With #CreativeWeek almost upon us, the debates have already begun online. It is great to see people showing awareness to the theory of art and I thought it might be the perfect time to share with you all my dissertation, written between 2008-2009, on the subject of the Digital versus the Original in creativity. Despite being only a few years old, its strange to think how different the digital market was back then, with DeivantArt still being at the forefront of art sharing whilst Twitter was in it’s infancy and (despite being one of the first Twitter members) apparently not worth mentioning as a platform for digital artists! Since then the iPad and other tablets have also revolutionised the creative industries, which I think would need mentioning if I was ever to update this. Please read, debate, discuss and respond. Oh, and if you just can’t manage 10,000 words of theory, please feel free to jump straight to the conclusion at the bottom – you may miss some of the good stuff, but I think the last paragraph is a great summary of the current industry…
Digital art is defined as “the use of digital tools to produce images under the direct manipulation of the artist, usually through a pointing device such as a tablet or a mouse. It is distinguished from computer-generated art, which is produced by a computer using mathematical models created by the artist. It is also distinct from digital manipulation of photographs, in that it is an original construction ‘from scratch’.”
Over the last twenty-five years, “a period of tremendous experimental productiveness in the visual arts with no single narrative direction on the basis of which others could be excluded, have stabilised as the norm”. With the advancement of the computer, technology has forced the art world out of its comfort zone, testing every constraint set by the founders of fine art movements. New forms such as digital illustration have emerged through the invention and development of computer graphics and software packages including PhotoShop and Paint, forming an integral part of the design process. “Those who were only able to illustrate their artistic creations on paper with brushes are now capable of churning out their visionary works in a fraction of the time, and with much less physical effort and no mess.” The widespread use of the Internet and desktop printers has also enhanced illustration by introducing it to the masses, resulting in the art world being liberated from within a gallery setting. No longer is there a prior constraint on how artwork must look, for it can look like anything at all.
“During the past twenty years, the artist has been a target for critics keen on maintaining the value of painting and sculpture.” Despite digital advancements being appreciated within the media-based genres such as graphic design, music, film and photography, “they are slow to gain acceptance within the more “serious” art forms, such as drawing, painting, and sculpture.” Many of us still prefer to own a traditional painting than embrace new technology, which affects not only those who choose to work in the medium but also those using reproduction software as a tool to spread their artwork globally. Technology has become such an important artistic function that it is impossible to ignore; yet society is still cautious of its effects on creativity. It has been suggested that the use of computers is a purely logical and mathematical function, allowing the untrained artist to use preset applications to create generic imagery. However, there is no denying some of the most original and unique artworks within this modern era have been the result of advancing technologies.
Within this essay I shall be exploring in great detail the process of creating digital artwork, in particular the interaction between computer software and the artist during implementation. Other key areas include the debate over the concept of the original, as well as discussing the time and space debate in relation to how an image is viewed. Furthermore, I shall discuss the societal function of digitalised art and of course, artistic tradition.
The Birth of Conceptualism
The birth of Conceptualism, pioneered by Duchamp’s urinal (see figure 1) in the early 1900’s, founded the first major battle against the gallery system. Where art had always been ‘art as object’, Conceptualism aimed to discard the conventional art object in favour of the ideas behind the work. “Such a shift from appearance to conception marked the beginning of modern and “conceptual” art… [highlighting] both the artist’s process of intentional designation, and the contextual value of the work.” Conceptualism’s goal was to prove that art began where mere physicality ended. In the famous painting ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (see figure 2), Magritte focuses on the use of visual language and clarifies that what we see in art is not an object, but a representation of an object. We connect to the thought processes and internal cognitive processes of recognition and language; and thus what we value in art is not the painted object itself, but what is portrayed or symbolised within the image – in other words: its concept. When such objects are presented within the art context “they are as eligible for aesthetic consideration as are any objects in the world”.
Before the invention of computers and digital technologies used in art today, western art was limited by the skill of the artist’s hand and therefore existed in object format such as a painting or sculpture. Arguably, much of this art was representational – existing as an object for show without necessarily having a sense of purpose other than to signify the wealth of the commissioner. Classified by the masters of fine art, labour intense forms of image-making were considered the highest forms of art and held objective value based on the cost of materials as well as the labour content of artistic skill. A good image was judged on aesthetics; and a great deal of thought would go into every image to make sure the composition was perfect. If the artist made a mistake he would then have to paint over the image or restart, which was both expensive and a waste of resources; as the materials used traditionally in painting and sculpture were not only hand made but sourced from rare natural elements found in the earth such as lapis lazuli (blue) and gold leafing, which featured heavily in the works commissioned by royalty, the wealthy and the church until the early 19th Century. “When this institution of painting and sculpture collapsed, something much more important than a style of art-making was altered – it meant that the meaning of art was in a crisis.”
The Skill of the Artist
“The discovery of photographic technologies from 1850 onward essentially undermined the existing function of art, not only because photography and photomechanical reproduction could provide visual reportage, but because it threatened the … handmade object that relied on the specialised skills of the artist.” Photography’s indexical tie to its subject matter allowed the skills required in art to move from the hand of the artist to the imagination, exploring new pathways within the art movement and bringing about new concepts of creation. The photographic image is recorded instantaneously, allowing the artist to create many images in a very short space of time exactly as it happens. With the outcome an exact copy of what the photographer saw, it became perfect for reportage and the process became widely accepted as a medium of truth in society. However, “one of the defining characteristics of digital [technology] is its capacity for easy combination and reassembly of images.” New technological advances in computer software such as PhotoShop, Paint and even external computer components such as scanners and photocopiers, have introduced to art a new form of trial and error. “The digital environment is much less restrictive than conventional mediums”, giving the artist freedom to explore the possibilities of composition and colour without committing to the final image or wasting valuable materials such as paint or even paper. Stored as a computer file, the digital image “is unique by virtue of its easy malleability. Forever in a state of possibility, it can be reprinted an infinite number of times and manipulated in any number of ways” A digital artist does not work on the composition as a whole but works with a fragmented image, allowing him to manipulate and reorder the image instantly. He can rotate, crop, resize images without needing to repaint or redraw the image. “The artist may also use images from x-rays or radar to produce images that the eye does not normally see, which expands the realm of human perception.” Painting programs such as Corel can also “provide the user with more than what the ordinary paintbrush can produce. They mimic [for example] the effect of using a pallet knife, and allow the user to select different paper textures in order to experience various effects.” There is no more waiting for paint to dry, or worrying about the layers of paint building up underneath the image. In essence, the ideology behind digital artwork is that we are allowed to experiment and get it wrong in the process, thus breaking the current mould and allowing artists even more creative expression than ever before.
“Moholy-Nagy asserts that the skills of hand-making fundamentally limited the artist, not only from taking full advantage of technological means of representation but also in placing such emphasis on the genius of the skill of making that it limited the possible idea or concept behind the work.” On the other hand, by working in a two-dimensional format within the computer the artist appears to remove his sense of self from the final image. The layers of a painting can be “…revealed by chemical or physical analysis, which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction” Let us take, for example, the work of John Constable, where the surfaces of his paintings have faded away over time to show sections of the image underneath, such as a boy sitting on a barrel at the bottom of ‘The Haywain’ (see figure 3). The strokes of paint are the marks of the draftsman, giving us an insight into how the image was created and the thought processes that were encountered during creation. This is the artwork in its truest, crudest form. Despite digital art’s capacity for easy combination and reassembly through software such as Photoshop, the layers created in the process cannot be rendered in its final two-dimensional state and therefore are lost within the process of production. Thus, there is no record of how the artwork has built up or altered over time. The reproduction renders the image flat, the essence of the artist gone. By working digitally, the only possible way to keep a full history of the processes undergone by the art-maker is to save every change as a new file. In effect, painting shows the true signs of craftsmanship. Each painting is a carefully thought out composition, with each brush stroke a sign of the artist’s intent. The final object is considered not only a work of art, but also an object of art in its own right as a record of the artistic process is retained. The same, it seems, cannot be said for the digital image, which only ever exists on printer paper.
It is believed that the digital image is lacking in depth – which is ironic since “it was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism.” As Greenberg articulates in his essay Modernist Painting, self-criticism was a major part of the Modernist movement, and its aim was to “eliminate from the specific effects of each art, any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence.” Digital art not only encompasses this modernist view but also takes pictorial art to the ultimate in flatness. The printer ink is absorbed into the paper’s surface and therefore there are no brush strokes or any trace of surface texture, which Greenberg strived for in painting.
Despite the specialist skills needed to programme a computer, the competence levels of the digital artist as image-maker are often questioned. A great painting cannot be faked; there is no way of manipulating the paint in any other way than by the artist’s own hand. On the contrary, the sourcing of digital imagery raises many questions, not only about the authority of the work but also about how much of the artwork is by the artist and not programmed by the computer. “With easy user guides and specific tools that can mimic lines, effects, and colours, original digital art masterpieces can be created by pretty much anyone, even someone with no previous background or training in art.” Digital artists can manipulate work so easily within computer software packages that despite allowing for artists to become more expressive within a new medium, it can also mean artists do not necessarily feel the need to study the fundamentals of good design, or for that matter, try as hard to get it right first time. An important factor of digital technology that is pertinent here is the function of the undo button. This is a widespread tool throughout all the software packages and allows the artist to experiment and explore the possibilities of the image without finalising the outcome. This function of the computer not only allows the artist to undo the last action, but in some software will also allow the artist to go back as many steps as is desired. These software packages also boast the save button, which allows the artist to save the work in various stages throughout the manipulation process. These can be used to show the work in its various stages of process – although referring to this as the history of the image is a common misconception, as the new files become works in their own right and can be developed or manipulated independently of the original composition. “The electronic picture, at least in principal, is always unfinished.” Of course, there are many highly skilled digital artists currently producing work in the industry, such as Dave McKean (see figure 4) and Lauren Child (see figure 5), who work at completely different ends of the visual spectrum, but the fact that images can be so easily manipulated suggests that quite often a great piece of digital artwork could well be as much a result of luck as of skill. But then, isn’t experimentation the best way of finding out something new and exciting?
Andy Warhol was a great believer in experimentation with modern technology, using these new technological processes as a tool in artwork as well as medium. Experimenting with a wide range of media including film and video, his most famous works were created using the silkscreen, a process based around photographic manipulation and chemical reactions. The reusable nature of such technologies not only allowed artists like Warhol to produce prints by the hundreds within a short space of time, but allowed his assistants to produce his work without being present himself. However, this is also the fundamental issue with the value of digital art, or any other form of art based in technological processes: they are reproduced so fast and unceremoniously that they became instantly associated with advertising and the mass media.
“The value of a work of art is thought to be greater than that of a commercial work”, as the artist’s hand is more involved in the creation of the final piece whilst less emphasis is placed on the planning and preparing processes. Whilst a digital image may take days or weeks until it is ready for print, the print is complete within seconds and is normally one of many – the hand of the artist lost in the final production. In contrast a painter can spend days, weeks or even months producing a single outcome. It seems, however, that the amount of time spent implementing is not a set factor. Despite Warhol’s screen prints taking mere minutes to complete, it is the error of judgement within human nature that makes the work valuable. His Monroe prints (see figure 6) are a good example of human interaction providing the artist with a different outcome every time regardless of using the same tools, whether through the incorrect mixing of paint or the mis-alignment of the screen (when the corresponding layers of the image are printed slightly out of place). Wherever the artist is still involved in the reproductive process, no two images will ever be exactly identical.
The Original Versus the Copy
In today’s culture, “the value of [an] object depends on its rarity and status gauged by the price it fetches on the market.” Within the traditional, handmade context of art, the original is always considered most valuable, regardless of its reproductions. Every painting is rendered unique by its dimensions, the brush strokes and the texture of the paint. This cannot be captured in any two-dimensional copy of the image; nor can it be captured by an artist’s representational copy. Recreated by hand, the new artist draws or paints what he sees within the original, painting each careful stroke in the same way as the original artist. Despite every effort, there will never be an identical version of this painting – for a manual reproduction is merely a likeness, sharing composition and colour but never the history nor the story behind the original. Any representations are linked visually to the original but are not identical. “Confronted with its reproduction… the original [preserves] its authority,” for the original has unique qualities that even the most perfect reproduction cannot truly capture. In this case, the copy must be viewed in light of the original, not instead of, and so both must exist in close contact with each other.
Process reproduction on the other hand, which requires the use of digital technologies such as scanners and printers, has slowly allowed reproductions to become more acceptable in society. As Benjamin states, this is because “process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction.” Sharing an indexical tie to the original just like photography; process reproduction creates an identical copy using the same master file to create both reproduction and original simultaneously. With universal print colours ensuring worldwide consistency, technology has full control of the final outcome and every effort is made to ensure that conditions are perfect (for example that the print heads are aligned properly) –allowing the reproduction to exist independently from the original, unlike a representation. However, it also brings to light a whole new set of problems within the digital field: the first print and the copy both exist in exactly the same format and thus there is nothing to distinguish an original from a later print. “The value of the painting is tied to its material uniqueness – to its value as a precious object – rather than to its value as a form of communication, whereas a photomechanical reproduction, even of the highest quality, has much less market value.” Reproductions of the digital image must therefore be kept to a limited edition to maintain an air of speciality; with “some digital artists [deleting] the image file of the masterpiece when it is completed, thereby rendering the piece an original”. Idealistically, this gets around the issue of the original, as the image only exists in one form. But, is the first print even the original? “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” A reproduction can only exist once the original is complete, therefore implying that the original of the digital image must exist in pre-printed form. But where exactly does the original reside? The image “no longer [resides] in the visual field but in the database of the computer.” For the image to be seen, it must either be printed or viewed on a computer screen. It could be argued then that digital art does not present an original, as computer files are always open to editing and forever in a state of pure potential. Whilst an original painting can prove the date and origin of the ideas through carbon dating, it is impossible to know the true origins of the digital file as it does not have a set size or even resolution; the artwork can be re-scaled for posters or postcards; or reduced in resolution to load better in a browser page. The versatility of the computer means files are often formatted time and time again to make them better for various viewing methods or mediums. Another aspect to consider is colour. Although the artist selects their chosen colours, what we see on screen or even print can be very different depending on the technology used. In essence, the reason digital art is less valuable in society is perhaps it’s own undoing: how are we to find the original when even the artist is creating multiple possibilities?
Existing purely in print format, the digital art will always be associated with copies and reproductions and therefore have a lower market value. “When printed with modern digital art technology, colours can last from 60 to 100 years.” Despite being a lengthy period of time it is nothing compared to the durability of a painting, when the collection at the Tate Britain, for example, dates back to 1500AD alone. Arguably, it seems that digital art has set itself up as a disposable art form, to overcome it’s lack of lasting power. Technologies such as scanners and printers “are essentially copying devices. For the most part, reproductions of images from all of them can be produced in infinite numbers from the master matrix, software or negative without wear or damage.” Regardless of how limited the artist makes the edition, the images are easy to scan and manipulate, allowing others to replicate the work and even pass it off as their own. “Every desktop is now a printing press” and “as more copies are released, the value of the work of art drops as its value as a unique object is lost.
The Time and Space Debate
Walter Benjamin states: “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element; [its] unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Let us look, for example, at Schwartz’s study on twins. Identical twins were separated at birth and raised with different parents in different surroundings as a social experiment into how the surrounding environment affect humans both in terms of personality and in appearance. It eventuated in one of the twins turning evil. Schwartz states, ”no matter how similar twins may be at birth, a vicious upbringing eventuates in corrupt character”. In relation to art, it is impossible for two objects – regardless of similarity – to share a history. “The work of art ‘presents” on the perceptible space-time matter, which here is visual, something that cannot be presented.” It is the fixation of a thought or emotion into an object through line, colour or words that gives art its own personal identity. What makes an original piece of artwork interesting is its physical condition as an object that we can explore over time. The original has a born date, which acts as its measure of resilience. We can watch the paint dry, crumble and flake, we can watch the corners get battered and wear. This gives the art authenticity, “the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” Existing in just one form, it can be viewed only in a specific place and at a specific time, rendering the image unique.
The problem with digital art is the very nature of its condition. The file within which the artwork is stored bears testimony to the creation date of the image; but every time this file is opened up to be manipulated it changes the creation date of the file, resetting the history of the image. “And what is really jeopardised when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” A file cannot age or wear, only the surface that it is printed on can be destroyed – our answer to which is to throw it away and print a new copy. Benjamin’s main argument is: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art… the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” It is the spiritual essence found residing in the original, based on its fragility and its contextual relationship with the rest of the world. When an object is reproduced, it immediately loses this fragility – “that sense of uniqueness and primal consciousness that attaches to a singular work of art.” There becomes no need to preserve the original as, by reproducing artwork, we substitute “a plurality of copies for a unique existence;” – acting as a back up for any damage done to the original. The original is subsequently forgotten, for we can get so much closer to the reproduction. Existing as a printout, the very nature of the medium is that it is disposable. Eventually, the object is disregarded by society and forgotten within the bombardment of other digital images within the mass media. Its free-floating nature allows digital art nothing in history to rest itself on within our disposable world and therefore its authority as an original is lost. “Where the more fluently we manage to reproduce ourselves and our world, the more fleeting seems our embrace.”
However, despite its disposable nature, art grounded within the digital or technical spectrum is at a greater advantage than traditional methods as it has the capacity to create perfect copies of itself. “Art that is enlarged, reduced, printed as postcards or posters, and widely disseminated for the enjoyment of the public at large, reaches a broader audience, an expanded one beyond the confines of art institutions and the gallery system”. I recently attended the current Andy Warhol exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, where curator Charu Vallabhbhai brought to my attention that there was also an identical Warhol show being held in the United States at the same time. Warhol was a great believer in reproduction, and many of his prints were created in limited edition sets or runs, so that they could reach a wider audience. Through the Andy Warhol museum website, I was able to find five current exhibitions of his work, all of which consisted of original pieces. By working in this style he has managed to secure not only a permanent gallery in his name but a variety of other shows as well, which would not have been possible had he not produced such a vast amount of work within his lifetime as an artist. It must also be mentioned that in the case of Warhol, his works have maintained fine art value despite them being created in the hundreds.
The state of pure possibility which digital art resides in is not only its greatest selling point, but also its greatest disadvantage. On the plus side, technologies have advanced to the point where many of the old Disney films, which first appeared on VHS are now being re-released in DVD format, where both the sound and the image quality of the films have been reworked. Digital re-mastering allows us to take past works and re-render them to adapt to new methods of viewing. The benefits of this process allow us to change the storage capacity of the artwork; here for example, from VHS to DVD. However, this also highlights the fleeting nature of digital art. The lifespan of the ‘original’ is limited to the lifespan of the technology needed to display it. Discussing Warhol’s work with Charu in more detail, she mentioned that despite the convenience of him working in mass production format, there have been issues with exhibiting Warhol’s work, especially over the last decade, as the original film recordings were in a format incompatible with modern technology. Whilst some work has been saved by digital conversion, many of the videos, which are of lower quality recording, have now been lost in technology gaps. This, unfortunately, will always be an issue for artists working within film and video. Within the last twenty years we ourselves have seen the progression from VHS to DVD to MP4 and now even to Blu-Ray. It is extremely hard to find outdated technology and therefore we must rely on someone to constantly update our collections. As the nature of technology has shown us, the whole purpose of technology is to be disposable and, it seems, is made to last only long enough to cover the estimated gap before our viewing technology is updated. But this is not just an issue with digital art. Warhol’s photography and collected ephemera have also disintegrated with age and are too fragile to be exhibited. To allow for these images to still be shown, curators have relied on digital technology to reproduce these items to keep them alive in the public eye. Such great time and care has been taken to ensure that these reproductions are perfect copies that the public, unless told, are perfectly unaware of such actions.
The Online Gallery
“The social function of art as opposed to its commodity value is brought into focus as soon as reproduction or copying of originals becomes possible”. Digital art has become a public art, and can be duplicated and viewed worldwide simultaneously on the Internet without any loss of quality – “[putting] the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself.” Benjamin anticipates the artist’s identity crisis and loss of moral authority. The artist no longer has a say in how the artwork is viewed, as the image can appear in any context. Their pictures can be captured from the Internet and resubmitted within a different context, implying an altogether new meaning. When artwork is taken out of the gallery setting, it changes the whole experience of viewing art. At the gallery, the walls are bare, and there is a lot of white space to allow the viewer to take in one image at a time and focus on its given meaning and intentions. On the Internet however, the image is found within an abundance of additional visual imagery and information, changing its’ context every time.
Art that is “widely disseminated for the enjoyment of the public at large, reaches a broader audience, an expanded one beyond the confines of art institutions and the gallery system.” Where artwork is taken so seriously in the gallery, with the viewer being given the artist’s exact intentions, the online gallery encourages a much more social approach. Deviant Art, for example, encourages artist’s to comment on each other’s work and take part in online debates about what the art signifies to them and the quality of the image itself. The Internet’s popularity has given growth to a new culture of art, and has become in effect a virtual gallery space – “[enabling] the original to meet the beholder halfway.” Replacing the real gallery too far away for the viewer to visit, the beholder is content with the reproduction as it allows him to see the object, despite being of poorer quality to aid page loading times. Unlike a traditional painting, the digital image can be spread worldwide in a matter of seconds, which can have a much more substantial impact on society. “In permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced,” appealing to a wider audience through a variety of contextual meaning. “The work takes on a different route in relationship to the viewer, who participates in the work’s ultimate unfolding and meaning.” The viewer is given the opportunity to encode the image within their own culture, rather than following the imposing pre-conceived guidelines of the gallery space, which contextualises the work into the traditional minimalist mindset. “While it is no replacement for the tactile experience of art objects, this is another way of engaging an audience.”
Experiences of art are always unpredictable. “They are contingent on some antecedent state of mind, and the same work will not affect different people in the same way or even the same person in the same way on different occasions.” However, much of this personal taste is already pre-fabricated for us by society. In Distinction, Pierre Bordieu explores the implications of taste in regards to social class, and how the value of art “depends on the social marks attached to them at any given moment.” Although we like to think that we choose our own likes and dislikes within art, it is often that we get to choose from pre-approved images which have already been selected from the vastness of creativity by those with power. The Arts Council are responsible for funding the Arts, but “it is the Government that gives the Arts Council its annual grant” and as money equals power in society, the direction of art is often dictated by the biggest contributor. A good example of this is Charles Saatchi’s most recent purchase of three graduate art shows, belonging to Angus Sanders-Dunnachie (see figure 7), Jill Mason (see figure 8) and Carla Busuttil (see figure 9) – who at the time were unknown artists within the industry. Now associated with Saatchi’s name, their work is highly sought after and society is thus giving them more attention.
“Copying processes are a threat to the value system of the gallery world” as objects become less unique and therefore are less sought after in society. However, “paradoxically, the copying and wide distribution of an artwork not only increases its currency in the public consciousness but also generates commercial worth because of its celebrity [status].” A good example of this is the eruption of YouTube, a user-generated online file video sharing website which allows members to upload their work for free and can be viewed simultaneously worldwide at any time by the online community at the touch of a button. Users are given freedom of choice in terms of viewing and expressing their opinions by leaving comments on the page, the opportunity to bookmark their favourites, or send links to their friends if they feel that the video is worthy of such credit. This also gives unknown artists the opportunity to become an overnight sensation without pre-approval. ‘Here It Goes Again’ is a music video by OkGo that was posted on YouTube after MTV refused to fund them or give them air space on any of their music channels. Instead of hiring a full set and crew, the band acquired 8 jogging machines and created a dance routine on the revolving equipment, which then boycotted the music industry altogether and was promoted via the online community. Although the quality of the imagery was not of professional standard, the quirkiness of their approach gave them overnight fame and is possibly now one of the most well remembered videos of the new millennium. It seems that people have foregone the quality of the image to be more concerned with the concept or idea behind the work. In contrast to the current multi-million dollar film industry that focuses on great quality and preciseness, popular YouTube videos are chosen for their originality of concept. “The criterion of authenticity [ceases] to be applicable to artistic production.” Art is no longer about being unique, but about the voice of the artist.
Walter Benjamin raises a critical awareness in regard to art’s relationship with technology by stating that “widespread integrated changes in technological conditions [affect] consciousness and trigger important changes in cultural development”. The Government may still have the power of the gallery, but they do not have full control over the power of the Internet and as a result many new genres have emerged, residing on websites just long enough for millions to see before the content is found and taken down. Technology has empowered the masses, allowing us to disagree with those dictating what is acceptable within art and allows us to take responsibility for our own viewing choices. “What we see today is an art, which seeks a more immediate contact with people than the museum makes possible” The public are now able to express their own preferences and opinions without the constraints of the media and make a stand for what they believe in. “Here the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.”
The Future of Art
Over time, “the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence,” a sensation determined by nature as well as changes in history and technological process. With the eruption of the digital technology including the inventions of the personal computer and the Internet, “electronic tools and media have shattered the very paradigm of cognition and representation we have been operating under since the Renaissance”. For many centuries we have been content with traditional forms of art such as painting and sculpture, but artists can now render their work in a multitude of forms. These can be animated or interactive and fit more fluidly with the modern lifestyle, where we can appreciate the imagery on a multitude of levels, both philosophically and as an advertising commodity. There are no longer schools of art or dominant style trends. Artists are now more free to create anything without fear of rejection.
“Every artist finds certain visual possibilities before him to which he is bound, so that even the most original talent cannot proceed beyond certain limits, which are fixed for it by the date of its birth.” This is especially valid in the case of digital artists, who are bound by the limits of current technological advances. An artist can only produce work with the tools available to them at the time and, as we are fully aware, technology is constantly improving and advancing, providing new artists with a range of new possibilities yet to be explored. A good example of this is the new invention of three-dimensional printers that are only just coming into mainstream use. Such a creation will open up a whole new level of art making, especially for those within the sculpture medium. Where the artist is limited by the skill of their hand, a three-dimensional software package can be programmed by the artist to create such an object and overcome any lack of ability. It could be argued that using technology to create art is less valuable to society than skill-based crafts as these methods of production are universally available, but how can we prove that our artist predecessors would not have chosen to explore the possibilities of technology had they been given the opportunity?
Art has “been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality,” which therefore implies that anything at all can be art. Despite this however, “art cannot exist without being constantly questioned.” It is the reason for art: to look inside ourselves and to work out the inner meaning of the artwork we view. A great image does not only look great but it evokes meaning from the viewer also. “Contemporary art is too pluralistic in intention and realization to allow itself to be captured along a single dimension” It has become a fluid movement where the outcome can adapt to any form of representation, whether it be on screen or in print format. With new methods of representation available to us and with technology constantly progressing, not only must we accept and adapt to these changes, we must allow artists to continue to experiment in this way to truly explore the realms of possibility. Above all, “we must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”
“The basic perception of the contemporary spirit was formed on the principle of a museum in which all art has a rightful place, where there is no prior criterion as to what the art must look like, and where there is no narrative into which the museum’s content must fit.” Although this is said to be the case, it seems the traditional setting of the gallery is not yet willing to negotiate with the digital mindset. The idea of contemporary art is to be forward moving in terms of design, and yet whilst we are travelling in this direction, it seems that our opinions are not following suit. What worries society is that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” Society is so accustomed to the tradition of art from centuries past that such drastic changes in representation have shocked us into recoiling and as humans we resist change. But this slow acceptance is understandable: “only in painting and sculpture did the artists all speak the same language” Before contemporary art, all paintings and sculptures were linked by their morphological content – the study of everyday objects for their aesthetic beauty. However, the change from appearance to conception challenged the way we perceive art. The viewer is now expected not only to appreciate the execution of the imagery, but to decipher its contextual meaning and its relevance to current political opinion.
Although we like to think that art is sold solely as an idea and for the beauty of the piece, it seems we also buy art for its objectivity – for example, painting, handcrafts, and other artist-process printing (where the artist is still a vital part of the creation process), where the physical skill of the artist is visible in the final outcome. Commodity fetishism, as termed by Marx, “is a state of social relations, said to arise in capitalist market based societies, in which relationships are transformed into apparently objective relationships between commodities or money.” Social interaction is based around the idea of what we can exchange for example, a salary is an exchange based upon how valuable the skills of the employee are to the company. Many people prefer to buy originals as they feel they are getting something unique, a one off. The value of art is based on this idea that having something no one else in this world could possibly own but everyone wants, gives the owner an advantage in social exchanges later on. This increases art’s ‘currency’ as such. In today’s capitalist society we “‘fetishize’ commodities, believing that they contain value, [whilst] the effects of labour are misunderstood.” In fact, the reason an original has more value is because humans value manual labour. For digital art to become valuable to society we need to overcome our current value system, to reward idea rather than skill, or find a way to separate the original from its copies.
What society also needs to move towards is the realisation that although digital art is not currently as valuable as paintings, we are forgetting that we are comparing new methods of creation to that which has a far more substantial history and artists who are already established within their field. Many paintings also have additional value placed on them because the artist is deceased and thus no longer creating originals. Whilst an artist is still producing there is an unlimited supply of imagery from the artist. Once the artist is gone, the number of pieces becomes finite and henceforth collectable. With digital art being a relatively new concept, we are yet to find out its true value, which will become apparent over time. Until someone decides that conceptual art has monetary value based upon ideas, it will struggle to achieve its true recognition in society.
Digital art is still finding its feet within art culture, amounting to a mere 40 years of existence in comparison to 42,000 years of painting and thus it is too early to really comment on how digital art will fare in terms of value in the future. We must take into account that technology is still advancing, and there is no way of predicting what will happen next. Currently however, there seems to be a great difference between the value of contemporary digital art in relation to traditional forms, which all comes down to the debate between the original and the copy. Those with large quantities of money will not buy digital art because there is no unique object to ‘own’. Digital art – like all art – is conceptual, but it is the objectivity of traditional art that we have yet to get past. It is human nature to covet a unique object and therefore we are willing to spend more on an original, but more people are likely to buy digital prints, not only because they share an indexical tie to the original but because they are cheaper; and the accumulative value of a limited set of prints holds the possibility of surpassing the total of one painting. Unfortunately there is no formula to work out which medium is worth more in the long term. Artistic value is based purely on current artistic trends and of course social value. People will always value the skill of true craftsmanship, but the real question is will we ever overcome our dislike of technology?
With the intervention of the Internet, we no longer have to conform to social tastes as dictated by the government grants and are able to choose freely from a broader variety of genres and subject matters in art. Henceforth the money society spends on art is spread between more artists than ever and as a result – regardless of medium, each artist will receive less money and fame overall in their career. But is this really a bad thing? Despite art being lower in value, there is an increased chance for new artists to make money and to make a living from what they love, and as such promotes a healthy balance within the industry. At the end of the day art should be enjoyed for its personal and emotional value rather than its monetary value, and as such digital technology has achieved this. Surely this is more valuable to an artist than anything else.
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