Very few artists can be credited with inventing—or discovering—a medium, the more so since those technologies, like photography and film, that are recent enough to have discernible origins weren’t necessarily conceived as arts. Thomas Edison may have made the first motion picture, but it would be hard to argue that he made the first film, if we mean the term to have an aesthetic connotation. I don’t know who did make the first film, and neither does anyone else, and of course it doesn’t matter. Priority disputes in the arts are parodies of priority disputes in the natural sciences, which are themselves the byproduct of too-literal faith in Enlightenment notions of history, progress, and individual achievement. To ask who was the first, say, jazz musician, or radio dramatist, or animator looks like an aesthetic question, but it’s really an administrative one: Mostly what it comes down to is the question of which department of the museum gets to collect which sorts of objects.
I mention all this as preparation for talking about Nam June Paik, who died last Sunday at the age of 73, and who really was—by common consensus and despite everything I just said—the first video artist, ever, and who will forever be known as much for being so as for the art he actually made.
Paik was born in Korea and trained as a classical pianist. He soon became a disciple of avante-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, but when he encountered John Cage at a music conference in Germany in 1958, he shifted course again. Cage, one of the great American fountainheads of 20th-century art, was playful, witty, and paradoxical: Everything was art to him, and art was everything. Paik was electrified by Cage’s example, and in 1962 he became a founding member of Fluxus, a loose international confederation of artists that included George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys, and Carolee Schneeman. (Yoko Ono was a member of Fluxus, too, and a far more interesting artist than she is generally credited with being.)
Fluxus was one of those omnifarious movements that spring up from time to time, like Situationism or Colab —an explosion of creative energy, the effects of which can be felt decades later. They staged Happenings and invented mail art. They were antic and experimental, and amid all this activity, Paik mounted a show in 1963 consisting of 13 television sets placed in a gallery in Wuppertal, West Germany. The sets were upended and scattered about the room; some were turned off, some showed white noise, and some showed images that had been altered by placing magnets near the tubes. It was not the first time someone had used an electronic image in an art context. (Wolf Vostell gets that laurel, for a painting he did in 1958 called Transmigration, which included a working television set.) But it marked the beginning of the liberation of “video” from “TV,” and the importance of the moment can scarcely be overestimated. No longer would the television image be the exclusive property of government-licensed corporate networks, pumped into living rooms for people’s passive consumption. Anybody with an old set lying around could treat it the way they treated any sculptural material, and anyone could grab what images they could find on the airwaves and put them to whatever purposes they wanted. TV was institutional, commercial, and authoritative; it flowed into your home from somewhere out in the ether. Video was just a way of making pictures out of light, and it suddenly became apparent that CBS and RCA had no greater right to it than inventive hobbyists, or revolutionaries, or pranksters, or artists.
Paik was all four, and he had the knack, associated with all of them, of being in the right place at the right time. In 1965 Sony introduced the Portapak, the first portable video camera and recorder. Paik was the first artist to use that, too. The day he got his hands on it (according to legend, he ran down to the docks to meet the shipment) happened to coincide with a papal visit to New York; Paik shot the pope’s procession through the streets of the city and played the footage that night at the Café a Go-Go. From then on, not just the material of television, but its ability to generate original content, became available to anyone who wanted it.
The history of video art spools out from there, and much of it is as different from Paik’s work as a Pollock painting is from a Rembrandt. Paik himself went on to become an international celebrity: He made gardens full of TV’s, flags made out of TV’s, a video synthesizer, and, in one famous instance, a woman’s bra made of two small monitors. On Jan. 1, 1984, he produced Good Morning Mr. Orwell, a lengthy, collaborative broadcast that was beamed by satellite around the world. Throughout, he remained a kind of living Buddhist koan, dedicated to the aesthetics of paradox, enlightenment, and delight.
In later years the people who made art out of video, and the people who thought about it, came to regard Paik with some ambivalence. His innocence and energy could seem a little off-putting in a world where television has such power and is in such dire need of concerted analysis. The Zen puckishness of Fluxus didn’t age well; Paik’s crowd-pleasing rankled some; and the adulation he received sometimes seemed to be founded as much on the fact that he made neat stuff as in the depth of his art. The artist Martha Rosler once said, “Paik, it would appear, was born to absolve video of sin,” and she didn’t mean it as a compliment.
But that’s as it should be: The art world, like the U.S. Congress, thrives on contention and debate, and without it would be very much poorer. No one can question Paik’s place in the canon, nor fail to admire the revolution he initiated; in the coming years, his reputation will no doubt rise and fall, but he’ll always be one for the books. And now, in the immediate aftermath of his passing, we can reflect on this, and it is no small achievement: It must have been great fun to be Paik. Certainly, it was great fun having him around.