The not-so-dazzling world of video art -- and the UN's news-by-satellite issue
At the risk of being labeled a video Philistine, I find that - with a few exceptions - much of the much-touted new form called video art reveals an incredible amount of self-indulgence.
Fuzzy politics, for instance, is mixed with fuzzy camerawork. And there is often the questionable conviction that anything the artist produces is deserving of a larger audience than his or her own circle of family, friends, and adulators.
In many cases of abstract video art, the viewer might be able to make more interesting video himself by twirling the fine tuner and color controls.
Take the show called ''The New Video'' at the Whitney Museum of American Art here. It may drive some people right back to ye olde boob tube, grateful for ''I Love Lucy'' and ''M*A*S*H'' reruns.
But it is also possible they might find that the modern form this show represents is a refreshing alternative to television.
The New American Filmmakers Series (which includes both film and video) is programming some of the best current examples of independent videotapes. Most of them are interesting adventures in electronics, providing less expensive and more easily edited outlets for visual creativity than would be possible in film.
Through Dec. 19, the Whitney is showing four or five times a day two recent videotapes which supposedly ''employ new forms of narrative to explore the ideology of social and cultural institutions'': ''Call It Sleep,'' by Isaac Cronin and Terrel Seltzer, and ''Casual Shopper,'' by Judith Barry.
''Call It Sleep'' is an all-out political polemic, basing its ideology on the Situationist view of the world. According to the creators of the videotape, we live in a world in which spectacle is used constantly to overwhelm social reality, serving the interest of power. The Establishment represents power, and it rules by false ideas as well as by armies.
To make these points, the videomakers juxtapose bits of film, TV commercials, and newsreels to prove their notion that most contemporary culture exists mainly to support the capitalist lust for power to the detriment of the little man. In the Society of the Spectacle, all work is ''production''; the spectacle disguises itself as the consumer society.
Basically ''Call It Sleep'' is old-fashioned anarchistic nihilism, masquerading as something new. It is mainly a literary work, filled with a steady flow of half-comprehensible, seemingly meaningful words which, upon closer examination, turn out to be a kind of double-speak.
''Casual Shopper'' spends its 28 minutes wandering through a shopping mall. A woman browses endlessly, assuming commercial-like poses as she looks, followed by a man who also acts in commercial cliches. It is a kind of wordless negotiation that seems to continue endlessly, very much like one of filmmaker Antonioni's meaningful walks through the city. If this videotape holds the viewer's interest, it is mainly because the viewer is waiting for something more to happen. It doesn't. News by satellite
The controversial UNESCO New World Information Order theoretically came one step closer to international satellite TV broadcasting last week.
With the United States and most Western democracies voting against it, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution providing the principles for a future international agreement that would give nations the right to veto incoming satellite broadcasts.
Although a lot of these moves may involve diplomatic posturing, the new DBS (for direct-broadcast satellite) makes it possible to transmit television broadcasts directly to individual land receivers (dishes), so people in all nations can have a free flow of information from abroad.
It's part of an all-out battle between the forces of the US-led Western proponents of an unrestricted press and the USSR-led third-world proponents of government-imposed restrictions on the press. The battle has been intensified enormously by the rapid emergence of new technology, which is revolutionizing the world's systems of news dissemination, opening up entire nations to the possibility of receiving unadulterated outside information.
Charles M. Lichenstein, deputy US delegate to the United Nations, told me by phone that ''in a UN set of principles, legitimate concerns should not be dealt with by suggesting that we afford every other state, including totalitarian states, an unconditional veto over this (DBS) form of broadcasting. In our view, any principle requiring that our broadcasters obtain the consent of such a government would violate our obligations toward both the broadcaster and the intended audience.''
Mr. Lichenstein called upon the General Assembly to recall Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
''Everyone has the right to freedom of . . . expression; this right includes the freedom . . . to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.''
This vote is not directly tied to the ongoing UNESCO deliberations to come up with a plan for international mass media standards; that plan would, among other things, license journalists, thereby allegedly promoting the achievement of ''international social justice and economic development, international peace and security, and progressive elimination of international inequities and tensions.'' But it is very much in line with the UNESCO plan, which has been dubbed the New World Information Order.
The battle is still being fought in the conference rooms of UNESCO and the General Assembly. Whether or not developing nations will be willing or able to follow the media policies of the world's democracies is another aspect of the ideological information battle now raging. Teletext
The teletext idea seems to be taking hold with American TV viewers.
In one of the most extensive field tests to date, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in conjunction with several other organizations, surveyed the Washington, D.C., area to find out how the public views the idea of teletext (printed news relayed through television screens). Eighty percent of those surveyed indicated they would use public teletext service if it were permanently available. Almost 50 percent said they would buy a teletext-equipped set at a premium of $200 if it were offered when they next bought a TV set. Group W has also been conducting experiments with teletext in San Francisco which seem to indicate that there is definitely a market for the service.