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What do you mean, ‘digital’ art?

Monday March 19 2018

On a recent trip to Tate Britain with my stepson, after an hour or so, he said “all of this stuff is ok but where’s the art?’” I quickly realised that he meant ‘where are the paintings?’ We hastened to the pre-Raphaelite rooms for something he might recognise.

The huge question of ‘what is art?’ isn’t a fit one for a blog, but it set me thinking about our aversion to particular artforms and our reticence to open up to new media and methods. Most people with a general knowledge about contemporary art will still regard digital art as the new kid on the block, something that’s a bit out there and, therefore, not real art. Real art involves canvas, paint, marble, fabrics and film. Doesn’t it?

As specialists in digital art in the workplace, at Arterial we encounter a fair bit of confusion about digital art. Many people believe that digital art is purely screen-based, or that it somehow isn’t art because it was produced using digital material, photoshop and a computer instead of a paintbrush or chisel. But, as with most attempts to categorise artworks, digital is not a particularly illuminating term.

It’s true that digital art started off as ‘computer’ or ‘multimedia’ art but it has been now going for almost as long as computers have and the extent of its legacy is often a bit of a surprise to art lovers. The Computer Arts Society is fifty years old this year and we live in an age dominated by technology – something we love, and love to fear. Yet digital art still gets sidelined in a similar way to the first years of photography – either it was a leisure pursuit for the masses or a tool for industry and information.

Smart businesses realise that digital art is an immediate signifier of what is both cool and clever. Some of it is easy to display, (some of it isn’t) and it presents a fantastic opportunity to explore light, darkened corners, reception screenwalls and individual homescreens. But digital art can also take the form of large installations, silk screen prints, tapestries and performance pieces.

At a simplistic level, digital art is no different to any other kind of art. It requires an original idea and a method of conveying it, whether a paintbrush or a gif file. However, digital art is often an unknown quantity with an unknown future - which is also part of its excitement. It presents possibilities for interaction, discourse and playful curation which aren’t always open to other media. It is a paradox which embraces gaming, new software and animation and 3-D printing techniques and where painters such as Jonathan Yeo and David Hockney are using more and more digital techniques. If Caravaggio was alive today would he be using this new cyberart instead of a paintbrush?

A future where digital and computer technologies are not considered worthy of a real art label is surely as inconceivable as a past without a painter’s tools and paraphernalia.

By Victoria Tate, Director of Arterial

Digital artist, Nye Thompson, produces prints, films and installations which highlight themes around digital surveillance.