So what is Digital Fine Art? Version 2.1

A musing on what is digital fine art.
This is a question that keeps popping up and is usually answered badly, in my opinion, from missing some of the areas of digital or from misunderstandings. Even worse are the endless discussions of ‘Is there a Digital Aesthetic?’. I used to engage with these discussions but it actually now strikes me as a completely meaningless question. It is like asking is there a painting aesthetic? Of course not. Apart from the very real differences in appearance between painting mediums, there are the huge range of different styles of work in which painting is used. Does a Rembrandt and a Pollack share the same painting aesthetic?

A better question is whether new aesthetics have and can evolve in various art forms out of our experience with digital processes? Here I believe there is a clear yes. One can already see the influences of digital on some conventional painters, for example, and photography has also been impacted. Video and installation art have also been influenced. So influence, yes. Whether this is enough to constitute a new aesthetic or not is another question. Can you see digital painting producing a new aesthetic in painting? I don’t know but it is interesting to ponder.

Digital fine art covers a truly massive domain that really only shares the use of a computer somewhere in there. A rough list of areas that can fit within the term digital art are:

    * Digital painting or natural media
    * Digital photography
    * Photomontage
    * Mathematical or algorithmic art
    * 3D rendering and animation
    * Digital forms of sculpture
    * Web art
    * Multimedia
    * Video art
    * Installation art

From the above incomplete list you can see the utter pointlessness of discussing a digital aesthetic. It is as absurd a concept as grouping art as handmade art, covering all art forms that are shaped or created by manipulation with the human hand. Is there a handmade aesthetic that links finger painting (pick a child), the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo), Blue Poles (Pollack) and Untitled 1990 (Jerry Uelsmann)?

So given the above, can anything meaningful be said about digital art? Well, the answer, I think, is yes.

Any of the forms of digital art require a set of skills every bit as rich and complex as that of non-digital art, just different, to create successful and good art. Some of these are common to all the digital art forms, some not. The common ones are:

    * Knowledge of the history, philosophies and theories of art
    * Knowledge of aesthetic concepts, like composition and color theory
    * Knowledge of human perception and sensation
    * Knowledge of presentation, storage and archival issues
    * Real comfort with computers

Digital painting, to pick an example, adds to the above:

    * The hand-eye skills common to all painters
    * Knowledge of conventional painting media
    * Mastery of the digital painting tools
    * A fine eye to be able to ‘see’ in the medium of painting
    * Mastery of putting the digital painting onto a physical medium, such as paper or canvas

To pick a very different digital art form, algorithmic artists add to the common skills:

    * A deep level of mathematical skills
    * An ability to write computer programs of significant complexity
    * The ability to compose algorithms that will translate the vision in their head into an image or video
    * Presentation skills appropriate to how their finished art is presented. This could be placed onto paper or canvas, printed like a photograph, presented by installation or video projection or incorporated into a multimedia piece, for example

All the forms of digital art exhibit similar extensive lists of skills that the artist needs to be able to create effective and great art. In many cases it could be argued that the skills required actually go beyond those of similar conventional media art practice because of the greater number of stages the artist has to engage in during the complete creation of their art.

What of the criticism that digital art is too easy, that you press a button and out pops a piece of art? Well the trouble with this criticism is that it is true, to a point. Good art doesn’t happen like that but there are lots of people out there who, for their own reasons, put out as art not very good work which was created using a push button approach. So what can be done about this? Well if you are encountering this criticism with your own work, and assuming it is not true, you could explain that there is good art and bad art and the push-button sort falls in the bad category. Often the simplest answer is that your piece took x number of days or weeks to produce. Does this seem like push-button? I’ve seen lots of approaches taken by artists to show how skilled there work is, though admittedly this is more often among commercial and decorative artists. One good one is the production video that shows the artist in their studio and/or on location, looking thoughtful, doing the work, etc. It is not hard to produce one of these for yourself.

Digital art just provides a different set of tools to do what artists have always done. Some digital art would be virtually impossible to do without computers, some not. What it does do is open up possibilities, some of which are:

    * Allow sensitive and/or sensible individuals to work with non-toxic materials rather than toxic conventional ones
    * Create new options and possibilities for disabled artists
    * Combine materials which conventionally cannot, such as laying watercolor over oils
    * Apply complex algorithms that are beyond the practical ability of an artist to follow manually
    * Push work further than you could using conventional materials
    * Open up possibilities of interactive, generative and time-based pieces
    * Reach a wider audience through the non-physicality that is possible

Is there anything truly revolutionary about digital art? I think the single most important thing is the separation between the creation of the art and the making of a physical artifact. This is an amazing characteristic of the digital art forms. It means that the artist can repurpose a work as needed, adapting its physical form. Unfortunately, of course, it also allows the infinite reproduction of a work. This is a very uncomfortable fact for some parts of the art world that just do not understand that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really matter because other art forms have had reproduction for a long time (though perhaps not infinite reproduction). Things like sculpture castings, lithographs and photographs have all achieved the art industry desire for exclusivity and overcome their reproducibility by the use of edition sizes and numbers. So there is precedent for handling it.

But has this flexibility between the art and its physical manifestation been fully exploited yet by artists? I don’t think we have yet seen anywhere near the potential of digital in the arts. So far almost all of the art applications of digital technology have been mere mirrors of conventional art processes. To me some of the algorithmic arts, especially generative, interactive and genetic, seem to most fully exploit the potential of digital. Is this all it has to offer? No, not by a long shot, in my view.  I still think that even these areas have just scratched the
surface. Given that so much of the development in digital art has been just an extension from existing art forms, I believe i
t is only in recent time that some of the new potential has been explored. So in this sense we are very much in the early days of digital art as a unique art form.

Is digital art a coherent movement, like the Futurists or  such? I don’t think so. Someone who manipulates photographs on the computer has more of a link with darkroom manipulators of photographs  than with, say, a sculptor who designs their work in a 3D program and  uses a computerised milling machine to ‘output’ their work. I  actively work in two very different ends of digital and am gradually moving into video and installation. I used to exhibit analog photography. I’d didn’t stop being an analog artist and become a digital artist when I made that move. Firstly it was a gradual one and secondly I see many links between what I did then and now. So I see myself as an artist who works in certain media. I describe myself as an artist who works in photomedia and algorithmic art, if I need to be that specific. In my view, if you paint on the computer or on canvas, you are a painter. A sculptor is a sculptor whether they chisel or machine render. Algorithmic artists have some commonality with conceptual artists, but only some. But all are artists, first and foremost.

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