The Fight for Legitimacy| Adobe's 24/7 Internet Museum and the Politics of Digital Art

A screen shot of the "disembodied eye" that helps viewers navigate
Adobe's new Museum of Digital Media 
The new Adobe Museum of Digital Media opened its virtual doors last week, raising once again the question of influence and power relationships in the world of digital art. Created by US software giant Adobe Systems, the museum is billed as a “unique virtual space” and the first Internet museum of its kind. On its website, the statement of purpose describes Adobe's aims:

Our mission is to showcase and preserve groundbreaking digital work and expert commentary to illustrate how digital media shapes and impacts today's society. Here, artists and innovators have a unique freedom to create work that wouldn't be possible in a traditional museum. Unlike traditional museums, AMDM is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and is accessible everywhere.

The high stakes battle continues
Adobe’s move to create an internet museum is of course not just grounded in altruism.  The Adobe Flash multimedia platform has long existed as the industry standard for delivering video and for adding animation and interactivity to web pages (I have several Flash elements added to this very blog), and artists have long used Adobe’s graphics editing program Photoshop to retouch and manipulate digital images. But for several years now, Adobe has been entrenched in a very public fight with Apple Inc. and CEO Steve Jobs about the efficiency of the Flash platform, especially on Apple mobile products like the iPhone, iPad and iPod.  Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Flash” this past April on the Apple website explaining his position, building a case around the need to move beyond a “PC” world. In response, many industry leaders and experts have suggested Jobs simply doesn’t want to be “held hostage to another company’s proprietary software,” noting that Jobs himself has been accused of attempting to monopolize and control digital media software for several years now. Jobs’ push to have developers and artists create applications in HTML5 (recall The Wilderness Downtown Project I blogged about last month) is also regarded as largely short-sighted since it could take years for the platform to match Flash's capabilities.
Early cinema history sheds interesting
light on the current state of the digital media tech wars.
Edison and Apple/Adobe may have something in common.
Interestingly enough, many of these recent debates about new technology are not unlike the tech wars in the history and development of early cinema when powerful moguls, industry executives, and suppliers of movie and film equipment engaged in the high stakes game of establishing industry standards for the art of filmmaking. Much of this activity resulted in the famous anti-trust case of 1915 when a small group of minor film companies in Hollywood took down the Edison Trust (a group of powerful East Coast centered film stock and filmmaking companies). That same group of Hollywood companies would go on to create a huge monopoly of their own from the 1930-50’s and spark another series of anti-trust cases that would lead to the eventual dismantling of the vertically integrated Hollywood studio system. In other words, this business between Apple and Adobe (and Apple and Microsoft for that matter) is really just déjà vu.

All of this now begs the question of how digital media artists will proceed. Back in the day of early filmmaking, the process of experimentation and underground strategizing by creative individuals interested in the artistry of making moving images helped determine what the industry standards would ultimately be. Simply put, the artists and their relationship with the audience lead the charge. Adobe’s move to create the first Internet museum can therefore be understood in a similar light. Even with the air of legitimacy that the notion of a “museum” brings to the world of art and its audiences, Adobe’s move is not unlike the Hollywood moguls who created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award Oscar awards and generate a kind of legitimacy and institution for an “art” that was not seen as such at the time. The act began with the industry and the establishment of a core legitimacy and then the artists took greater control. Adobe’s move is very similar in my mind and just another example (in case we needed one more) of the intersecting worlds of art and commerce. 

Here is the promo video for the new Adobe Museum: