority of creative
practitioners. The Internet has revolutionised how research is
conducted, how information is distributed and how it may be
contextualised. As Aland remarks, computer technology is:
[A] very important part of not only the visual arts, but the way
in which we relate to the world. The importance of computers
grows daily. The Internet becomes more and more powerful
every day and it’s not something that can be ignored (Aland
2004, 6).
The digital revolution continues to challenge every aspect of human
experience as it expands and deepens in content, range and ease of
access globally. History is collapsing into an ever-available present,
where if information is not immediately available it could be said to
not exist. In the introduction to his 2004 article ‘Integrating Media Art
into Our Culture: Art History as Image Science’, Oliver Grau states:
Never before has the world of images around us changed so
fast in such a short span of time, never before have we been
exposed to so many different image worlds, and never before
has the way in which images are produced changed so
fundamentally. Images are advancing into new domains: We
are witnessing the rise of the image into a virtual spatial image
(Grau 2004, 2).
Computers and associated software or applications developed and
now packaged within the umbrella of computer-based or digital media
have increasingly collapsed and integrated previously distinct
technologies and disciplinary practice. This is evident throughout
history where inventions and developments in one specific field have
been adopted or adapted and utilised within other areas to enrich our
appreciation, experience or understanding of sound, vision, movement
or communication.
Misreading the landscape
Media arts are increasingly relevant to traditional areas of visual art
teaching and learning. At the same time the provision of real
opportunities for the integration of media practice within the context
of core visual art practices is generally deficient through a lack of
awareness of relevant cross-disciplinary linkages, key materials and
histories. The accelerated evolution of media arts as a teaching area
coincided with the global expansion of the World Wide Web.
Professor Paul Thomas argues that there has been little opportunity to
document, acknowledge or reflect upon the dimensions of change
influencing all aspects of visual art production, promotion and
distribution within and beyond the digital via digital mediums, as
practitioners and academics have ridden the wave of a global
technological transformation (Paul Thomas personal communication,
August 19, 2013).
Kate Rothchild’s 2007 report Digital Media and Arts in Western
Australia: Mining Creative Resources and Seizing Opportunities
made recommendations regarding the provision and degree of media
literacy and awareness in Western Australia (WA) and the
development of a ‘viable digital media industry by 2010’ (Rothschild
2007, 3). Rothschild indicated concerns regarding media literacy and
awareness across government, commercial, cultural and educational
Rothschild emphasised commercial media production while claiming
to promote cultural/non-commercial production. Scant regard was
made of then current teaching in the commercial or cultural sectors
related directly to media art education or how initiatives may be
developed from realistic activities (Rothschild 2007, 5). Rothschild’s
emphasis on interactivity, as a measure of advanced media production,
was not developed beyond then current commercial understandings.
Emphasis focused upon online inclusion of rich media content and the
adoption of Web 2.0 technologies to promote dynamic content.
Rothschild identified weaknesses in the failure to adopt
understandings of ‘creative convergence - the coming together of old
and new media as well as arts, technology, science, information, and
education’ (Rothschild 2007, 12).
Art as practice-based discipline
Visual art curricula at tertiary levels has historically been allied to
classic or contemporary art practice depending upon each institution,
its history, geographical location, regional influences, staff emphasis,
professional strengths or linkages (S. Wilson 2008).
The incorporation of art schools or departments repositioned within
university contexts has seen major changes at fundamental levels in
curricula. The Master of Art (MA) or Master of Fine Art (MFA) has
been amended to the PhD as the terminal degree for visual art and the
minimum required competency for a member of university teaching
staff. This has happened globally. Emphasis from undergraduate
degrees has shifted towards an honours year beyond the first degree as
the preferred option for students to then enter PhD studies.
The shift from MA to PhD alters emphasis from the refinement of
specialist practice to a theoretically grounded research focus. In
contrast, the vocational sector curriculum has developed from
technical/process-based approaches. Practice evolves from the
application of techniques, technologies or skills in the development
and refinement of outcomes. Australian vocational teaching staff are
expected to have a nationally recognised training and assessor award
and are employed on the basis of the currency and relevance of their
practice directly linked to the training units they deliver.
Concerns raised in the 1990s regarding the paucity of documentation
in visual art assessment have been considerably addressed (D.J. Davis
1993, 82). Informal and undocumented delivery has been replaced by
nationally recognised competencies. Since the 1990s in the UK and
the early 2000’s in Australia the vocational education sector has
focused upon the accountability and accreditation of staff in the
delivery of training packages and units of competency. The Australian
Qualifications Framework (AQF) has mapped and aligned vocational
training and competences against academic levels from university
Informal community education and introductory courses have been
cut in Western Australian vocational institutions where they do not fit
within nationally funded training packages. This move from
community level provision within state funded institutions has
impacted upon the provision of quality informal visual art teaching
and introductory digital literacy or media art teaching.
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