Some twenty years after Nam June Paik with help from video engineer Shuya Abe, invented the video synthesizer in 1969, the artist outrageously claimed that he was the greatest painter in the world. Paik’s work, Ars Electronica, now in the permanent collection of The Butler Institute of American Art, is verification, albeit in Paik’s playful way, of that declaration. The sculpture – an oversized painter’s easel with twenty television sets, a cartoonish paintbrush, and a band of signature Paik-style painting across the bottom – reframes the idea of art, putting synthesized TV images into the place of the master painting.
The video synthesizer allowed Paik to control television images using distortion, color, speed, and processing, It could superimpose up to seven images at once, creating the effects that soon became rampantly popular in 1980s MTV videos. The synthesizer “cause(d) the features of the announcers and other unsuspecting subjects to vibrate, melt, change, color, and spread laterally; and generally turn(ed) the familiar screen into an electronic canvas for an artist whose brush consists of light.”
Paiks’ statement in the 1980s echoes an earlier, more lyrical description of his synthesizer. In his manifesto Versatile Color TV Synthesize, the artist said that the new technology would “enable us to shape the TV screen canvas / as precisely as Leonardo / as freely as Picasso / as colorful as Renoir / as profoundly as Mondrian / as violently as Pollock and / as lyrical as Jasper Johns.”
The TV screen canvas could, in other words, do as much as all of these master painters put together; but more that that, with Paik at the helm of his screen/canvas, he could create masterworks at a speed of 200 “paintings” per minute, cheekily proving his claim that he was the greatest painter in the world. Though these paintings flash at such a high speed that the viewer is often left with a memory of color rather than distinct images, it is no less true that each flashing image is actually a carefully conceived “video painting.”
The influence that John Cage had on Paik is well documented. Within that relationship an understanding of Paik’s notion of “greatness” comes to light : It was not all about skill. Indeed, in a 1969 text corresponding to his visual works, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, Cage wrote, “If you have a large enough number of things, judgment decreases and curiosity increases.”
Paik follows Cage’s belief that the quantity of imagery surpasses the quality. Ars Electronica (translated from the Latin means simply electronic arts), with its twenty screen paintings, takes Paik’s idea to its ultimate, absurdly intelligent conclusion.
Soon after its creation, Ars Electronica joined the exhibition of Paik work, Nam June Paik : The Electronic Superhighway, the artist’s solo show that traveled during the 1990s. The exhibition sought to illustrate the artist’s belief that society has changed in profound ways since the invention and proliferation of the television set. Included in the exhibition were Paik’s Internet Dwellers, each of whom represents a different, non-descript culture. The Internet Dwellers are all connected, though, in the artist’s “Superhighway.” Paik’s intention was to show how diverse cultures converge within the realm of technology, and form a new system of communication. The same goes for art in general – Renoir, Mondrian, Pollock, and Johns have all found a way to connect within the realm of Paik’s technology.