Is Digital Art Real Art?

Since the Stone Age, when we created cave paintings of animals and fertility goddesses, artists have walked among us.

From cave painters to Roman realists, renaissance sculptors to stop motion animators, we have been producing art ever since. And while we rely on the same basic building blocks of creativity, i.e. imagination and the ability to observe the world around us, the tools that we use to create art have changed.

With the arrival of computers and the internet, the limits of what art can be no longer exist. Technology, to a large extent, has democratised creativity and has opened up its possibilities to a much larger demographic. However, sometimes there is a rejection of artwork that is not produced by the artist’s hand.

Britain saw the opening of Cybernetic Serendipity in August of 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The exhibition was a showcase of the use of technology in many forms of art, including dance, film, music, poetry and sculpture.

It was the first exhibition of its kind in Britain, and saw more than 40,000 visitors over its 12 week duration. German philosopher Max Bense, who laid down some of the groundwork and ideas behind computer art, opened the exhibition on August 2nd.

David Eaton, senior lecturer of computer art and design and digital culture at City of Glasgow College described Cybernetic Serendipity as an important landmark display.

He said: “This exhibition was pioneering in as much as that it was completely led by this inter-relationship between machines, computers and the making of the works that were in the exhibition.

“These artists are slowly becoming known, but ten years ago most of the people making that work in the 50s and 60s were unknown outside of a very small circle.”

He explained that historically there has always been a prejudice against digital art: “It goes back to the 1960s, where people felt that if the computer was doing it, then there was something inherently wrong about that, that it’s not real and it’s just pretend.

“It’s the idea that the making and the craft is more important than the ideas, and what early artists were starting to understand was that the making and the craft was less important than the ideas about why you would want to make something on a computer.”

Tom Elliott, senior lecturer in the fine art department at COGC, spoke about the idea that an original object or artefact has an aura of sorts, and the absence of this in reproduced artworks could attribute to the prejudice against computer made art.

He referenced Walter Benjamin, who was one of a group of thinkers who later became known as the Frankfurt School. Benjamin wrote an article called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that has been influential across the humanities.

Elliott said: “[Walter Benjamin] discusses in his essay what happens when works of art are reproduced. He was mainly thinking of the fact that you could buy posters, photographs and reproductions of famous pictures, for example, Michelangelo’s David. What he suggested was that the reproduction doesn’t have that aura that the original does.”

Benjamin wrote: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space.”

Elliott said: “There’s this relationship you have with something that’s been made by an individual, handmade. You can feel the imperfections, you can see the imperfections, and you can see the hard work that went into making the object. The problem with digital art is that a lot of that is lost in the digital medium. We like to see evidence of people working hard.”

This is something that Andy Welsby touched upon. A visual artist based in Scotland, Welsby currently works with machine made art and has a background in filmmaking and photography.

He said: “I think that skills are called into question. In traditional art making, there’s a skill base that a viewer can easily see, but in computer art, the skills have been changed. Skills for brush handling and for paint handling have been swapped for conceptual and programming skills. So the skills are still there, but they’re just not as tangible as traditional art making skills.”

And while Elliott spoke about how digital technology could be beneficial to artists, he said that ultimately it is counterproductive.

“Sometimes you get a loss of that indefinable magic that comes from a purely analogue creative process. That beautiful, magical process is very, very difficult to authentically reproduce, and even if you do reproduce it within the digital context, it’s still not real. That’s the whole problem with digital art; it’s not real. It doesn’t really exist, it’s just pretend. None of it really exists.

   image-leo-tolstoyM0005618 Portrait of Plato; bust.

This begs the question: “If digital art isn’t ‘real art’, then what is?”

In his essay What is Art? Leo Tolstoy said: ‘In order correctly to define art, it is necessary first of all to cease to consider it as a means of pleasure and consider it as one of the conditions of human life.”

The definition of art is something that we have toiled over for many years. Written in Athens around 380BC, Plato’s Republic, Book X referenced a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates concerning the definition of art.

Socrates is thought to have said: “Which is the art of painting designed to be – an imitation of things as they are, or as they appear – of appearance or of reality?”

It was noted by Grayson Perry, one of the UK’s best known contemporary artists, that “asking the question ‘What is art?’ in the art world is to risk eye-rolling and even hostility.”

Elliott, whose background is mainly in traditional art and who described digital art as being “just pretend” tried to construe art by defining what it is not.

He said: “If you can get the same experience from something by someone describing it as you would have were you to stand in front of it or experience it first hand, then it is not art.”

Eaton’s background is in digital and computer art. He defined art as “holding up a mirror to ourselves.” He said that it is an artist’s job to reflect culture, upon which Welsby agreed.

He said: “Art is a subjective reflection of the times we are living in.”

Who is to say which one of these definitions is the right one? Art is universally subjective, and is ultimately dependent on personal experience.

Art’s interpretation changes from person to person, and perhaps that is its definition; ever-changing.

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